The family of a Niani Finlayson, a young, Black woman fatally shot during a 911 domestic violence call has filed a $30 million federal lawsuit against the County of Los Angeles and its sheriff’s department. As 2024 begins, activists are also continuing to demand justice and transparency in the investigation into her tragic death they argue could have been avoided.
Attorney Bradley Gage filed the wrongful death, civil rights claim on December 21, 2023, about two weeks after Ms. Finlayson was shot and killed by L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputies after she called for help because her former boyfriend was strangling her and hurt her nine-year-old daughter Xaisha Davis, according to the claim. Ms. Finlayson also has a two-year-old daughter, Xyla. The incident took place in Lancaster, Calif., a small city located approximately one hour north of Los Angeles and situated in the Antelope Valley.
The claim was filed on behalf of Ms. Finlayson, her daughters, her mother, Tracie Hall, her father Lamont Finlayson, and Kenneth Cole, Xyla’s father.
Ms. Hall thanked everyone for attending a press conference hosted by Black Lives Matter Grassroots at Loyola Law School on January 12, ahead of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Committee Meeting there. Activists are calling for the immediate firing of Deputy Ty Shelton for the fatal shooting of Ms. Finlayson.
“I just want to keep her memory alive. She was a beautiful young lady, a great mother and my best friend and I miss her so, so much,” she stated during the press conference.
“It’s heartbreaking and I just want justice for my daughter and for my family and first and foremost for my grandchildren, her daughters, Xaisha and Xyla,” said Ms. Hall.
“I have to live daily with them asking for their mother and just trying to keep her memory alive with them, because it’s so unfair to these young babies that they don’t get to live with their mother anymore.
She’s been stolen, murdered, and it’s a space is just so void in my life now, and I can’t get her back. I just want justice. I just want justice,” concluded Ms. Hall.
A GoFundMe has been established to assist the family with the unexpected tragedy. “These beautiful girls are left without their mother and something needs to be done,” it reads.
“The pain of not talking to her no more, the pain of not seeing her anymore, the pain of not hugging her anymore, the pain of not kissing her anymore,” Mr. Finlayson attempted to convey, before he just broke down in tears duringa recent statement which aired on Fox 11 news.
“So, when the bells ring down, ‘Happy New Year! Not on my side, sir,” he all but whispered, fighting to maintain composure.
During a vigil on December 30, Niani Finlayson’s mother and father further questioned what happened.
“She called for help in her apartment,” said Mr. Finlayson, according to a KTLA news report. “A violent domestic call. They get there and instead of them treating the perpetrator with justice, they turn it around and she becomes the perpetrator but in reality, she was the victim,” the news report continued.
There are ways of diffusing a situation and avoiding a need to shoot and kill innocent people, argued Atty. Gage. “It’s especially troubling that so frequently the group that gets targeted for these police shootings is primarily African Americans. That’s increasingly so for Black women,” according to Atty. Gage.
“This year there were three Black women that were killed in the Antelope Valley, as I understand it. And then on top of that, we have Black women that have been punched in the face by the police, holding babies, so it’s troubling to me to see that Black people are so frequently victimized by the police and it seems pretty obvious to me that their race is at least, some police, leads them to engage in violence towards them and I just totally reject that as being illegal,” he continued. “First of all, it’s a violation of the Constitutional right to equal protection and the Fourth Amendment, but It’s just morally wrong.”
Some activists argue that this latest tragedy is further evidence that no amount of police reform or law enforcement training can change or eliminate the “shoot first, ask questions later,” mentality that seems to be more common in Black and Brown communities by many law enforcement officers.
According to the U.S. Census, the population of Lancaster is approximately 170,000 with Latinos making up 45.3 percent of the population, Whites at 41.5 percent and Blacks at 21.2 percent. According to Atty. Gage and activists, Deputy Shelton is White, though the race of the officer has not been confirmed by the investigation.
“The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan have told us that the only solution to this is separation,” stated Ansar Muhammad, an activist and student coordinator of the Nation of Islam Study Group in Lancaster.
“We are not just somebody that’s desirous of separating from you on our own. The Program of ‘separation’ is given by God and backed by God as the only solution to the toxic relationship between Black and White,” stated Minister Farrakhan in a 2017 message titled, “Separation or Death.”
Many don’t understand that separation doesn’t mean going to another country, but it could mean taking a page out of the books of others, like Koreans, Jamaicans, and Latinos, said Student Minister Ansar Muhammad, explaining these are examples of ethnic and cultural enclaves located in various cities around the country.
