Prosecutors have decided not to pursue criminal charges against the Los Angeles police officer who fatally shot an unarmed man after a 2015 car chase that ended in Burbank, a shooting that the city’s Police Commission concluded was unjustified.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office determined there was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that Officer Brian Van Gorden unlawfully used deadly force when he fatally shot Sergio Navas, according to a seven-page memo made public Tuesday.
Although Van Gorden may have had “other reasonable options,” it was also reasonable for the officer to determine that Navas posed a deadly and immediate threat, prosecutors wrote.
Citing “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstances,” prosecutors noted that Navas had suddenly stopped the car, exited and stood “face to face” with Van Gorden. The officer’s partner, they added, told investigators he thought Navas was going to shoot them.
“If Van Gorden acted honestly and reasonably in his decision to use deadly force, his actions are justified and he acted lawfully,” prosecutors wrote. “We conclude that the evidence presented demonstrates that Van Gorden honestly believed that deadly force was necessary under the circumstances.”
The decision from the D.A.’s office brought to an end two years of investigations and legal wrangling that followed Navas’ death, which drew little public attention but quickly raised questions within the Los Angeles Police Department. The city agreed last December to pay his family $2.5 million, nearly a year after the Police Commission handed down its own finding.
Luis Carrillo, an attorney representing Navas’ family, said he thought Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey’s office should have filed manslaughter charges against the officer, describing his behavior as “reckless.” But, he said, he wasn’t surprised with the decision, given that Lacey hasn’t charged officers in other on-duty shootings.
“It’s always a disappointment when police officers take the life of a human being,” he said. “It’s also always a disappointment when district attorney’s offices don’t file.”
Van Gorden’s lawyer called the decision from prosecutors “fair.” At the time of the shooting, attorney Gary Fullerton said, the officer believed Navas was carrying a gun and posed a deadly threat.
“He wasn’t out there trying to do a dastardly deed. He’s trying to do his job right and he made a mistake,” Fullerton said. “I don’t think somebody should face a criminal penalty for that.”
Officers tried to stop Navas after they spotted him speeding in a gold Mercury Sable in Toluca Lake, but the 35-year-old took off toward Burbank, according to a report Beck submitted to the Police Commission and the new memo from prosecutors. The car had paper plates, adding to the officers’ suspicion that it may have been stolen.
Prosecutors confirmed in their report that the car Navas was driving was stolen and that methamphetamine, marijuana and an anxiety medication were found inside. Navas was on felony probation at the time, prosecutors added, but did not say for what.
Navas came to an abrupt halt on National Avenue, a dead-end street. The officer who was driving the police SUV told investigators he was driving too fast to stop behind the Sable and had to veer alongside the car to avoid hitting it, the reports said.
The officer sitting in the passenger seat — Van Gorden — said Navas then got out of the car, slammed the door and turned to face him, according to Beck’s report. At that point, Van Gorden said, he couldn’t see Navas’ hands and thought he was “trying to trap me in the car” and “ambush me.”
“I was like, this guy is going to try to shoot me,” the officer told investigators. “I didn’t want to wait around to find out.”
The officer fired while sitting in the police SUV, hitting the door and shattering the window. Navas was shot twice, according to his autopsy, then ran to a nearby alley, where he died.
When Van Gorden’s partner heard shots and Van Gorden curse, he said, he thought the officer has been struck by gunfire, prosecutors wrote. Officer Michael Estrada was still distraught as he spoke to investigators, prosecutors said. When he described thinking his partner had been shot, they added, his voice cracked and he began to cry.
Estrada told investigators he also thought Navas had a gun, according to the memo. Had he been on the passenger side of the car, he said, he too would have fired.
“I would have done the exact same thing,” Estrada said.
3:45 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from the attorneys representing Sergio Navas’ family and Officer Brian Van Gorden, along with more information from the prosecutors’ memo.
This story was originally published at 1:15 p.m.