We’ve covered our share of controversial police shootings of suspects that were technically unarmed. In most instances, the suspects shot conceivably posed a threat to officers, either because they appeared to be going for a weapon, or because they were in a position to overwhelm the officer and take their gun (Michael Brown is a perfect example of the later, as he was shot attacking Officer Darren Wilson a second time).
Now we have yet another incident where the attitudes, perspective, and biases of the viewer will go a long way towards determining whether you think this was a justified or unjustified shooting… and yet, it appears (from my perspective) that we have both a “good shoot” and a “bad shoot” based upon the physical position of the three officers involved.
The Los Angeles Times provides the background leading up to the shooting:
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.
There is no doubt at all that Diaz Zeferino’s refusal to listen to police demands was the key aggravating factor in this incident. If he had simply complied with the lawful commands of the officers, the three Gardena police officers on the scene would have quickly figured out that they’d stopped the wrong guys, and everyone would have walked away from this situation, and all six men could resume looking for the bicycle theif.
But Diaz Zeferino didn’t listen. He could have easily be shot twice before reaching into his pockets after being told to put his hands up, which no doubt raised the tension for the officer’s to an incredible degree. Diaz Zeferino created this tipping point scenario through his own belligerent and non-compliant behavior.
It’s almost ironic that officers opened fire when they did, with his right hand empty and his left hand holding a hat, but let’s be very clear that Diaz Zeferino created the situation when he dipped his hands toward is waist and brought his hands up a third time.
The other officers experienced the phenomenon known as sympathetic fire, which is well known and understood and very difficult (if to impossible) to train to prevent, because it is human nature and a kissing cousin to the startle response. Three officers had their fingers on the triggers of their pistols, with reason, as Diaz Zeferino kept reaching into his pockets. One of the officers took one of his repeated dangerous actions for a threat and opened fire, and the other officers, figuring that the officer who fired saw a threat they missed, opened fire as well.
If Diaz Zeferino was the only one of the three men standing there who was hit, then I’d likely consider this a “good shoot” from the legal perspective, if an utterly preventable tragedy caused by Diaz Zeferino.
But that isn’t the entire story.
Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez was one of the two other men stopped by Gardena police. You can see him in the white shirt in the screen capture above as officers opened fire on Diaz Zeferino in the black tee shirt.
Note the officer on the right side of the dashcam video, in the process of firing on Diaz Zeferino. Note his position in relation to the three men. Note that he has all three suspects—two of whom were completely compliant—in his line of fire.
This is negligence, ladies and gentlemen.
Perhaps the officer developed tunnel vision focusing on Diaz Zeferino, but it is his responsibility and his duty to be aware of others downrange of his target, which Acevedo Mendez clearly was. It was his responsibly to move to a different position where he could aim at Diaz Zeferino without putting the compliant suspects at risk of being shot, or to withhold his fire.
Acevedo Mendez was shot by one of the officers, most likely the officer in the screen capture above. The bullet that struck him fragmented and fragments are still embedded near his spine.
Gardena settled a civil rights case into the incident for an undisclosed sum of money.
The results of the internal investigation into the shooting will not be publicly disclosed.