Though officials in Gardena, California, have been fighting for two years to keep video of Gardena police fatally shooting an unarmed man hidden from the public, a judge ruled Wednesday to release the footage, which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Gardena attorneys argued that when the city settled the lawsuit over the shooting for $4.7 million, it was under the impression that the videos would remain sealed. But U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson said that the size of the settlement itself is actually an argument for why the public should see the videos, and he ruled against them.
The videos were captured by cameras mounted inside of two patrol cars, and they show three men who were mistakenly suspected of stealing a bike, according to the LA Times. The men are standing in the street under police lights, while officers point their weapons at the men and yell at them to put their hands up, according to the video. Two of the men stood motionless, but Ricardo Diaz Zeferino seemed to be confused by the officers' instructions. He waved his arms up and down and stepped backward and forward. Then, when he removes his baseball cap from his head, officers standing off to the side fire repeatedly. Diaz Zeferino, who was 35, collapsed to the ground, and so did one of his friends, who was wounded.
According to court documents, the stolen bicycle actually belonged to Diaz Zeferino's brother, who had been trying to find it that day. Witnesses said Diaz Zeferino was trying to tell police that they had stopped the wrong men when he removed his hat and was shot by police, according to the Associated Press. The lawsuit against the city, which was settled, alleged that police shot Diaz Zeferino eight times "and that he laid on the street, crying out in Spanish 'Hasta aqui llegue' or 'This is the end of me,'" according to MyNewsLA.com.
The LA Times, the Associated Press, and Bloomberg challenged a protective order that prevented the release of the videos and other evidence in the case. Judge Wilson's reason for granting their challenge was very well put, according to the LA Times:
(The) defendants' argument backfires here — the fact that they spent the city's money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public's interest in seeing the videos. Moreover, while the videos are potentially upsetting and disturbing because of the events they depict, they are not overly gory or graphic in a way that would make them a vehicle for improper purposes.
After Wilson ordered the videos be released, the city filed an emergency motion with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The LA Times received the videos from court officials, released them online, and then 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski issued an order that the footage remain under seal "pending further order of this court,” according to the LA Times.
AP spokesman Paul Colford said the news organization "believes it's important that the public has access to videos like this to better understand the actions of their police officers." This ideology makes sense given the increased publicity surrounding police shootings of unarmed people across the U.S. in the last year.
The district attorney's office declined to file charges against the three police officers who opened fire: Christopher Mendez, Christopher Sanderson, and Matthew Toda, according to the LA Times. Deputy Dist. Atty. Rosa Alarcon wrote in a memo about the shooting that Diaz Zeferino’s right hand wasn't visible from where the officers’ were standing, so it was reasonable for them to think he was going to reach for a weapon, according to the LA Times. There is no information specifying whether the three officers faced any other disciplinary action.
Diaz Zeferino's lawyers said the investigation into the shooting was slanted toward the defense because officers could review the videos before giving their statements. The same courtesy was not offered to a member of the public involved in a shooting. Samuel Paz, one of Diaz Zeferino's attorneys, told the AP that he may ask federal prosecutors to investigate the shooting as a civil rights violation:
I think it is really helpful for the public to understand why they would be willing to pay $4.7 million to settle the case when we were on the eve of trial. When the public sees the video and other law enforcement agencies see the video, this is very much a criminal act.
Images: Los Angeles Times/YouTube; Getty Images (2)