Judge inclined to release videos of Gardena police killing unarmed man

A federal judge on Monday said he was inclined to unseal videos that show Gardena police officers fatally shooting an unarmed man, noting that taxpayers are footing the bill for a $4.7-million legal settlement over the shooting.

U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson said there was a clear public interest in releasing the footage and that records could only be kept under seal in federal court in extreme cases.

Wilson appeared to reject arguments by the city of Gardena seeking to keep the recordings under seal. The judge questioned how the city could argue that the shooting was proper while at the same time agreeing to a hefty legal settlement over the shooting.

"To give away millions in taxpayer money and say it is justified doesn't seem to come together," the judge said. “Shouldn’t the citizens of Los Angeles know what happened?”

Wilson said he expects to issue a final ruling as early as Tuesday, adding that he could not find any valid reason to block a request from the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Bloomberg to publicly release the police cruiser videos that captured the shooting.

The hearing comes as law enforcement agencies nationwide are increasingly embracing the use of officer body cameras and dashboard cameras to record police interactions with civilians. But few agencies are making that footage public, spurring a debate over the need to balance the privacy of those captured on the recordings and transparency in policing.

Cameras mounted inside the police patrol cars recorded parts of the June 2, 2013, fatal shooting of Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, who was struck by eight bullets. Another man, Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez, was wounded.

The city of Gardena filed the videos under seal in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Acevedo Mendez and relatives of Diaz Zeferino.

“While it’s certainly unpleasant,’ Wilson said of the videos, "it isn’t that gory.”

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs argued that the recordings show that officers opened fire even though it was clear the men were unarmed. The city disagreed, saying officers couldn't see one of Diaz Zeferino's hands and believed he was going to reach for a weapon.

The city recently settled the lawsuit, but Gardena officials have fought to prevent the videos from becoming public. Organizations representing law enforcement leaders across California submitted court papers supporting Gardena’s efforts to keep the records sealed.

The city argued that it had agreed to the legal settlement in part to keep the video from becoming public. Gardena also contended that releasing the video would deter police from using such cameras and would endanger the safety of the officers at a time of heightened public criticism of police killings.

Mildred K. O’Linn, a private attorney representing Gardena, said in court that the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown last year, sparking protests and riots, was driven from his job and his home.

She said releasing the Gardena videos also would provide a distorted view of the shooting and that the media would focus most on one of the recordings that "looks bad" but doesn't properly capture the officers' perspective. 

She said the city had asked the plaintiffs' attorneys to sign an agreement promising not to talk to reporters about the case as part of the settlement deal, but the attorneys refused.

The judge said he did not find the city's arguments compelling. Wilson noted that attorneys for Diaz Zeferino’s family and Acevedo Mendez supported the release of the video and want the public to see the incident.  

“This is a good video. It is pretty clear. It isn’t one of the those foggy videos,” he added.

The shooting occurred after police responded to a call about a bicycle stolen from outside a CVS drugstore 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. 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. Diaz-Zeferino, whose brother owned the stolen bicycle, ran up to his friends as they stood before the police car.

A police cruiser video captured him yelling at the sergeant, 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.

O'Linn, the city's attorney, said Gardena would ask the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to stop the release of the recordings if Wilson issues a decision allowing their release.

Rochelle Wilcox, who represented The Times and other media outlets in the case, said outside court that members of the public should have the chance to examine the video for themselves.

Attorney R. Samuel Paz, who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said after Monday's hearing that “the public needs to see how their police officers operate first hand. We’ve always wanted that to be case with the Gardena police.”

For more news on Southern California crime, follow @lacrimes.

ALSO

Police killings in L.A. County since 2000

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
51°