Police officers at the scene on Aetna street.
Courtesy of Carla Orendorff

This story was published as a collaboration between LA Public Press and The Appeal.

On September 29, fifteen Los Angeles Police Department officers closed in on two men who were lying face-down on the sidewalk of Van Nuys Boulevard with their heads pressed against the concrete. Four officers pointed handguns at the men. Another wielded a beanbag gun. The officers had parked several police cruisers in the middle of a busy intersection, left their doors open, and kept their sirens blaring. 

To witnesses, it seemed that officers had arrived with serious force and manpower in response to two Black men having a verbal argument. When asked about the incident, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) said via email that officers were responding to a radio “Man with a Gun” call. The spokesperson declined to share audio of the call or an incident report and instead suggested filing a public records request for that information. The LAPD has been repeatedly criticized—and even sued—for failing to return records in accordance with state law. 

The LAPD said it could not provide additional information about the incident, such as who made the radio or 911 call, a description of the suspect, and whether police recovered a gun or arrested anyone. Witnesses told The Appeal and the Los Angeles Public Press that no one was arrested and no one had a gun. No arrests at that location and time appear in the LAPD’s public arrest database.

Footage of the incident shared with Los Angeles Public Press and The Appeal shows several members of the LAPD’s Van Nuys Division aiming guns at unhoused people, screaming, threatening bystanders, and then arresting an activist for recording them. 

“What happened that day was obscene,” said Carla Orendorff, a mutual aid volunteer who filmed the incident. “Somebody could have been killed. LAPD used an absurd amount of force for no reason at all other than to intimidate and harass this community. I was detained that day, I was told that I was obstructing, and then I was later released.”

The violent incident is the latest escalation against the community of unhoused people on Aetna Street in Van Nuys, who have worked to build a community with help from housed neighbors. The latest sweep came as part of Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’s Inside Safe initiative, a program she claims will move unhoused people into hotels and, eventually, permanent housing. Unhoused Angelenos, however, have repeatedly said Bass’s new campaign focuses on clearing homeless people from city streets while offering them little to no care afterward.

On the morning of September 29, Aetna Street’s unhoused residents had been cornered into the Los Angeles Metro Rail’s nearby G-Line station after a sweep the day before. At 8 a.m., they were rousted from their makeshift shelters by Metro police officers, who are LAPD officers contracted by the regional transportation agency.

Ron Hams, who recorded the events of that morning, told Los Angeles Public Press and The Appeal the day of the sweep that the Metro-contracted LAPD officers and Metro’s sanitation crew “came this morning and threw everything away.”

“They told us we were on private property,” Hams said. “They also told us that we’re only allowed to have one garbage bag [of belongings]. Everything else they were going to take and throw away.”

Giselle Harrell, who had her tent on the sidewalk next to the Metro’s bus rapid-transit station, said police placed her in handcuffs after she attempted to retrieve some belongings left on Metro property. She said she believed the area had not yet been closed off by law enforcement.

She said one of the officers told her that she and the others should move somewhere else that was less conspicuous. But Harrell described Aetna Street as a “sanctuary” where housed people in Van Nuys and other surrounding communities knew they could go to help their unhoused neighbors.

After dealing with the sweep all morning, Orendorff says she sat down to eat lunch—Kentucky Fried Chicken with mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, and biscuits—with some of the remaining residents, including La Donna Harrell, Anjileen Swan, and Ron Hams. Swan, 54, had lived at Aetna Street previously and had recently returned after being evicted from her most recent home while she was in a medically induced coma. During the months she spent in the hospital, Swan lost about 100 pounds—and the use of her legs. She’s been relying on a motorized scooter to get around. 

“They wanted to take this scooter,” Swan said of the police and sanitation workers who came around during the sweeps. She was so thin that the circular outline of the pacemaker implanted in her heart jutted through the skin of her chest. “I can’t sleep on the sidewalk. It will cause my death, and they just really don’t care. They don’t care.”

Swan and Orendorff said that, while eating lunch that day, someone they did not know approached the group. The pair said the stranger seemed irritated and started an argument with them. According to Orendorff, the man said, “Somebody here took my wallet.” Orendorff told him nobody had done so, but he could look around for it if he wanted. Then the police pulled up.

All of a sudden, Orendorff said, “four cop cars pull up very fast with doors open and guns drawn and tell the two men that were talking to get on the ground.”

The men—including the stranger who’d asked about his wallet—complied and laid face-first on the ground with their hands above their heads. One, an acquaintance of the encampment’s residents, Chris Flowers, wore a blue and white flannel, while the stranger wore a brown hoodie. That’s where the videos begin. 

“Move away! Move away!” officers shout at Orendorff and others. The officers stand behind the open doors of their police cruisers, which are parked in the middle of Van Nuys Boulevard. The cops point their guns at the men on the ground.

“Nobody’s moving,” Hams said while filming.

“Do what you gotta do. He doesn’t have a weapon on him,” Hams says of Flowers.

“Get out of the way!” police yell. “You’re going to get hurt!”

“Get out of the way of what?” Orendorff, who is also filming, asks the police.

“You’re gonna get arrested for interfering in an investigation!” one of the officers shouts back.

“I’m filming, I’m not going anywhere,” Hams says.

The officers walk forward, guns still drawn, and close in on the men on the ground. Roughly a dozen officers surround the group. One officer handcuffs the stranger in a brown hoodie. Four other officers keep their guns pointed at Flowers, who has not moved from the ground.

“Put your head on the ground,” Officer Michael Perez, while pointing a gun, repeatedly tells Flowers, whose entire body is already on the ground.

Perez then points a finger at Orendorff. 

“Push her out of the way,” he commands.

