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Fresno police release dramatic body-camera footage of fatal shooting of unarmed 19-year-old

The chief of the Fresno Police Department took the rare step Wednesday of publicly releasing the body-camera footage of officers fatally shooting an unarmed 19-year-old man last month — a shooting that has generated fierce protests amid a roiling national debate over police brutality.

Chief Jerry Dyer said at a news conference that he decided to release the graphic videos of officers firing four gunshots into Dylan Noble, a white man, because of the intense public interest in the shooting.

His decision is expected to heighten the debate about whether video from body-worn cameras on officers should be routinely made public, something that many law enforcement agencies and police unions have strongly opposed.

Dyer acknowledged that the footage is “extremely disturbing” to watch, but he said he hoped it would clarify what led officers to stop Noble on June 25 and eventually open fire.

“I anticipate that some of this video will answer many of the questions out there in this community,” Dyer said. “However, I believe this video is also going to raise questions in the minds of people, just as those questions exist in my mind as well.”

The videos show officers spotting Noble’s black pickup and pursuing the truck with police sirens blaring. Dyer said officers had been responding to a report of a man armed with a rifle.

Noble led police to a Chevron gas station where he stopped his truck, with officers parked a few yards behind him. One officer is seen brandishing his gun on the steering wheel shortly before driving into the gas station — a decision the officer made because he believed the pickup driver was armed, Dyer said.

As soon as Noble’s truck is parked, an officer is heard yelling: “Turn off the truck. Get your hands out the window. Both hands out the window.” Later, an officer screams: “Let me see both your hands. … Get both your hands out.”

Noble exited the truck and approached, then retreated from the officers.

Police called for backup, and officers gave about 30 commands for Noble to show his hands, lift his hands or lie on the ground, Dyer said.

Noble did not comply with officers’ orders and turned around to face them. He reached his right hand behind his back and appeared to carry an object in his right hand that officers believed could be a weapon, Dyer said.

Noble is heard saying that he hates his life.

One officer shoots him twice. Noble falls to the ground, rolls over and is seen moving his hand into his waistband and under his shirt. The officer fires a third round at Noble, and after about 12 seconds, another officer fires the fourth bullet into the man.

The object in Noble’s hand was determined to be a 4-inch plastic container with malleable clay.

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Dyer declined to offer an opinion about whether the shooting and conduct of the officers aligned with department policy. He said he is waiting for the conclusion of an internal investigation as well as one by the Fresno County district attorney’s office.

The prosecutors’ investigation is expected to conclude by late August. The FBI and the U.S. attorney general’s office also have agreed to investigate the shooting.

Still, Dyer acknowledged that the final two gunshots may generate questions and criticism among the public.

Outrage over the shooting was sparked by the release of a witness’ cellphone video, which showed only the final two shots while Noble lay on the ground.

Calling for justice and an end to police brutality, hundreds of demonstrators marched through downtown Fresno on Wednesday after police released the video footage.

Holding signs and banners, demonstrators walked to city hall, police headquarters and the Fresno County jail, calling for unity and justice.

The march comes days after more than 500 protesters marched through Fresno and Clovis, blocking streets and entering a shopping mall. Protesters attempted to cross onto California State Route 41 but were stopped by the California Highway Patrol.

That event’s organizer, Justice Medina, 20, of Clovis was arrested Wednesday as he was leaving to head to the protest in downtown Fresno. He was cited on suspicion of protesting and blocking city streets without a permit, Fresno police said.

Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County sheriff’s deputy who also serves as a lawyer on use-of-force cases, said the police chief was using the complete body-camera footage to reveal to the public what happened and to end the perception of misconduct created by the abridged cellphone video.

“Chief Dyer decided here, ‘Why should I wait under this national climate to release this vital information?’ The public, he believes, can see what happened,” Obayashi said. “There is nothing to hide here.”

Law enforcement agencies have welcomed cameras affixed to officers and inside patrol cars. Yet many departments oppose making their videos public, citing the privacy of officers and victims.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has said he did not expect to disclose footage in the majority of cases. Last year, a federal judge released video of a police shooting in Gardena only after news organizations, including The Times, asked a judge to unseal it.

Peter Bibring, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, also applauded Dyer’s decision to show the public the video from the body-worn cameras by the Fresno officers.

“This shows departments can release video footage less than three weeks after a fatal shooting as a way to lend transparency,” Bibring said.

“This in no way is a clear-cut exoneration of the officers. The videos raise questions about shooting.”

But, he added, it shows that departments keen on shielding the public from body-camera footage “can do better.”

Charles “Sid” Heal, a former commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a police shootings expert, said Noble had ample warnings from officers.

“Not only did he choose not to comply, he knowingly exacerbated the situation with behaviors that would arouse the fears of even casual observers,” Heal said. “The fact that [Noble] did not have a firearm is not sufficient to condemn the actions of the officer.”

The identities of the two officers were not released because they have been the subject of threats via social media, Dyer said. 

One officer is a 20-year veteran of the Fresno force and has no previous involvement with a police shooting. Another officer has 17 years of police experience and about 10 years with the Fresno Police Department, Dyer said. That officer was involved in a 2009 shooting of an armed suspect.

There has been much debate about whether police should release body camera footage. Police generally oppose public release, citing issues of privacy for both the officers and those with whom they come in contact.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has said he did not expect to disclose footage in the majority of cases.

In an interview last year, Beck explained his concerns.

Beck said the cameras still would bring transparency, even if the public lacked access to all footage. He noted the LAPD’s civilian overseers — the Police Commission and inspector general, along with the district and city attorneys’ offices — would have the authority to review the recordings.

“I think people misunderstand transparency as having everybody and all the public have access to everything. And it isn’t so much that as having the ability for oversight by multiple entities outside of the Police Department,” Beck said. “I think that's the meaning of transparency. I don’t think that transparency means we post every interaction on YouTube.”

Times staff writer Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.

For more news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

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UPDATES:

10:23 a.m.: This article was updated with more background on the body-camera debate.

July 14, 7:52 a.m.: This article was updated with details about Wednesday’s demonstration.

10:07 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details and comments.

This article was originally published at 8:50 p.m., July 13.

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