Organizations representing police chiefs and officers from around the state have filed legal briefs supporting an effort to bar the release of videos that recorded Gardena police fatally shooting an unarmed man and seriously wounding another.
The Los Angeles County Police Chief’s Assn., California Police Chiefs’ Assn., California State Sheriffs’ Assn. and California Peace Officers' Assn. in court papers filed last week said that sealing such evidence is common practice nationwide. They cited concerns about violating the privacy of the officers involved and the possibility of interfering with investigations.
Dashboard cameras from three police cars recorded parts of the June 2, 2013, shooting of Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino, who was struck eight times and died from his injuries. Another man, Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez, also suffered a gunshot wound to his back, leaving bullet fragments near his spine.
Several news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, are seeking to make public the footage under seal in a federal civil rights suit, arguing that by not releasing it, Gardena violated the public’s right to information. The Associated Press and Bloomberg are part of the effort.
At the center of the dispute over the videos is whether Diaz-Zeferino moved his hands in a way that gave officers the impression he was reaching for a weapon in the seconds before he was shot, as investigators concluded. An attorney representing the families of both men who were shot has said that the videos show that Diaz-Zeferino’s right hand was clearly empty and in front of his body when the shots were fired.
The city has paid $4.7 million to the families of Diaz-Zeferino and Mendez to settle a civil rights lawsuit over the shooting.
Attorneys for the law enforcement organizations warned that disclosure of the videos could discourage the use of cameras by police agencies and could undermine trust in the police. An attorney for the state chiefs association noted that Gardena settled the civil rights case believing the videos wouldn't become public.
"The defendants paid over $4 million to buy their peace," the attorneys said in a statement.
The Gardena shooting occurred after a bicycle was 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 dash camera 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.