Gardena police shooting: Experts question officers' tactics

Was the Gardena police shooting of two unarmed men -- one fatally -- in 2013 justified?

That is the question many are asking after a judge ordered the release of dramatic videos Tuesday showing the incident.

The city paid $4.7 million to settle a federal lawsuit. But prosecutors decided not to charge the officers involved with wrongdoing, agreeing with the Gardena Police Department that the shooting was justified.

Police use-of-force experts were divided about whether the officers should have opened fire, but several questioned some of their tactics.

“It is hard to see what threat was posed to these officers,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor of criminology who studies police tactics and shootings. “It doesn’t look good in terms of the training of these officers. I can understand now why this department didn’t want the videos released.”

Alpert said the officers can only by judged on what a reasonable officer would do under the circumstances. In this case, however, Alpert said, "we have a man that for the most part has two hands in the air but then sometimes drop them."

He said “the officers had guns pointed at the men at the time of the shooting, so it is hard to justify why officers felt he could be a threat.”

The shooting occurred about 2:30 a.m. on June 2, 2013, after a bicycle was stolen from outside a CVS Pharmacy on Western Avenue. A police dispatcher mistakenly told officers that the crime was a robbery, which usually involves a theft using weapons or force, and officers headed to the area in search of two suspects.

Gardena police Sgt. Christopher Cuff saw two men riding bicycles east on Redondo Beach Boulevard. The men were friends of the bike theft victim and were searching for the missing bicycle. Mistaking them for the thieves, Cuff ordered the men to stop and put their hands up, according to a district attorney's memo written by a prosecutor who reviewed the police videos.

Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, whose brother owned the stolen bicycle, ran up to his friends as they stood before the police car. A dash camera video captured him yelling at Cuff, who screamed in English and Spanish for Diaz Zeferino to stop advancing, the district attorney's memo said.

Diaz Zeferino raised his hands, pounded his chest with both hands and said something that was inaudible, the memo said. One of his friends later told investigators that Diaz-Zeferino was explaining that police had stopped the wrong people.

Two more police cars arrived, and three officers emerged with guns drawn.

The patrol car video showed Diaz Zeferino dropping his hands and reaching to his right waistband or rear right pocket and making a tossing motion, dropping an object on the ground, the district attorney's memo said. He raised his hands, then repeated the move and removed something from his left rear pocket, the memo said.

"You do it again, you're going to get shot," yelled an officer on the video, according to the memo.

Diaz Zeferino removed his baseball hat and lowered his hands. As he began to raise his hands again, three of the officers opened fire, the district attorney's memo said.

A single round hit one of the other two men, Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez, in his back, leaving bullet fragments near his spine. In a court filing, the city said Acevedo Mendez "was inadvertently struck with a bullet."

Officials said the officers fired because, from their perspective, Diaz Zeferino was moving in such a way that they could not see his right hand, and they feared he had a weapon.

The prosecutor who reviewed the shooting, Deputy Dist. Atty. Rosa Alarcon, concluded in her memo that Diaz Zeferino showed a complete disregard for the officers' orders and that toxicology tests after his death were positive for alcohol and methamphetamine. The videos, she wrote, showed that the officers could not see Diaz Zeferino's right hand as he dropped it toward his waistband and "believed he was going to reach for a weapon."

Ed Obayashi, a sheriff’s deputy in Northern California and an attorney who advises several counties there on use of force, said California departments train officers to take a position of cover, especially since the Gardena situation involved robbery suspects.

In the Gardena case, Obayashi said, the officers exposed themselves by standing in front of their vehicles and hence heightened their concern about their safety and need for deadly force.

“I would have to say the majority of officers would not have shot in this case, he said. “This is a scenario you see in simulators all the time.” He said, “this particular video in my opinion demonstrates the worst impression of an unreasonable shooting.”

Obayashi, however, cautions that the officers did not have the straight-ahead view captured on video and from their side angle, Diaz Zeferino's movements are harder to see.

“They are seeing from a lesser degree of vision. There are multiple commands going on and he is taking off his hat and again the initial radio report was a violent felony -- a robbery.”

“The multiple commands did not help. Tactically, one person giving simple directions is far better,” he said.

But Obayashi said he suspects it may be an example of contagious fire, in which one officer shot first and the others followed.

He cautions that legal standards do not allow the application of hindsight and officers make split-second decisions.

Maria “Maki” Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College in New York said the videos show how people can get hurt if they do not comply with police officers commands.

“It looks horrible, but you have to understand how it evolved,” she said. “You have to comply with police officers' directives.”

“Putting hands up in the air and putting hands down and playing with a hat can convey to police they are dealing with a potentially armed person. It is heartbreaking that an innocent person lost their life here,” she said.  “Police officers are here to serve and to protect but they aren’t paid to lose their lives. ... Police are entitled to fear.”

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