“They all have their area where not only is it separated, but they know who’s patrolling and who’s policing their community. This does not happen in Korea Town. This does not happen in Jamaica town. We have to separate from these folks and create our own political, social, economic structure and when there is time for law enforcement to be present, we know who these folks are,” he added.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said he released the body-worn camera footage, outside of the legal timeframe, to show transparency and visual facts.
“We do not yet have a copy of the police report. We requested the report. We requested the full body camera video. We requested the full 911, but while the Sheriff’s Department preaches transparency, in actuality, they perform concealment and they have not responded back to us,” said Atty. Gage to The Final Call.
According to a press release issued by the Sheriff’s Department, when Lancaster Station deputies responded to the domestic violence call for help, screaming and sounds of struggle could be heard. As deputies attempted to make forced entry into the apartment, a female adult opened the front door, armed with a large kitchen knife. Ms. Finlayson told deputies she was going to stab her boyfriend for pushing her daughter.
The young woman retreated into the apartment toward the area where her boyfriend was sitting. Deputies entered the apartment, where Ms. Finlayson grabbed her boyfriend while holding the knife in an apparent attempt to stab him, and a deputy-involved shooting occurred. Ms. Finlayson was struck by gunfire, fell to the floor, and dropped the knife.
An investigation is ongoing, and representatives from the Office of the Inspector General, Internal Affairs Bureau, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Justice System Integrity Division also responded to the scene and monitored the sheriff’s homicide investigation. The DA’s office is looking at this case for criminal charges, according to Atty. Gage. Also, an independent autopsy was performed by his office, he said.
Once completed the criminal investigation will be forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office to determine if the force used by the involved personnel violated any criminal laws. Once the District Attorney’s Office investigation is completed, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department will evaluate the actions of the personnel within the application of policy, procedures, and tactics.
“The shooting was not objectively reasonable,” argued Atty. Gage in the lawsuit claim. According to the claim, the young mother called for help because she was the victim of domestic violence. She was sitting on the ground, not threatening anyone when deputies opened fire on her from behind a glass door, it indicated.
In law enforcement bodycam footage, Ms. Finlayson appears to be standing, holding a large knife.
“There was no need to shoot. We know that the 911 call was over 16 minutes long, so Niani had a knife with her for over 16 minutes and even though there was arguing and profanity on the 911 recording that was released, she never used that knife, so she wasn’t going to, and the ex-boyfriend even says to the police officers, ‘Why did you shoot her?’ Atty. Gage told The Final Call in a phone interview.
“Niana did not die immediately. She called for help and cried out in pain. Her nine-year-old witnessed the entire murder and her mother’s suffering. Shelton and other deputies shot Niana approximately four times,” stated Atty. Gage, in the claim. It appears all bullets were to her back, but the county has not released the autopsy and will not even allow the family to see her, further causing them emotional distress, he added.
He identified Deputy Ty Shelton as one of the alleged shooters. He allegedly has l5 complaints against him for excessive force, including five officer-involved shootings, according to Atty. Gage.
“It is believed that most if not all of the victims are African American. This is allegedly not Deputy Shelton’s first killing. Yet, he remains a member of the Sheriff’s Department with no known punishment. Retaining a deputy if they have such a shockingly large number of complaints against them is irresponsible. It demonstrates a callous disregard of the rights and safety of all of us in the community. It is part of a widespread pattern of indifference to constitutional violations and demonstrates negligent retention,” stated Atty. Gage in the claim.
According to The Guardian, this was not Deputy Shelton’s first fatal shooting. “On June 11, 2020, the deputy killed Michael Thomas, 61, also while responding to a call for potential domestic violence. That killing was not caught on camera, but Thomas’s girlfriend later said she and Thomas had been having a verbal argument and that Thomas had tried to stop the officers from entering his home.
It was weeks after George Floyd’s murder, and his family said he had been frightened police would kill him. Thomas was unarmed and Shelton shot him in the chest. He was not prosecuted,” reported the guardian.com.
On January 1, community groups and activists in Lancaster held a press conference, demanding answers and action. “We call this an unjustified shooting which could have been de-escalated and avoided altogether,” said Bishop V. Jesse Smith with the African American Leadership Coalition.
“We want Ty Sheldon fired and we want him prosecuted, because that was straight up murder!” activist Waunetta Cullors, co-founder and program director of Cancel the Contract Antelope Valley told The Final Call. Cancel the Contract is a community-led grassroots campaign addressing law enforcement violence and racism.
“He’s supposed to be a trained officer. He has a history of doing this before. He has excessive abuse. And, why did he ask the person in front of him for the taser and not use it?” said Ms. Cullors. (Final Call staff contributed to this report.)