The family of a man shot to death by Long Beach police last month has taken the first step in filing a lawsuit against the city, their attorney said Thursday.
Jason Conoscenti, 36, was shot to death April 27 by Long Beach police officers. Cellphone video of the incident appears to show him fleeing down a set of stairs toward the beach, his hands up and grabbing the handrail.
Nona Opsitnick and Linda Sterett, two aunts of Conoscenti, appeared with attorney Dale Galipo outside a federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday to announce a claim against Long Beach, seeking wrongful death and punitive damages in excess of $10 million.
The claim alleges officers “unjustly used excessive force” against Conoscenti, who posed “no imminent threat of death or serious physical injury” to officers or others. The family also claims Conoscenti was unarmed and that his hands were visible to officers when he was shot.
Conoscenti, 36, was not married, had no children, and both his parents are deceased, Galipo said.
“It was the wrong thing to do,” said Opsitnick of the shooting. “He had his hands on the rail going down, he never put his hands down.”
She described her nephew, whom she last saw in November, as funny and cheerful.
Galipo, flanked by family members of two other men who were shot and killed by Long Beach officers, said Conoscenti’s death was indicative of a larger problem of officer-involved shootings within the department.
“We believe Long Beach has a problem with officer-involved shootings and they’ve had a problem for some time,” Galipo said. “Ironically, the chief of Long Beach police wants to run for sheriff of L.A. county…One wonders whether a person with his track record is the best person.”
There were 15 officer-involved shootings in Long Beach in 2013, excluding accidental discharges and animal shootings, more than double the number from the previous year. Of those, six were fatal.
Conoscenti’s death was the first officer-involved shooting this year.
The incident began in Compton, where L.A. County sheriff’s deputies confronted Conoscenti at a Target store over an alleged theft, according to a news release from the Compton station.
During the confrontation, deputies say he brandished a pair of scissors and then fled to a white SUV.
Sheriff’s deputies pursued him, and Long Beach police officers joined the chase around 3:15 p.m., deputies said.
Authorities say Conoscenti came to a stop in a cul-de-sac near the corner of East Ocean Boulevard and 14th Place, at the top of a set of stairs leading to the beach, and refused to comply with commands to exit the car.
Fifteen minutes later, Conoscenti allegedly exited the SUV holding a large wooden stick, again refusing to follow commands and continuing instead to the staircase.
Sheriff’s deputies said they deployed non-lethal stunbags to detain Conoscenti, but he continued to run.
According to a statement from the Long Beach Police Department, officers on the beach had an obstructed view of the bottom of the stairs and heard gunshots from above.
Believing Conoscenti and deputies were in the midst of a gunfight and believing he was still armed, officers saw him reaching for his waistband and shot him, the statement said.
Video shows Conoscenti struggling in the sand for nearly two minutes before officers approached to handuff him.
Conoscenti was taken to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.
Darla Adamson, with whom Conoscenti had been living for about two years, described him as a troubled man with a kind heart.
“He was always good to me," she said. "He didn’t want to hurt anybody if he didn’t have to."
Adamson, who Conoscenti often called "Mom," said that he'd had run-ins with the law in the past, and was afraid of the police.
“He told me, ‘As long as you have your hands out, and you don’t have them hidden or anything like that, they know you’re unarmed,’” she said.
The Long Beach city attorney and a representative for the Police Department say they have not yet received the claim and declined to comment.
“This is a tragic event that occurred, and I’m sure it’s difficult for all that are involved,” said Cmdr. Don Wood of the Long Beach Police Department’s Gang and Violent Crime division.
He warned, however, that the video “is just one piece of the puzzle, just one perspective,” pointing out that it is shot from several floors above and behind Conoscenti as he runs down.
Wood, who is overseeing the department’s internal investigation of the shooting, said the officers involved in Conoscenti’s shooting have since been evaluated by a psychologist and released to their full duties.
In addition to the investigation within the Long Beach Police Department, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office will also review the shooting, as is standard with officer-involved shootings.