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Long Beach school district officials fire safety officer after internal review of shooting

Manuela Sahagun, mother of Mona Rodriguez, left, with her son Oscar Rodriguez, right.
The mother and brother of Manuela “Mona” Rodriguez at a news conference last month.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education has unanimously voted to fire the safety officer who opened fire last month on a moving car filled with young people, killing a female passenger.

The officer, Eddie F. Gonzalez, was terminated during a closed-session vote Wednesday.

During a news conference, Supt. Jill Baker said that officials believed the officer had violated the district’s use-of-force policy, which states that officers shall not fire at a moving vehicle and may fire through a vehicle window only “as a final means of defense.”

“We believe the decision to terminate this officer’s employment is warranted, justified and, quite frankly, the right thing to do,” she said Wednesday.

Officials with the Long Beach Police Department said Gonzalez was driving about a block from Millikan High School on Sept. 27 when he saw two young people fighting on the sidewalk about 3:15 p.m. and stopped to intervene.

One of the two, 18-year-old Manuela “Mona” Rodriguez, jumped into the passenger’s seat of a gray sedan and tried to leave, and the safety officer opened fire, police said. Video posted on social media appears to show the officer firing at least two shots at the car as it moves past him.

Rodriguez, the mother of a 5-month-old boy named Isael, died Tuesday after more than a week on life support, her family’s lawyers said in a statement. They said doctors and nurses on her floor at Long Beach Memorial Hospital gave her a “hero’s celebration” as she was taken to the organ donation operating room Tuesday afternoon.

No evidence has emerged that anyone involved in the fight was armed. Baker declined to comment on that or on the number of shots that the officer fired.

Police agencies across the nation have sought to restrict incidents of shooting at moving vehicles, which have accounted for 16% of all fatal police uses of deadly force since 2015.

The Long Beach school district employs nine full-time and two part-time safety officers, as well as four supervisors. The incident was the first shooting involving a safety officer in the program’s 30-year existence, spokesman Chris Eftychiou said.

Gonzalez was hired by the district in January. Baker said that he had passed the district’s background checks.

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Los Alamitos city spokeswoman Chelsi Wilson confirmed that Gonzalez worked for the city from Jan. 8 to April 8, 2019, but declined to provide details about his departure. Gonzalez was also employed by the Sierra Madre Police Department from September 2019 to July 2020, department spokeswoman Laura Aguilar confirmed. She said the city “chose to separate from Officer Gonzalez” but would not provide additional information.

Luis Carrillo, one of the attorneys representing the Rodriguezes, has called on California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta to open an independent investigation into the shooting. The Long Beach Police Department and Los Angeles County district attorney‘s office are conducting their own investigation.

In a letter to the attorney general, Carrillo said that Rodriguez did not pose an imminent threat to the officer and that the use of force was unjustified. He suggested the officer’s actions “meet the threshold for criminal charges,” including murder or manslaughter.

Dozens of local residents and activists milled about outside the building where the Board of Education held its regular public meeting Wednesday evening. Many called for the removal of all school safety officers, additional de-escalation training for school staff and for a greater focus on mediation in responding to conflict.

A cheer went up when someone announced that the board had voted to fire the officer. But while many applauded the decision, Oscar Rodriguez, 23, one of the deceased woman’s brothers, said that it was only “a first step,” and that the officer should go to jail.

“I hope my sister gets the justice that she deserves,” he had told the crowd earlier. “This can happen to any other family next.”

He sat on a patch of lawn as he listened through a speaker to the public comment during the board meeting. One rabbi said that the safety officer could have posed a threat to the neighborhood at large if the bullets had gone astray. A Long Beach resident said that “the fact that a school has anyone on campus with a gun is absurd.”

Mona Rodriguez’s cousins described her as someone who was “more of a sister” and would go out of her way to help her friends.

One of them, Luiz Loza, 23, said that the week that she was killed, Rodriguez had been planning to move to Kansas, where she also had family, to start a new life there with her son. She was looking forward to being in more peaceful surroundings, he said.

“I don’t think she deserved any of this,” he said. “Her son is going to grow up without a mother.”

Times staffer Richard Winton contributed to this report.


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