Boy’s family says he was holding a phone, not a gun, when killed by Chattanooga officers

The family of a 17-year-old killed by Chattanooga police officers said David Mendez Lopez was holding a phone, not a gun, when officers shot him, according to a statement released Thursday.

Mendez Lopez was killed Sept. 3, according to police, after officers were called to a domestic dispute at his family's house on South Kelly Street the night before. His family was taken out of the home, and a SWAT team was called to negotiate with Mendez Lopez, according to a statement from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

(READ MORE: Teen shot, killed by Chattanooga police identified)

Police said Mendez Lopez pointed a gun at officers twice during the encounter and was not obeying commands. Officers shot him when he emerged from a back door, believing he was showing a gun, according to the department. According to the family's statement, 25 bullet holes were found in walls and belongings in the house.

Mendez Lopez was a senior at The Howard School, hoping to become a lawyer or engineer, the family said.

"As a teenager navigating the dynamics of relationships, mental health and school in a city lacking the infrastructure to properly support its youth, David did his best to stay true to his life values and stay focused on the future," the statement said.

What happened

Mendez Lopez's family, in a statement released by activist organizations Concerned Citizens for Justice and Semillas TN, said he was killed while inside the house's laundry room, 45 minutes after police arrived at the house.

Mendez Lopez's father called police because of a fight between Mendez Lopez and his girlfriend, the statement said, believing he was having a mental health crisis. Officers then denied Lopez's father access to his son, making Mendez Lopez more agitated and afraid of arrest, the statement said.

"David's father trusted allegedly what this city has been telling him, what CPD has been telling him, that he can call to them for help," Mo Rodriguez Cruz, co-founder of Semillas, said in a phone call.

(READ MORE: TBI investigating after Chattanooga police, SWAT team standoff ends with teen fatally shot)

Police used a bullhorn to try to get Mendez Lopez out of the home, and the SWAT team deployed a robot inside the house, according to the family.

Mendez Lopez talked at length with his uncle on the phone during the encounter and was crying, according to the statement. Holding the phone, he tried to exit the home but retreated and closed the door to the laundry room, the statement said.

That's when officers began to shoot at him, according to the family. Police believed he was holding a gun and pointing it at officers, causing them to engage, they said.

"David's last words were 'Tio (Uncle), they are going to take me to jail, and I will be made fun of,'" his family said in the statement.

The aftermath

After the shooting, Mendez Lopez's family was left to clean up the scene, Rodriguez Cruz said.

"They had to literally, with their hands, wipe the blood of their son off their floors," he said by phone.

A photo included in the groups' statement appears to show bullet holes in the laundry room door of the family's home. Bullets were found inside, damaging their washer and the room's opposite wall, according to Rodriguez Cruz.

In their initial statement on the shooting, Chattanooga police said they were responding to reports of a domestic dispute with a weapon and said Mendez Lopez pointed a gun at police twice. None of the department's official communications on the shooting mention that Mendez Lopez died.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which is investigating the incident, said in a statement that Mendez Lopez was armed with a gun and not complying with commands.

"For reasons still under investigation, the situation escalated, and officers discharged their service weapons, striking the teen," the statement said.

The groups are calling for the release of unedited bodycam and dashboard footage, footage from the police robot, Mendez Lopez's autopsy report, audio of the 911 call, police affidavits and the names of superior officers who coordinated the police response. The Chattanooga Times Free Press has also submitted similar requests.

A mental health counselor or behavioral specialist should have been called to mitigate the situation, Mendez Lopez's family said.

"Instead of giving space for David to surrender and come out the house, as requested, the CPD decided to murder him in cold blood," the groups said in the statement.

The Chattanooga Police Department has two crisis co-response teams, which pair social workers with patrol officers to respond to mental health and other crises with the goal of avoiding jail or the emergency room. As of July, the first team was working 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and the second team was expected to help expand coverage. Many Chattanooga officers also undergo crisis intervention training.

'Police terror'

Mendez Lopez is the second person killed by Chattanooga police within a month, after the fatal shooting of Roger Heard, Jr., 34, at a Speedway gas station in August.

Four officers were placed on paid administrative leave for seven days for their involvement in Mendez Lopez's shooting, according to a news release from the Chattanooga Police Department.

Sgt. Jeremiah Cook and officers Camy Barber, Christian Burgeson and Nicholas Wilde are back on regular duty, department spokesperson Kevin West said in an email. Cook is a member of the department's SWAT team, West said.

It's standard for officers involved in deadly shootings to be on leave for seven days, West previously told the Times Free Press.

West declined to comment further on the incident, citing the open investigation.

According to Concerned Citizens for Justice, Mendez Lopez is the 79th person killed by Chattanooga police since the 1980s.

"This cycle of the CPD murdering Black and Brown people without being held accountable is perpetuating more and more police murders," the groups said in the statement. "As the Lopez Mendez and Heard families mourn the tragic loss of their loved ones, we must unite, organize ourselves and together fight back against police terror."

After the TBI completes its report, District Attorney Coty Wamp will have to decide whether to bring charges against the officers involved. Wamp will face the same decision once the TBI finishes investigating Heard's shooting, though she has already said she believes it was justified, pointing to Heard's criminal history and surveillance footage that she said shows Heard shooting at officers first.

Wamp's office declined to comment on Mendez Lopez's case Thursday, citing the open TBI investigation.

"Even if local courts and local elected officials that are corrupt are not going to be on our side, we do believe that we have the people on our side," Rodriguez Cruz, with Semillas, said. "We are confident that we can build momentum to be able to push forward the demands of the people, and really find accountability and justice for David Mendez."

Contact Ellen Gerst at or 423-757-6319.