Dramatic video released Tuesday showing Gardena police officers shooting two unarmed men -- one fatally -- is once again igniting debate about police use of force. And like other cases, some people view the same video in very different ways.
A judge’s decision to release the tape capped months of legal battles, with the city fighting to keep the tape private.
Police have said the shooting was justified and that the dash cam videos from the squad cars don’t tell the whole story. An attorney for the city said this week that one of the videos “looks bad” but that it was not taken from the perspective of officers.
Still, the city paid out $4.7 million to settle a federal lawsuit with victims.
Attorneys for the men say the video clearly shows they were not a threat.
“The videos show cold-blooded shooting of clearly unarmed men,” attorney R. Samuel Paz said.
Q: What happened?
A: The 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 up, 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. A dash camera video captured him yelling at Cuff, 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.
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.”
Q: What was the police justification for the shooting?
A: Officials said the officers fired because from their perspective, Diaz Zeferino was moving in such a way that they could not see his right hand, and they feared he had a weapon.
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.”
Q: What did the attorneys for the families say?
A: Samuel Paz, one of the lawyers who sued the city on behalf of the dead man, says 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.
Q: What is the status of the officers involved?
A: In May, when The Times first reported that the city had settled a civil rights lawsuit over the shooting, Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano said the officers who opened fire were still on patrol. He said at the time that the department’s internal investigation to determine whether discipline is warranted had been put on hold during the civil litigation. Under California law, the outcome of the disciplinary investigation will remain confidential.