The city of Gardena (a suburb of Los Angeles) really, really didn’t want the public to see a police video of officers gunning down two unarmed men in June 2013, killing one of them. They argued in court that a $4.7-million settlement with one victim and the family of another was supposed to put an end to the dispute over the video’s release, but a federal judge thought otherwise.
U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson responded to a lawsuit brought by the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and Bloomberg News and unsealed two videos Tuesday taken from cameras mounted on police cars at the scene. The judge denied a plea from Gardena to stay his order until they could appeal the decision, but the city asked for, and received, and emergency order from U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Alex Kozinski to reseal the videos.
But by then, the Times had received a copy of the videos from the court and posted it online under a headline, “This Is the Video Gardena Police Didn't Want You to See.”
The two videos, shot from different dashcam angles and spliced together, show police with weapons drawn at night screaming at three men to raise their hands. Only a few seconds go by as one of the men, Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, lowers his hands, then raises them a few times. He then takes his baseball cap from his head and begins to lower his arms again when gunshots ring out and two men fall to the ground.
Diaz Zeferino, 35, died and Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez was wounded. An autopsy report revealed that the dead man had alcohol and methamphetamine in his system.
Diaz Zeferino reportedly had been out looking for his brother’s stolen bicycle when he saw police stop two men on bicycles and question them about the theft. He energetically told the police that they were friends of the theft victim and were helping find the bike. In the ensuing dialogue, things got out of hand.
Courthouse News Service said Judge Wilson indicated Monday in court he was inclined to release the footage. Gardena expressed concern about a sensitive “political climate” following a raft of recent high-profile police shootings and argued the videos’ release would discourage use of police body cameras.
The city also called the videos too gruesome for public consumption and said it had agreed to the settlement, in part, to take the issue of their release off the table.
Judge Wilson said there were more important issues. “There are overwhelming public-policy interests here. The public has a right to know,” he said. The judge also turned the city’s argument about the settlement on its head, saying that the public essentially paid $4.7 million to have a look at the tapes.
On Tuesday, he delivered his order to unseal them and the scramble was officially on.