An apparent game in which teenagers armed with pellet guns shot at one another on a dark Glassell Park street took a tragic turn when a Los Angeles police officer fired on one of the youths because he thought he was being threatened with a real handgun, police said.
Officer Victor Abarca and his partner were on patrol in the LAPD's Northeast Division at 7:50 p.m. Thursday when they saw three people standing in the 3000 block of North Verdugo Road and stopped to investigate.
All three ran as the police stopped their patrol car. Abarca, a three-year veteran, encountered one of the participants standing behind a parked van on the side of the street, police said.
Judging from the person's size — 5 feet 7 and 200 pounds, according to police — Abarca believed he was a young adult.
The officer shined his flashlight on him and gave commands for him to surrender, according to an LAPD news release.
At that point, "the subject refused to comply with the officers' commands and instead produced what was later determined to be a replica Beretta 92F handgun," the release states.
Abarca, unable to see the orange tip of the gun's barrel that distinguishes it as a replica, shot and wounded what turned out to be a 13-year-old boy, police said.
The news release did not say whether the teen pointed the pellet gun at the officer. But Lt. John Romero, a police spokesman, said the youth pulled the gun from his clothing in a motion consistent with drawing a weapon.
Police said the unidentified boy was hit once in the upper torso. He underwent surgery at a local hospital, where he was listed in stable but critical condition as of Friday night. Police had no update on his condition Saturday.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Abarca and his partner were shocked to learn that two of the three people they encountered were 13 years old and the other was 14, police officials said.
"This is a tragedy for all involved, but in particular for the young man injured in this police shooting and for the officer who believed he was protecting himself and his partner from a real threat," LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said in a statement.
Beck noted that the replica gun was the same dimensions as a Beretta 92 F and was "indistinguishable from a real handgun on a dark night."
"We have seen far too much heartbreak involving these types of realistic guns that are labeled as toys," Beck said.
Magdalena Carrasco, 59, who owns a home in the block where the shooting occurred, said she has seen neighborhood kids playing with fake guns and agrees with police that there's no way to tell the difference in the heat of the moment.
"I don't blame the police," she said. "They need to protect their lives. It's a normal reaction."
Carrasco said the shooting was a tragedy, but also questioned what kids that age were doing playing with fake guns on the street after dark.
"They should be doing their homework," she said.