Dashcam videos that police in Los Angeles tried to keep secret – showing the final moments of Ricardo Diaz Zeferino and his fatal shooting by officers – have finally become public under a judge’s order that followed prolonged legal wrangling.
Police are shown with guns drawn approaching Diaz Zeferino and two other men standing by a pavement. The officers order them to raise their hands. They comply.
Diaz Zeferino then lowers and raises his hands several times and removes his cap, apparently confused. Three officers open fire, killing him with eight bullets. They also wounded one of the other men.
The videos, both from dashcams and showing different angles, suggest the 34-year-old posed no immediate threat. An attorney for the family called it a cold-blooded killing of an unarmed man.
It was only on Tuesday, more than two years after the fatal encounter, that the videos were released. US District Judge Stephen Wilson said there was a public interest in seeing the material and that records should be kept under seal in federal court only in extreme cases.
“The fact that [the authorities] 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.”
The city of Gardena had paid $4.7m to settle a civil rights lawsuit with the dead man’s family and Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez, the other man wounded in the shooting, but blocked release of the videos.
On Tuesday, Gardena immediately filed a notice of appeal with the 9th US circuit court of appeals, which hours later issued a stay suspending the release of the videos. But they remained available online.
Lawyers for the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg had lobbied for their release, citing a first amendment right to access court documents, in the wake of intense public scrutiny of police shootings nationwide.
“We applaud the court’s decision to unseal the video,” said AP spokesman Paul Colford before the stay. “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.”
Diaz Zeferino had been out in Gardena, a suburb of Los Angeles, on the early morning of 2 June 2013 seeking his brother’s stolen bicycle.
Police investigating a bicycle theft from outside a CVS drugstore stopped two men riding bicycles east on Redondo Beach Boulevard, according to the LA Times, citing a district attorney’s memo written by a prosecutor who reviewed the police videos.
The men were friends of the bike theft victim and were searching for the missing bicycle. Mistaking them for the thieves, Sergeant Christopher Cuff ordered them to put their hands up. Diaz Zeferino ran up and intervened on behalf of his friends, shouting at Cuff he had the wrong men.
Cuff yelled back in English and Spanish for him to step back, said the memo. Diaz Zeferino raised his hands, pounded his chest with both hands and reached to his waistband, said the memo. Two more police cars arrived and three officers emerged with guns drawn.
Diaz Zeferino 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, the officers opened fire, the memo said.
An autopsy found he had methamphetamine and high levels of alcohol in his system.
The Los Angeles county district attorney decided the shooting was justified and did not charge the officers. Lawyers for the officers said they could not see one of Diaz Zeferino’s hands and believed he was going to reach for a weapon.
The city of Gardena said it resisted releasing the videos because they would create a “rush to judgment” about the officers’ actions. Police chiefs and officer groups around California supported the city, saying making such videos public would deter police from using such technology.
Lawyers for Diaz Zeferino said the investigation into the shooting was tainted because officers were able to review the videos before giving statements. They said the recordings showed that officers opened fire even though it was clear the men were unarmed.
Attorney Samuel Paz said they may ask federal prosecutors to investigate whether the shooting was a civil rights violation.
“I think it is really helpful for the public to understand why they would be willing to pay $4.7m to settle the case when we were on the eve of trial,” Paz told the Associated Press. “When the public sees the video and other law enforcement agencies see the video, this is very much a criminal act.”