PHILADEPHIA — This Christmas the family of Omar Lopez placed a small toy tree at a gravestone to honor their son, who was killed in mysterious circumstances by police this fall.
Lopez, 24, died following an altercation with a transit officer in October. More than eight weeks later, his family is no closer to understanding the circumstances surrounding Lopez’s death. Despite public officials’ recent parades of claims that transparency is a priority, so far city officials are being of no help to the Lopez family in their search for answers.
What little information is publicly available about what happened to Lopez is murky at best. According to initial reports, shortly before 2 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 26, an unnamed officer with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) was locking up a subway station when he encountered Lopez on the platform.
Security camera footage provided by SEPTA officials shows the officer and Lopez walking away from the platform, passing through a turnstile, and about to enter a staircase that leads down to the street.
What happens next should have been recorded by a security camera in the staircase, but SEPTA officials have not made that footage available nor did they respond to a Daily Beast request seeking an explanation as to why the footage is being withheld.
The next time the officer and Lopez are seen on video provided by SEPTA, the two of them appear to grappling and rolling around on the pavement.
What went wrong?
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel claims when the officer and Lopez reached the bottom of the stairs, they encountered an individual who was waiting to confront Lopez, despite the presence of a police officer.
During the only press conference held to date about the incident on Oct. 26, Chief Nestel explained that once the altercation between Lopez and the other man started, the officer stepped in and intervened. This is where the camera footage made available picks back up, showing Lopez and the officer wrestling. No other person is ever seen in the street-level footage and no other information has been made available about the individual, such as a description.
What happened in the stairwell and why won’t SEPTA show us?
SEPTA says the officer claimed that Lopez bit him and was physically aggressive. (Authorities have not provided any evidence so far to substantiate the officer’s claim, like an injury report.) The officer used his Taser on Lopez and called for backup, which showed up eight minutes later at 2:04 a.m., according to SEPTA.
Twelve minutes later, Lopez was put into a squad car and driven to a nearby hospital in accordance with standard police protocol for victims of electric shock. Lopez then “lost consciousness in the two-minute ride to the hospital,” Chief Nestel said.
The distance from the Huntington stop to Aria Health-Frankford Campus Hospital where Lopez was admitted is approximately 3.5 miles. That means the squad car would have had to have been traveling in excess of 100 mph to cover that distance, which seems unlikely for obvious reasons.
Furthermore, Nestel’s two-minute drive would mean that even if the officer was traveling faster than any speed reasonable for downtown Philly, the driver would have had to immediately speed. Yet Nestel said Lopez lost consciousness during the ride that was already underway.
SEPTA did not say when Lopez was admitted to the hospital, but at 2:54 a.m.—38 minutes after police supposedly left for the hospital—he was pronounced dead.
Nestel said the Philadelphia Police Department’s Homicide Unit will investigate the case while SEPTA conducts its own internal investigation. According to SEPTA, the officer involved has been on the force for five years and has no prior complaints.
Tasers were used by Philadelphia Transit Police nearly 60 times this year, and more than 50 people died across the country when police used Tasers this year.
Lopez’s girlfriend Jess Cruz, who lives only a few blocks away from where the incident happened, told The Daily Beast, “Things are not happening as fast as they should” and said police have not contacted her.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office is also not talking. Spokesperson Cameron Kline said the office is unable to comment on an active investigation. When asked if that response could be taken as a statement acknowledging that the DA’s office is actively investigating whether to bring charges against the officer involved in Lopez’s death, Kline declined to respond.
A spokesperson for the Medical Examiner’s Office told The Daily Beast the case is still pending but couldn’t elaborate on the state of their investigation. SEPTA has said they won’t release any more information about the case, and the results of their internal investigation, until the medical examiner’s report is complete.
There are still many questions about what happened the night Lopez died that both the public and his family deserve to know. What happened in the 12 minutes after backup arrived and before they took Lopez to the hospital? At a press conference on the day of the incident Chief Nestel could only offer the explanation “that the officers may have been speaking to the other man in the dispute, or reporting to a supervisor,” but that he was unclear about that window of time.
Regardless of the lack of transparency and confusing information surrounding Lopez’s death, one thing remains clear—Omar Lopez’s family still has no explanation as to why he will not be celebrating the holidays with them.