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California Police Pay $4.7 Million in Shooting of Unarmed Men: Refuse to Release Video

The City of Gardena, California, paid $4.7 million to settle a lawsuit involving the shooting death and wounding of two unarmed men.  The case illustrates problems with the failure of police to release video evidence from officer cameras.

The settlement stems from an early morning incident on June 2, 2013.  The incident began when the bicycle of Agustin Reynoso was stolen when he went into a store at 2:00 a.m.  He informed the store’s security guard, who called 911 to report the incident and give a description of the defendants.

Reynoso’s friends Eutiquio Mendez and Jose Amado headed towards home on their respective bicycles, looking for Reynoso’s bike on the way. Not far away, they were spotlighted by a patrol car facing them with its emergency lights flashing.  They were ordered to stop.

Each complied with “their visibly empty hands in the air.”  Despite the fact their clothing did not match the dispatch description Sgt. Christopher Cuff called for backup.  Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino, 35, approached and stopped  between his two friends, put his visibly empty hands in the air, and tried to explain his friends had not stolen Reynoso’s (his brother’s), bike.

Officers Christopher Mendez, Christopher Sanderson, and Matthew Toda arrived and exited their patrol cruisers pointing their service weapons at the trio.

According to a prosecutor’s memo, dash cam video showed Diaz-Zeferino being ordered by Cuff in English and Spanish to stop advancing.  After he raised his hamds, he pounded his chest with both hands and said something inaudible.  His friends said he was trying to explain police stopped the wrong people.

When the other officers arrived, Diaz-Zefrino dropped his hands, reached into his right waistband or rear pocket, and made a tossing motion and dropped an object to the ground.  He raised his hands and repeated the move and removed something from his left rear pocket.

“You do it again, you’re going to get shot,” an officer yelled on the video, said the memo.  Diaz-Zefrino removed his baseball hat and lowered his hands.  As he raised them, the officers fired a “volley of gunfire on all three visibly unarmed and helpless innocent Plaintiffs.”  Eight bullets struck Diaz-Zefrino, another struck Mendez through the back, hitting his spine, the complaint charges.

In the wake of the incident, Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano refused to release the video. “The general public does not have an unfettered right to see every video that is taken by law enforcement,” he said.  “Thus, absent a court order to the contrary, many agencies across the country, including Gardena, do not intend to release videos to the public.”

The “Departments speak a good game talking about transparency, but the reality is far from that,” said the Plaintiffs’ attorney R. Samuel Paz.

Garcia reached a $200,000 settlement with the city of Gardena.  Following that, the remaining Plaintiffs, Mendez and Diaz-Zefrino’s estate, agreed on April 5, 2015, to accept a $4.5 million settlement.  See: Mendez v. City of Gardena, USDC, C.D. California, Case No 2:13-cv-9042.

The public, said Mendez, should have access to the video.  “They need to see what happened…we had our hands up.  We didn’t have any guns.  They just shot,” he said.  “They killed my friend for no reason.” 


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Related legal case

Mendez v. City of Gardena