Two-year-old videos from a police shooting in Gardena have further churned the debate about violent police actions in non-white communities.
The videos, shot by cameras on squad cars, show two angles of the scene. Police officers had just rolled up to confront three Latino males after a call went out that a bicycle had been stolen in a robbery. To the cops, the word “robbery” opened the possibility that the thieves were armed. That is why they had their guns drawn when they stopped the men. One of them, Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, failed to keep his hands raised high after being ordered to do so. He lowered them, raised them again to take off his cap, lowered them again and, as his hands came up one more time, a volley of shots took him down, along with one of the other men.
Zeferino died, the other man lived, and the city of Gardena earlier this year paid $4.7 million to the survivors and to Zeferino’s family.
It turned out that although a bike had been stolen, there was no armed robbery. The three men were not thieves; one of them owned the missing bike and the others were with him in a search to recover it. Zeferino was completely innocent. Nevertheless, the cops in the shooting were not charged with any crime, nor were they disciplined. Their actions were considered tragic and perhaps a bit hasty, but not out of line with police training nor uncalled for in a situation in which they supposedly feared for their lives.
By now, you would think anyone confronted by cops with pistols aimed would very carefully follow every order given to avoid becoming another sorry statistic. Why would anyone be foolish enough to talk back and not keep hands in full view, as Zeferino did? Well, maybe it’s not that simple.
Zeferino rushed up to tell the police the other two men were not the bad guys. The first impulse many of us would have in a similar situation would be to do the same thing, to try to set things right and protect our friends. If reports of blood test results are true, an added factor was that Zeferino’s judgment may have been compromised by alcohol and meth. Pretty stupid — especially the meth — but he probably didn’t start his evening expecting to face police with edgy trigger fingers. Plus, the cops were all shouting at once, maybe confusing their message in his ears.
Police have a job that few of us would want. They operate in high-pressure situations, in which making the wrong split-second choice can cost them their lives. It is almost mandatory that they go into these confrontations assuming guilt and looking for the slightest sign that the person they have cornered has a weapon. And, of course, they profile. A white kid in a hoodie and baggy pants might get the benefit of the doubt; after all, there are no white members of the Crips or Bloods or Mara Salvatrucha or the 18th Street gang. A black or a Latino kid dressed the same way is far more likely to be treated differently because he fits a profile — even if that profile is dangerously broad and almost by definition racist.
Yet, as understandable as it is that the typical police officer’s first priority is to get home safely at the end of every shift, our police need to somehow find alternatives to the near-instant application of force that current training seems to have ingrained in police officers everywhere in the country. Most of the people they deal with may not be angels, but few are actual devils.
And, of course, it is easy for me to try to tell cops how to do their jobs. I’m not risking my life every day, as they are. That is why the rest of us need to help them out by doing the work — or paying our tax dollars and our donations for somebody else to do the work — to provide better role models, improve education, give job training and create economic opportunities in the too numerous communities at the margins of American life where most of the trouble between cops and citizens occurs.
We need to work for a day when police shootings are rare and not the stuff of our daily news.