Privacy often trumps transparency with police shooting videos
Cameras mounted inside patrol cars captured every moment.
With their guns drawn, Gardena police officers screamed instructions at three men on the sidewalk. The officers warned them to keep their hands above their heads, mistakenly believing that they had been involved in a robbery.
Exactly what happened next is in dispute, but what is undisputed is that the men were unarmed when police opened fire, killing one and seriously wounding another.
Afterward, the Gardena Police Department allowed the officers — over the objection of a sheriff’s investigator — to review video of the incident. But the department has refused to make the videos public, even after the city agreed to pay $4.7 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit over the shooting.
Across the country, law enforcement agencies are equipping police and patrol cars with cameras to capture interactions between officers and the public. But many of those police forces, like Gardena’s, do not release the recordings to the public, citing concerns about violating the privacy of officers and others shown in the recordings and the possibility of interfering with investigations.
That approach has drawn criticism from some civil rights activists who say that the public release of recordings is crucial to holding police accountable — especially if the officers involved in the incidents are allowed to view the videos.
Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano defended his department’s position as consistent with that of other law enforcement organizations around the country. He added that it was intended to protect the integrity of investigations as well as the privacy of officers and those who come into contact with police.
“The general public does not have an unfettered right to see every video that is taken by law enforcement,” Medrano said in an email. “Thus, absent a court order to the contrary, many agencies across the country, including Gardena, do not intend to release videos to the public.”
In a court filing earlier this year, the city’s lawyers argued that the videos do “not tell the whole story” about the shooting and that making them public could endanger the officers and their families. The attorneys said the current social climate since the killing of an unarmed man by police in Ferguson, Mo., last year had heightened the threat to the Gardena officers, who felt compelled to hire experts to remove personal information about them from the Internet.
In February, a U.S. District judge rejected a request by attorneys suing Gardena to lift an order preventing public release of the videos.
Attorney R. Samuel Paz, one of the lawyers representing the men who were shot and family members in the lawsuit, said he was disappointed with the judge’s decision and the Police Department’s efforts to keep the videos confidential.
“Departments speak a good game talking about transparency, but the reality is far from that,” he said.
Whether to publicly release police videos and when to show recordings to officers have become two of the thorniest issues police departments are grappling with as many add dashboard cameras to cruisers and outfit patrol officers with body cameras.
In Seattle, the Police Department has uploaded videos from officer-worn body cameras onto YouTube after blurring the images to protect the privacy of officers and civilians.
The LAPD and other law enforcement agencies in California have withheld police video, citing a state law that exempts investigative records from disclosure even after an investigation has been completed. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, whose department is purchasing 7,000 body cameras, has said he considers the recordings to be evidence and will generally not make them public.
Lindsay Miller, a senior research associate with the Police Executive Research Forum, which has issued guidelines on using police body cameras, said it is important for law enforcement to balance the privacy of people who come into police contact with the need to be transparent.
“By withholding all footage, it kind of undermines the transparency rationale,” she said.
The Gardena shooting occurred about 2:30 a.m. on June 2, 2013, after a bicycle was stolen from outside a CVS Pharmacy 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 in the air, according to a district attorney’s memo written by a prosecutor who reviewed the police videos.
Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, whose brother owned the stolen bicycle, ran up to his friends as they stood before the police car. The 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.
Diaz Zeferino, 35, died after being struck by eight hollow-point bullets fired by officers. A single round hit one of the other two men, Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez, in his back, leaving bullet fragments near his spine. In a court filing, the city said Acevedo Mendez “was inadvertently struck with a bullet.”
The criminal investigation of the shooting was assigned to Det. Jeffrey Leslie of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which handles probes of Gardena police shootings. Leslie testified that he voiced “displeasure over the idea of [the officers] watching the video prior to me interviewing them,” according to a transcript of his deposition in the civil lawsuit.
Nevertheless, following the department’s policy, Gardena police allowed the officers to watch the recordings before talking to Leslie.
The Police Executive Research Forum recently recommended that officers be allowed to review video recordings before making a statement. Such a practice helps ensure accuracy and is favored by most police executives, the organization said.
But Michael Gennaco, a law enforcement consultant who until last year worked as a civilian watchdog of the Sheriff’s Department, warned that officers who view video before giving a statement can shape their accounts based on the recording.
“Those conducting police oversight don’t favor that,” he said. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department requires deputies to provide an initial statement about a force incident before reviewing video.
The prosecutor who reviewed the shooting, Deputy Dist. Atty. Rosa Alarcon, concluded in her memo that Diaz Zeferino showed a complete disregard for the officers’ orders and that toxicology tests after his death were positive for alcohol and methamphetamine. The videos, she wrote, showed that the officers could not see Diaz Zeferino’s right hand as he dropped it toward his waistband and “believed he was going to reach for a weapon.”
Paz, one of the lawyers who sued the city, disagreed, saying the videos show that Diaz Zeferino’s right hand was clearly empty and in front of his body when the shots were fired. He said the videos show officers were giving confusing orders and that Acevedo Mendez was shot despite keeping his hands above his head.
Medrano said the officers who opened fire — Christopher Mendez, Christopher Sanderson and Matthew Toda — are still on patrol. He said in a recent email that the department’s internal investigation to determine whether discipline is warranted would resume once the civil litigation is complete. A judge finalized the settlement and dismissed the case earlier this week.
Under California law, the outcome of the disciplinary investigation will remain confidential.
Acevedo Mendez, whose stomach bears a 7-inch scar from where doctors removed the bullet, said he wants the public to have access to the videos.
“They need to see what happened.... We had our hands up. We didn’t have any guns. They just shot,” he said. “They killed my friend for no reason.”