A female officer asks Orendorff to scoot back, which she does. Then another officer, George Lara, walks up to Orendorff and tells her to step back.

“You’re interfering—step back,” Lara says, moving to stand between Orendorff and Flowers. Other officers place Flowers in handcuffs. One officer points a gun at Flowers, one points a taser, and another points a beanbag gun.

Another officer, Dragos Burecu, then motions his hand toward Orendorff. 

“That’s that activist right there,” he says. “You guys should be going to jail for this.”

Once two officers finish handcuffing Flowers, the others finally put away their guns. They then turn on Orendorff. Officer Arturo Vela grabs her wrists, pulls them behind her back, and handcuffs her. Hams drops his plate of food as he scrambles backward to get away from the police. The video cuts out as Harrell and others decry Orendorff’s treatment while police lead Orendorff away.

“That was incredibly traumatizing,” Orendorff said. “I was deeply concerned for everybody living on the street, I was concerned for people that were just getting off the bus who are also filming—like it was an incredibly irresponsible decision to have made and it was so unnecessary, it was so violent,” Orendorff continued through tears. “People do not deserve this kind of treatment. It’s not okay. It’s not okay for them to do this, and people are getting really hurt by their actions.”

Orendorff said that she and the two men were detained but released the same day without being booked into jail. She also said that she recognized the officers there from a previous sweep, including Sergeant Dylan Wells, who she said identified himself as the person in charge. A few weeks earlier, Orendorff said she was distributing water on a hot Sunday afternoon when Wells approached her car, said he knew where she lived, and stated her home address.

“Then he told me, ‘You know, if you keep coming back here like that, things are gonna start happening to you,'” Orendorff said. “And I said what, like, I got really upset. I’d never been like, openly threatened in that way. And then he drove off laughing[…]I was literally passing out water bottles on a hot Sunday. This is not normal.”

Wells did not respond when contacted for this story. Officers Burecu, Perez, Lara, and Vela also did not respond to emails seeking further information about the incident.

Those living in or near the encampment have worked to turn Aetna Street into a thriving community. They have put on a festival called Aetnapalooza and, for a time, organized movie nights. They also have held a weekly community night to dispense hygiene kits, medical and harm reduction supplies, and food while displaying art from members.

During the community nights, which are usually on Tuesday evenings, “people talk, try to come up with ideas to try to improve things around here,” Harrell said. “It’s useful—it’s community based.”

Residents and activists also have banded together to resist harassment and displacement during onerous city sweeps, which force people to remove their belongings for several hours.

The community first held off a major sweep in August 2020 by staging a blockade amid a record-setting heat wave. For the next two years, unhoused residents and activists—mostly neighbors in the San Fernando Valley—continued to resist the sweeps in various ways. At one ‘defense’ event to hold off a sweep, activists distributed eggs, bacon, and watermelon for breakfast.

This past August, when they learned that city officials were planning to conduct a significant sweep of Aetna Street, university medical students— who have helped care for residents—joined activists in August to blockade the encampment. The barricade successfully turned away the sanitation crew and its bulldozers. But soon after, Aetna Street’s unhoused residents say city officials launched a concerted campaign to displace them.

During an Inside Safe sweep on Sept. 12 and 13, Aetna’s unhoused residents say they demanded the city offer them basic details in writing about what services and shelters they were offered. Community members say the city declined to tell them where they were going before ushering them onto buses to a nearby motel. The mayor’s office did not respond when contacted about this incident. 

While that operation was billed as a voluntary shelter operation, those living in the camp say anyone who remained on the street in the weeks after was forced out amid a string of further sweeps. Eventually, fencing was installed along the sidewalks on either side of Aetna Street.

Harrell called the events that led up to September 29 “a full-on assault on people here at Van Nuys.”

“They’re just coming for us[…]every week, every day,” Harrell said. “We just don’t get no breaks.”

She added: “If they’re trying to help people get housing and permanent housing, that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it.”

Orendorff said she has not filed a complaint against the officers. Since she and others are facing potential criminal charges for their activism on Aetna Street, Orendorff said she fears a complaint could exacerbate the charges against her. 

However, several LAPD Van Nuys Division members appear to have violated department policy that day. The LAPD’s policy regarding drawing or exhibiting firearms states, “officers shall not draw or exhibit a firearm unless the circumstances surrounding the incident create a reasonable belief that it may be necessary to use the firearm.” 

Signs at a rally on Aetna Street on October 13. (Meg O’Connor / The Appeal).

LAPD policy lists several factors that determine whether officers have “reasonable belief” they need to draw a gun, including: “the feasibility of using de-escalation tactics, crisis intervention, or other alternatives to force; the seriousness of the crime or suspected offense; the level of threat or resistance presented by the subject; whether the subject posed an immediate threat to officers or a danger to the community; the potential for injury to citizens, officers, or subjects; a risk of or apparent attempt by the subject to escape; and the conduct of the subject being confronted (as reasonably perceived by the officer at the time).”

According to video footage and eyewitness accounts, the officers did not use any de-escalation tactics before drawing their weapons. Both men were briefly detained and released without being arrested. Footage shows that neither man presented any resistance, attempted to flee, or posed any threat—video shows both men lying face-first on the ground with their hands above their heads.

The incident has only worsened some Aetna Street community members’ distrust of city officials. In an open letter to Karen Bass last month, researchers from the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy called on the mayor to stop targeting the encampment.

“It is important for the Los Angeles public to understand the escalation of police violence at Aetna Street,” the letter said. “Under your watch, the police have turned this community into a war zone.”

Elizabeth has been on the local government beat since 2006, and likes making her friends take public transportation for her birthday.