Gardena police shooting stirs heated debate on social media

In the hours after videos showing Gardena police officers fatally shooting an unarmed man were released Tuesday, social media lighted up with comments, from furious remarks about excessive police force to criticism of the man who disobeyed police orders.

The grainy videos, captured by patrol car cameras two years ago, show police with weapons trained on three men mistakenly suspected of stealing a bicycle. With their guns drawn, the officers scream at the men to keep their hands up. Two of the men remain motionless, but Ricardo Diaz Zeferino drops and raises his arms repeatedly, showing the officers his hands and stepping backward and forward.

“The police should have never had their guns out in the first place,” one Reddit user wrote. “If a cop doesn’t see a gun, he has no business bringing out his. If that means a higher chance of getting shot as a cop, then the police department needs to invest in more bullet proof vests or something.”

In the video, a laser dot from an officer’s weapon can be seen on 35-year-old Diaz Zeferino’s shirt. After he removes a baseball cap from his head, officers standing to the side of him unleash a volley of gunfire. Diaz Zeferino was struck eight times and died. One of his friends was wounded.

“That’s ... murder,” another Redditor wrote. “There is no ambiguity here,” another wrote. “They could see his hands. He wasn’t reaching for anything. He didn’t have anything.”

The video was released Tuesday on a federal judge’s orders following litigation that ended with the city of Gardena paying a $4.7-million settlement in the matter. U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson said the public had an interest in seeing the recordings and rejected arguments by Gardena attorneys who said the city had paid the settlement money believing the videos would remain sealed.

The June 2, 2013, shooting happened after police responded to a call about a bicycle stolen from outside a CVS drugstore. A police dispatcher mistakenly told officers it was a robbery, which typically involves weapons or force.

A sergeant responding to the call saw two men riding bicycles nearby. They were friends of the man whose bike had been stolen and were helping him look for it. The sergeant mistook them for thieves and stopped the men, according to a memo written by a prosecutor from the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office who reviewed the case.

Diaz Zeferino, whose brother owned the stolen bicycle, ran up to join the other two men as police detained them. Video shows him continuing to walk toward the men and officers despite an officer yelling at him to stop. Officers yell at him to keep his hands up, but he moves them up and down. Three officers -- Christopher Mendez, Christopher Sanderson and Matthew Today -- opened fire.

“These guys were the ones that reported the crime!” one Reddit user wrote. “Put yourself in their shoes. The guy walking around thought he was going to be giving the cops the run-down on the bike description ... they weren’t operating with the mentality of ... ‘I need to be careful here.’”

“As an Aussie, I don’t understand why the cops even pulled their guns,” another posted. “Why didn’t they simply walk over and say, ‘Hi, we need to have a talk?’ That’s pretty much how it works everywhere else in the developed world.”

On Twitter, one man wrote that the case was “clearly excessive force,” adding: “The police arrived agitated & trigger happy, there are better ways to handle bike theft, my goodness.”

One man who said he was a police officer said on Facebook that the victims did not appear to be a threat to officers, so it was unnecessary to open fire.

Others questioned why officers used their guns before using non-lethal tools, such as Tasers or pepper spray. Still, some social media users said Diaz Zeferino should have simply listened to the officers’ orders, saying the situation would not have escalated if he would have done so.

“Putting your hands down time and time again after being ordered to put them up is ‘failure to comply with the lawful order of a peace officer,’ which can also be viewed as threatening as he could be trying to reach a weapon in his waistline or pockets,” one Facebook commenter wrote.

Another said: “‘Get your hands up!’ How hard is that to understand? ... At this point in the video we don’t know they are unarmed. Doesn’t look like ‘cold-blooded murder,’ as many are saying here. ... Comply with orders, simple as that.”

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