Videos show US police shooting dead unarmed man

Judge orders police to release video shot from inside patrol cars of 2013 shooting

A screengrab from the video showing Los Angeles police officers confronting Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino and  Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez in 2013.

A screengrab from the video showing Los Angeles police officers confronting Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino and Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez in 2013.

 

A video of the fatal shooting by police officers of an unarmed man in Gardena, California, is once again raising unsettling questions about whether a police shooting was justified - and illustrating the power of video to dispute the accounts of officers.

The man, Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino, was leaving a bar with a group of friends on a Saturday night in June 2013 when they were stopped by the police, who were investigating a report of a robbery.

During the encounter, officers fatally shot Diaz-Zeferino (32) and wounded Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez.

Although the men were unarmed, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office cleared the police of wrongdoing. The city of Gardena, however, took the unusual step of agreeing to pay $4.7 million to the families before the start of a civil trial.

The encounter was filmed on a police dashboard camera, but the Gardena Police Department, which has equipped its vehicles with such cameras for more than 10 years, opposed requests by news organizations to make the video public.

This week, though, a federal court ordered the video, which was compiled from the camera images from at least three squad cars, to be released. Now the district attorney’s decision is being questioned.

“None of these guys had ever been arrested; they were all hard-working guys trying to support their families and just doing what young men do on a Saturday night,” said R Samuel Paz, a lawyer who represents Mendez and the family of Diaz-Zeferino.

Mr Paz also called for the Justice Department to conduct a civil rights investigation of the Gardena Police Department.

The men, who the responding police officers suspected had stolen a bicycle, were the brother and a friend of a man whose bicycle had been stolen minutes earlier. Diaz-Zeferino and Mendez had set out to try to find it.

Jim Bueermann, the president of the Police Foundation, a Washington organization dedicated to improving the quality of policing, called the episode “an awful, yet lawful police use of force.” He said the dispatcher’s initial mistake of calling the episode a robbery, a crime in which force or threat is used, when the unlocked bicycle had simply been ridden away, was a significant error because it put the officers on edge.

He said the officers had also made a number of errors, including giving multiple commands and not seeking cover behind their squad cars.

“They call this ‘officer precipitated,’ meaning that the use of poor tactics makes it necessary for officers to have to use violence,” said Mr Bueermann, a former police chief of Redlands, California.

The death of Diaz-Zeferino occurred more than a year before the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August, and attracted relatively little public attention before the release of the video.

That is in stark contrast to the recent series of deaths of other unarmed people killed by police officers and captured on video that have aroused public anger and prompted pledges of sweeping changes by police departments, including requiring officers to wear body cameras.

The police video in the Gardena case picks up after the group of men left the bar and were looking for the stolen bicycle. An officer is heard ordering Diaz-Zeferino, Mendez and a third man, Jose Garcia, to raise their hands. Mendez and Garcia, who had been riding bicycles, complied.

Diaz-Zeferino initially raised his arms, then reached into his back pocket and appeared to drop something onto the ground. As arriving officers shouted orders in English and in Spanish - at times they told the men to raise their hands, and at others to get on their knees and to lie on the ground - Diaz-Zeferino gestured as if confused.

Witnesses said he had been trying to tell officers that they had stopped the wrong people. He is seen variously raising and dropping his arms. He took a few awkward steps into the street and removed a baseball cap he had been wearing. Then, as he appeared to be raising his arms again, the cap still in his hands, the officers opened fire.

Diaz-Zeferino was struck eight times. Mendez was struck once. In their court depositions, the officers said they believed that Diaz-Zeferino had been reaching for a weapon. In clearing the four officers, the district attorney’s office concluded: “They made a split-second decision and they were not required to hold fire in order to ascertain whether Diaz would, in fact, injure or kill them.”

A toxicology report found that Diaz-Zeferino had a blood alcohol level of 0.22 per cent, significantly above the 0.08 per cent level that qualifies as driving while impaired in California, and tested positive for methamphetamine.

New York Times