A shocking video showing three police officers gun down an unarmed 34-year-old man two years ago has been made public after a federal judge ordered its release.
The officers said they opened fire on Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino because he lowered his hands to his waist and they thought he was reaching for a gun. Officers Christopher Mendez, Christopher Sanderson and Matthew Toda were not charged in the June 2, 2013, shooting, but the city of Gardena settled a $4.7 million lawsuit with Diaz-Zeferino’s family and another man who was wounded.
“The videos show the cold-blooded shooting of clearly unarmed men,” Samuel Paz, an attorney who fought for the release of the video told the Los Angeles Times.
The officers were back on full duty within a month of the shooting and were not disciplined.
On Tuesday, a federal judge sided with the Los Angeles, Times, the Associated Press, Bloomberg, and the victims, ordering the videos be unsealed. The videos were posted online by the LA Times after the order.
“The fact that they spent the city’s money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public’s interest in seeing the videos,” Judge Stephen V. Wilson said in his 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.”
Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano said in a statement, “The events that night in 2013 were tragic for all involved. We continue to sympathize with the families and regret their loss. We have thoroughly reviewed our response and have initiated new training, including the tactical use of cover techniques to slow down fast-moving events; we will also soon equip all our police officers with body-worn cameras.”
Here’s what you need to know about Diaz-Zeferino and the shooting:
1. Diaz-Zeferino Was Helping to Look for His Brother’s Stolen Bicycle & the Officers Mistook Him for a Suspect
The incident began when a bicycle belonging to Augustine Reynoso, Diaz-Zeferino’s brother, was stolen from a CVS pharmacy at about 2 a.m., the District Attorney’s office said in a report posted by the Los Angeles Times.
Police were looking for two male Hispanic suspects. Diaz-Zeferino and two friends, Eutiquio Acevedo and Jose Garcia, met Reynoso at CVS and began looking for the bike. Acevedo and Garcia were on bicycles when they were stopped by police. Diaz-Zeferino was on foot and joined them. The officers detained the trio and ordered them to put their hands up.
Diaz-Zeferino’s friends say that he was trying to explain to them that they were not the thieves, and that the police had the wrong men. The men had been drinking prior to the shooting and were angry about the bike being stolen, according to the investigator’s report.
Reynoso told investigators that his brother understood English, but the other two men did not. The family’s attorney said the officers gave the men confusing directions.
2. Incorrect Info Given to the Officers by a 911 Dispatcher ‘Significantly Escalated the Seriousness of the Crime’ They Were Responding To
The officers were mistakenly told by their dispatcher that the bike was stolen in a robbery, which includes theft by force and/or involving weapons, according to the Torrance Daily Breeze.
“The mind-set of the officers is very important here,” Gardena Police Lieutenant Steve Prendergast told the Daily Breeze in 2013. “What the officer knew when he was driving there was what the dispatcher was telling him.”
The 911 caller, a security guard at CVS, had told the 911 dispatcher that he didn’t think the suspects had weapons. The dispatcher said “unknown weapons,” to the officers, meaning they didn’t know if the suspects had weapons or not.
Greg Meyer, a retired LAPD captain and Richard Marks, a retired LAPD detective, provided an “independent review” of the shooting for the District Attorney’s office, said the 911 dispatchers “significantly escalated the seriousness of the crime being reported from the petty theft of unattended property to a violent felony, i.e. robbery. The supervisor and the officers in the field were dependent upon the accuracy of the broadcast information until in a position to determine otherwise.”
Read a partial transcript of the 911 call below:
The officers responded quickly to the scene because it was a “three-tone call,” which meant that it was a “high priority call requiring immediate assistance.” Officer Christopher Mendez told investigators the “3-beeper” call meant that someone’s safety was concerned.
Sergeant Christopher Cuff, who did not fire any shots but was the first officer to detain the men, told investigators that when Diaz-Zeferino approached, he thought he was being “ambushed,” by a third suspect.
Cuff said Diaz-Zeferino “seemed to agitate the two detainees,” and “was making furtive movements, reaching in and around his pockets and waistband. Cuff said the suspect was “reaching in areas where a weapon could be concealed,” which “heightened” his “level of fear.”
Another officer, Christopher Sanderson, later said that in radio calls made by Cuff he sounded “stressed” over the radio for the first time in the six years they had worked together. Mendez told investigators that Cuff seemed “scared.” Officer Matthew Toda said Cuff is a “calm, cool, collected guy,” and does not get stressed, but sounded “shakier, and stressed,” in a way Toda had never heard before.
3. He Cried ‘This Is the End of Me’ After Being Shot 8 Times
In the videos, officers can be seen approaching the three men with their gun drawn as they stand on the sidewalk over two bicycles. The men have their hands raised. Diaz-Zeferino steps in front of the other two men and briefly drops his hands below his waist as the officers yell at him. He raises his hands back above his head and then removes his hat, dropping his hands back down to his sides.
The officers then begin firing at Diaz-Zeferino several times.
Another angle shows Diaz-Zeferino talking to the officers. He appears to be motioning to them as one of the officers yells “get your hands up!”
