Attorneys for the family of a 36-year-old man fatally wounded by a Los Angeles police officer in 2016 said that body camera footage released as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the city shows that the man did not pose a threat when he was shot and that evidence was mishandled.
The video, played during a news conference Thursday, shows the shooting of Omar Gonzalez in a Boyle Heights neighborhood after a car chase on July 28, 2016.
The officer who pulled the trigger was later identified as Eden Medina. Twelve days after shooting Gonzalez, Medina shot and killed 14-year-old Jesse Romero, also in Boyle Heights, sparking protests and criticism of the department for allowing the officer to return to full duties so quickly.
Police officials said Medina returned to the field six days after the first shooting, after he was cleared by a department psychologist and then Chief Charlie Beck.
“What we seek here is justice,” said Luis Carrillo, an attorney for the Gonzalez family. “We want answers to why this happened.”
In the video released Thursday, Gonzalez runs up a driveway, then struggles with residents. The struggle continues with responding officers, and two shots are fired. An officer says, “Get the gun, it’s right there.” The video shows an officer reaching under a fence and picking up a gun with his bare hands. A gun is then shown being placed into a trunk.
Carrillo and Humberto Guizar, an attorney for the Romero family, questioned why the gun was handled without gloves and moved from the scene.
“Why would you even tamper with that sort of evidence?” Carrillo asked. At one point, as Gonzalez is moaning on the ground, an officer says, “Choke him out, dude.”
“At the moment he was shot twice in the back, he didn’t have a gun in any hand,” Carrillo said, adding that the situation could have been avoided with more training.
Initially, the video was under a protective order that was lifted Aug. 10 as part of an ongoing civil lawsuit against the city in Gonzalez’s death. Under a new policy, the Los Angeles Police Department now releases recordings related to use-of-force incidents or in-custody deaths within 45 days, with some exceptions.
The officers’ actions were found to be within policy, Josh Rubenstein, a spokesman for the department, said Thursday. He declined to comment further due to the pending litigation. Medina is still with the department and assigned to Olympic Division, Rubenstein said.
Initially, the LAPD said that officers attempted to stop the Nissan Altima Gonzalez was riding in on suspicion that it could have been stolen. But a report from the city’s civilian Police Commission said the events began when the driver failed to use a turn signal. The report said that Gonzalez, who was in the passenger seat, wasn’t wearing a seat belt. The officers then saw him him put the seat belt on as the car approached a stoplight.
Police attempted to stop the car, which eventually pulled into a cul-de-sac in the 1200 block of Atwood Street. Gonzalez ran out of the car and into a driveway, where people tried to block him from going further, according to the report. Officers caught up, and there was a short struggle. The report said that Gonzalez had the gun in his left hand, dropped it, then picked it up during the altercation. After Gonzalez picked up the gun, Medina fired twice, the report said.
The Police Commission concluded that Medina, who had been with the department for nearly five years at that point, acted in policy when he fired two rounds, but that the actions of some of the officers warranted a “tactical debrief.”
As part of a policy approved by the commission in August, officers who shoot someone have to wait two weeks before they can return to the field. The new policy also strengthens training and psychological counseling requirements.
Gonzalez was a father of two and worked in construction. His ex-wife, Zoila Gutierrez, 38, spoke briefly at the news conference and said raising the kids alone hasn’t been easy.