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Minutes Before Monterey Park Mass Shooting, SWAT Teams Were Relieved Of Duty

1:10 PM PST on January 27, 2023

    A memorial in Monterey Park outside of police headquarters (Lexis-Olivier Ray for L.A. TACO)

    A memorial in Monterey Park outside of police headquarters (Lexis-Olivier Ray for L.A. TACO)

    While tens of thousands of revelers celebrated the Lunar New Year during a festival in Monterey Park last Saturday, undercover cops from the Monterey Park Police Department shuffled through the crowds, according to a report from LA MAG. Following a year in which anti-Asian hate crimes reached the highest levels ever seen in Los Angeles County, newly appointed police chief Scott Wiese didn’t want to take any chances. So in addition to having undercover cops monitoring the festival, he also had SWAT teams on the ready and uniformed patrol officers making the rounds.

    As the festival wound down though, Chief Wiese relieved his SWAT teams and most of his patrol officers of duty for the night. By 10 PM only three rookie cops, all women in their 20s, remained on duty for the evening. Minutes later, a 72-year-old man wielding a modified mac-10 semi-automatic pistol opened fire at Star Ballroom, a dance studio on Garvey Avenue in Monterey Park, just around the corner from police headquarters and some of the neighborhood's most beloved restaurants.

    The three rookie officers responded to the scene “within minutes,” according to the chief of police. When they arrived they reportedly found victims in the parking lot. What they didn’t find was a shooter. At some point after the shooting he fled the scene in a white van. 

    Twenty minutes later, again armed with a modified mac-10, the shooter walked into another dance hall in neighboring Alhambra. When 26-year-old Brandon Tsay first saw the gunman walk through the lobby doors he thought to himself, “[I’m] going to die here.” As the gunman “prepped his gun,” Tsay lunged at him with his two arms extended and eventually wrestled the firearm away from the gunman, as the 72-year-old fought back for approximately two minutes. "Something came over me, I realized I needed to get the weapon away from him…or else everybody would have died,” Tsay told Good Morning America.

    The scuffle ended with Tsay telling the assailant to leave. A day later, when authorities caught up with the gunman 30 miles away in Torrance, CA the gunman shot himself before he could be taken into custody. Afterwards, L.A. County Sheriff Robert Luna said during a press conference that in his opinion, Tsay likely prevented another mass shooting.

    Like many police departments in California, the Monterey Park Police Department takes in a significant portion of the city’s annual budget. This year, at $20 million, the police department accounts for nearly half of all general fund expenses.

    A portion of that money goes to paying members of the Monterey Park Police’s Special Response Teams, a group of 17 “highly trained” veteran full time officers that work SWAT part time. In addition to the more than 50 other sworn officers that they employ.

    The money also helps the department obtain and maintain military grade equipment such as a $250,000 ballistic armored “Bearcat” vehicle, $1,800 submachine guns and a fleet of 10 remote controlled robots “used to surveil an area or building before officers enter it.” As well as surveillance technology such as Automated License Plate Readers, which are designed to be used to “canvass areas around homicides, shootings and other major incidents.”

    None of these resources prevented one of the deadliest mass shootings in California history though. And even with the additional resources provided by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and other law enforcement agencies, it took authorities approximately 12 hours to track down the suspect. In the end, it was an unarmed man in his twenties that likely prevented another mass shooting.

    “To have that kind of police presence at the Lunar New Year celebration is kind of performative,” Paula Minor, an activist and thinker with Black Lives Matter LA, said during a phone interview a week after the Monterey Park shooting. “They do that at special events and celebrations in many cases to appease the image that they want to present to politicians and the community.” 

    Brandon Tsay isn’t the only unarmed person to disarm a mass shooter in recent years. Time Magazine reported that in 2018 an unarmed science teacher helped stop a shooting at a middle school. Earlier that same year, an unarmed citizen disarmed a gunman after they fatally shot four people at a Waffle House. More recently, an army veteran tackled a gunman at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs before pounding the gunman’s head into the ground with the gunman’s own weapon, while another club goer wearing high heels stomped on the shooter.

    A study referenced in the Time story found that “the use of a gun as self-defense is a rare event.” According to some experts, guns can actually make self-defense situations more dangerous, particularly if they’re in the hands of untrained people. 

    Hamid Khan, an organizer with the Los Angeles anti-police group, Stop LAPD Spying, say’s that the Monterey Park shooting is an example of how cops don’t keep communities safe, “the community itself, keeps itself safe.”

    Paula Minor, the organizer with BLM LA, agrees. “Cops don't prevent crime, cops don’t solve crimes, cops show up after crimes have been committed.”

    Despite a “massive expansion of the police state and surveillance state,” mass shootings are at an all time high, Khan said. Last year there were nearly two mass shootings per day according to researchers.

    Khan noted that the shooter had previously confronted police in the Riverside County town where he lived and told them his family wanted to kill him. “It goes to show how failed the strategies have always been, particularly in Southern California, where police are the answers to all problems.” 

    Rather than address the need for more mental health, homeless and youth development services, Khan says the answer is always: “give them more resources.”

    The Monterey Park Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment and questions. When an L.A. TACO reporter drove to the Monterey Park Police Department headquarters to request an interview with Chief Wiese of the Monterey Park Police Department, an employee of the department said he was unavailable and she did not know when he would be available for questions.

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