Attorneys for the family of an unarmed man shot and killed by police called on the U.S. Department of Justice Wednesday to investigate the Gardena Police Department, claiming the agency failed to conduct proper internal investigations into officer-involved shootings in the city.
Sonia Mercado, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney, said the Justice Department should create a unit within its civil rights division to “investigate police killings in the nation” and the first case should be a probe of the Gardena force.
“There is an inherent conflict of interest in our nation,’ Mercado said. “The district attorney cannot investigate police officers they work with every day of the week.’
The call for a federal investigation came one day after a judge ordered the release of previously sealed police dash-cam videos showing the death of Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, who was gunned down June 2, 2013, after Gardena officers responded to a call that a bicycle had been stolen from a nearby pharmacy and noticed two men on bikes they took to be suspects.
“There’s nothing about this video that should be under seal,” Mercado said. “It’s part of a homicide investigation, and in this country, we investigate homicides in a transparent manner. This should not be treated any differently from any other homicide.”
The footage was released by U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson following arguments by The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg that the videos should be unsealed under a First Amendment right to access court documents.
“The public can be the judge of what really happened that night,” Mercado said.
The attorney urged the DOJ to conduct a probe of the Gardena police department, which she said had declined to investigate the Diaz Zeferino shooting.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles said the office was “reviewing the matter, but at this time there is no federal investigation into the incident.”
Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano said the agency has “proactively contacted the Department of Justice and informed them we would welcome their inquiry and fully cooperate with any investigation.”
The Los Angeles County District Attorney declined to charge the officers involved in the shooting.
“What we have seen is the individual police departments really have a tough time investigating themselves — it’s a conflict of interest,” Mercado said. “District attorneys around the country depend on information from the individual police departments. What we’re asking is for the DOJ to investigate this matter and look into Gardena’s way of handling a police shooting.”
Police have no problem releasing videos that “show they acted properly,” the attorney said, but “the public has a right to know how a police (department) is conducting its business at all times.”
The 35-year-old Diaz Zeferino “was a good brother, a human being, with a face, and we must not forget that’s what this is about,” Mercado said.
The city of Gardena recently settled a civil rights lawsuit filed by Diaz Zeferino’s family and Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez, who was shot and survived, for $4.7 million.
Gardena police maintained the shooting was justified because Diaz Zeferino was acting erratically and reached into his waistband despite a command to raise his hands.
“The events that night in 2013 were tragic for all involved,” Medrano said. “We continue to sympathize with the families and regret their loss.”
Medrano said the department has “thoroughly reviewed our response and have initiated new training, including the tactical use of cover techniques to slow down fast-moving events” and would soon equip all Gardena officers with body-worn cameras.
Prior to the shooting, Diaz Zeferino approached the officers and attempted to explain that his brother had reported the bicycle stolen and that the two men on bikes were not thieves but his friends, according to the complaint.
The family’s lawsuit alleged that police shot the victim eight times and that he laid on the street, crying out in Spanish “Hasta aqui llegue” or “This is the end of me.”
After Wilson’s ruling to release the footage, Judge Alex Kozinski issued an emergency stay of the order until the matter could be heard by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.
However, the Los Angeles Times had already obtained the videos from the district court and posted them on its website within minutes of Wilson’s decision, prior to Kozinski’s.
Gardena will continue its appeal “because we are concerned about the broader implications of this decision,” Medrano said.
“As our lawyers expressed in court, we have serious privacy concerns as it relates to the release of police videos in general,” he said. “We worry about the implications of this decision and its impact on victims and average citizens who are recorded by the police.”
—City News Service
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