Diaz-Zeferino and a man standing behind him can be seen being struck by the bullets and then dropping to the sidewalk.
According to court documents, Diaz-Zeferino cried out, “hasta acqui llegué,” which is a Spanish idiom that means “this is the end of me.”
After the shooting, Acevedo and Garcia, Diaz-Zeferino’s friends, were “wrongfully arrested,” their attorneys say. Acevedo suffered a gunshot wound to his side and was taken to the hospital.
The attorney for Diaz-Zeferino’s family says in court documents that he was not given proper medical treatment and his body was left in the street for seven hours.
An autopsy showed that Diaz-Zeferino was shot eight times, the Daily Breeze reported.
He was shot in the upper back twice near his left shoulder blade, and in the arm, hip and knee.
Officer Christopher Sanderson fired five times, Officer Matthew Toda and Officer Christopher Mendez both fired four times. The fourth officer, Sergeant Christopher Cuff, did not fire because he said he was not in proper position to do so until after the suspect was already down.
4. The District Attorney Found the Shooting to be Lawful & No Criminal Charges Were Filed
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office found that the “officers acted in lawful self-defense and defense of others,” according to a report posted by the Los Angeles Times in May 2015.
Investigators determined that Diaz-Zeferino, “failed to comply with repeated orders to keep his hands up. (Diaz-Zeferino) reached into his pockets and waistband area.”
Acevedo, whose hands were in the air the entire time, was also shot, but there was also no wrongdoing found as a result of that.
The video was initially shocking even to the investigators in the case. According to a deposition in the civil suit, Detective Jeffrey Leslie, who investigated the shooting for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said his first reaction after watching it was “holy s**t.”
But he had a different reaction after watching it a second time, saying, “I had them play it back again. I watched it again. And then it hit me, whatever they perceived, they perceived at the same time, because it wasn’t contagious fire. It almost sounded like two gunshots rather than six gunshots. So that kind of eased my mind a little bit. I saw the other video from a different angle, and it did show some movement or more movement.”
The District Attorney’s office said in its final report:
The evidence examined shows that the dispatch call put the officers on high alert as it was broadcast as a high priority robbery of a person. Although Acevedo and Garcia were not in fact involved in the purported robbery, Cuff had reason to believe that they were the robbery suspects when he observed them on the street since they fit the general description of the suspects, it was after 2:00 a.m., they were on bicycles and they were travelling in the direction where the suspects were last seen.
Upon lawfully detaining Acevedo and Garcia, Cuff did not know whether they were armed or the circumstances of the robbery. Neither Acevedo nor Garcia were fully complying with his commands. Meanwhile, (Diaz-Zeferino) came running towards them, despite numerous commands to stop, and placed himself in between the two detainees. Diaz showed a complete disregard for Cuff’s authority and a lack of fear. Thus, it was reasonable for Cuff to believe that Diaz was involved in the robbery and that he may be attacked. …
When Mendez, Toda and Sanderson arrived, they encountered an unusual situation. There were three suspects and they were not complying despite Cuff’s repeated commands. As the officers exited their vehicles, they saw Diaz reach into his right side waistband but withheld their fire and gave him additional commands. After Diaz reached into his left pocket and continued to advance towards Cuff, dropping his hands once again after being told he would be shot if he did so, the officers responded with deadly force in reasonable fear for their lives and Cuff’s life.
The DA also found that the video corroborated the officers’ reports.
“…it is reasonable to believe that he officers lost sight of Diaz’s right hand and believed he was going to reach for a weapon. They made a split second decision and they were not required to hold fire in order to ascertain whether Diaz would, in fact, injure or kill them.”
But Paz, the attorney for the family, said the investigation was tainted because the officers were able to view the video before giving statements.
“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.”
After the settlement and the district attorney’s decision, the city fought the release of the video, and says it will continue to do so, even though the footage has been released, because of concerns officials have about the “broader implications” of the judge’s ruling.
Chief Ed Medrano said in a statement:
As our lawyers expressed in court, we have serious privacy concerns as it relates to the release of police videos in general. Imagine the implications of criminals seeing and hearing everything victims and witnesses tell police officers, or victims being subjected to having their interactions with police broadcast on the news or posted on the Internet. Our police officers are entrusted with sensitive and extremely personal information and we often come in contact with people under tragic situations and at there worst. We worry about the implications of this decision and it’s impact on victims and average citizens who are recorded by the police.
Medrano added that “the criminal, civil and administrative cases are closed and our position is that everybody who needed to see the videos has had the opportunity to do so.”
5. Diaz-Zeferino & His Friends Worked as Cooks at a Local Restaurants
Diaz-Zeferino and his friends all worked at local Asian restaurants, the Daily Breeze reported in 2013.
“Saturday night, (Diaz-Zeferino) and another worker left the restaurant when their shifts ended and went to a nearby bar, Amigos,” Chang Moon, who worked with the victim, told the newspaper. “It was pay day.”
The shooting happened after the men left the bar and Diaz-Zeferino’s brother’s bike was stolen.
“It happened over a bike that’s maybe worth $200. They didn’t have to shoot him,” Moon told the Daily Breeze.