BRIAN MELLEY, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Police car camera footage ordered released by a federal judge show a California man disobeying orders to keep his hands up, but with his palms open by his waist when he was fatally shot by officers two years ago.
Police in a Los Angeles suburb fought aggressively to the keep the videos under wraps, but a federal judge unsealed them Tuesday after news media organizations, including The Associated Press, argued the public had a right to see the footage.
The videos shot from two angles provide different perspectives on the last seconds of Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino’s life as he raises and lowers his hands three times and crumples to the street from a hail of gunfire from Gardena officers.
Judge Stephen V. Wilson said the public had a right to see what led the city of Gardena to pay $4.7 million to settle a lawsuit with Diaz-Zeferino’s family and another man wounded in the shooting that followed a botched report of a bicycle theft early June 2, 2013.
“The fact that they spent the city’s money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public’s interest in seeing the videos,” Wilson wrote in a 13-page decision. “Moreover, defendants cannot assert a valid compelling interest in sealing the videos to cover up any wrongdoing on their part or to shield themselves from embarrassment.”
Against a backdrop of intense public scrutiny of police shootings nationwide, a lawyer for AP, the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg argued the videos should be unsealed under a First Amendment right to access court documents.
“The Associated Press, joining with other news organizations, believes it’s important that the public has access to videos like this to better understand the actions of their police officers,” spokesman Paul Colford said.
The ruling comes amid public debates over what footage should be made public as police officers and cruisers are increasingly equipped with cameras to capture evidence that can be used against criminals or to hold officers accountable for their own behavior.
Michael Overing, a lawyer and journalism professor at the University of Southern California, said that in addition to being cited in future court arguments, the ruling could help provide guidance as lawmakers grapple with those issues.
“Right now video is being suppressed,” Overing said. “This is going to help open the floodgates so the public can see it … and see if actions are justified.”
Gardena was joined by police chiefs and officer groups around the state in arguing that making such videos public would dissuade cities from employing the technology.
Wilson said that was a political consideration and not for him to judge.
A lawyer for Gardena and its police argued that releasing the footage would create a “rush to judgment” about the officers’ behavior, but Wilson dismissed that idea during arguments Monday. The judge said the public may see the videos and conclude the shooting was justified, which is what prosecutors decided.
Footage shows the final moments of the encounter as an officer yells, “Get your hands up.”
Diaz-Zeferino and two other men stand with their backs to a sidewalk and arms in the air.
Diaz-Zeferino, who was drunk, then lowered his hands and slowly took about five small steps toward police. He spread his arms out with palms open as if to plead with them. Told to put them back up, he complied, then removed his ball cap and lowered his hands as shots were fired.
Footage shot in front of him shows his palms open and facing upward. Footage from a second camera behind two of the officers to the side of Diaz-Zeferino show his right hand briefly swing out of view at his waist as they fire.
The officers said they feared he was reaching for a weapon.
What the videos don’t show is that he wasn’t armed, and witnesses said Zeferino was trying to tell police they had the wrong men.
The stolen bike belonged to his brother. He and the two other men were friends looking for it.
The unlocked bike was swiped outside a CVS pharmacy. Police dispatchers erroneously reported it as a robbery and made it a high-priority call, raising the specter of armed suspects.
Lawyers for Diaz-Zeferino said the investigation into the shooting was tainted because officers were able to review the videos before giving statements, a courtesy not offered to a member of the public involved in a shooting.
Attorney Samuel Paz said he may ask federal prosecutors to investigate whether the shooting was a civil rights violation.
“When the public sees the video and other law enforcement agencies see the video, this is very much a criminal act,” Paz said.
Although the order was stayed by a federal appeals court late in the day, it came hours after the court had released what Wilson said were videos “potentially upsetting and disturbing because of the events they depict,” but “not overly gory or graphic.”
Diaz-Zeferino crumpled to the ground after the gunfire. Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez, who was shot once and injured, toppled to the street and lay still.
Two minutes later, police handcuffed a bloody and limp Diaz-Zeferino. Nine minutes after he was shot, paramedics arrived.
Associated Press writer Amanda Lee Myers contributed to this story.
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