By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Witnesses saw a 14-year-old boy, suspected of spraying gang graffiti, fire at officers before he was shot to death, a Los Angeles Police Department official said on Wednesday.

Deputy Chief Robert Arcos told reporters a loaded handgun was recovered from the scene where Jesse James Romero, 14, was gunned down by an LAPD officer during a foot pursuit at about 6 p.m. on Tuesday (0100 GMT Wednesday). Arcos displayed a photo of the gun.

"The tragedy of this event cannot be overstated," Arcos told a press conference, adding it underscored the need for youth programs. Coroner's officials said an autopsy has been scheduled for Romero, who would have turned 15 on Aug. 24.

Police departments nationwide are under increased scrutiny over fatal shootings, especially of young men, which have re-ignited a debate over the use of lethal force by officers and the role of racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Arcos said two gang enforcement officers who responded to reports of gang graffiti vandalism in the city's working-class Boyle Heights neighborhood pursued two suspects who ran in different directions.

A witness has told police that one of the suspects fired at the officers, Arcos said, and the officers have told investigators that they heard a gunshot.

He declined to say what prompted the officer to open fire on Romero, saying the incident was under investigation.

Arcos said the officers were wearing body cameras, which investigators were reviewing along with witness statements and other evidence. He said the second suspect was detained.

Coroner's officials say an autopsy has been scheduled for Romero, who would have turned 15 on Aug. 24.

Local TV images showed investigators at the scene of the shooting, which was cordoned off with yellow police tape, and a makeshift memorial of candles and flowers near where Romero was slain.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by James Dalgleish)