Videos: Calif. officers found justified in 3 separate officer-involved shootings

The DA released police footage to help bridge transparency in the community

By Pauline Repard
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis on Friday released video of three San Diego police officer-involved shootings, a reversal of her previous declarations that all such footage would be treated as evidence to be seen only in court.

“The position represents a major departure from historical practices, but we recognize the times have changed,” Dumanis said in a news briefing at her offices. “... This is really new territory.”

She said the legal rights of all the parties involved must be protected and balanced against the public’s desire to view such video.

“However, we know we live in a world where all kinds of video evidence is becoming more and more prevalent, as everybody uses their iPhones and androids and tablets, and they can go viral in minutes,” Dumanis said.

In the three review letters released Friday, all officers were found justified in shooting men they knew or believed were armed. One controversial fatal encounter in the Gaslamp District last fall involved two officers who fired repeatedly at a man who raised a gun in their direction twice, including after he was wounded. His gun turned out to be a fake.

Dumanis said she will release video, if it exists, from every officer-involved shooting unless the officer is to be charged with a crime. Then, she said, the video will be withheld until it is produced in a courtroom.

Such prosecutions have been rare – only six in the hundreds of shootings in the county since 1980. Prosecutors apply a legal standard that a shooting is legally justified if a reasonable officer in similar circumstances would have fired in self-defense or the defense of others. In most local cases, the officer was shot at, attacked with a lethal weapon, or believed the suspect was armed with a lethal weapon.

Dumanis said she came to her policy change in handling shooting videos after hearing from local law enforcement, citizen advisory groups and the media. Townhall-style meetings will be held to gather more input from residents, now that the first test cases have been released. Then, Dumanis said, her office will work to draft a written policy on releasing videos that takes the public perspective into account.

Leaders of all the local law enforcement agencies in the county, including San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, agree that pertinent video of officer-involved shootings should be released whenever possible, Dumanis said.

Zimmerman has said repeatedly over the past years, as more of her officers were outfitted with body-worn cameras, that she would not release their footage to the media or the general public. She expressed concerns that such videos would be viewed out of context, that the sheer volume of footage recorded each day would be too cumbersome to prepare for release, and that privacy rights could be violated.

On Friday, Zimmerman released a statement saying she supports the new protocol and that “having our public’s trust is essential to maintaining the safety of all of our communities.”

Members of the American Civil Liberties Union office in San Diego met with Dumanis during the video policy talks. Christie Hill, senior policy strategist for the ALCU locally, said the group supports the direction Dumanis is taking.

“It’s important that the information is released and it’s available to the public,” Hill said. “The public wants this information ... There is a call to more transparency.”

Hill said she agrees with Dumanis’ plans to edit the videos to blur the faces of those who are shot, and witnesses in the background. The officers’ faces also will be blurred. Dumanis also said the videos will be stopped at the point shooting stops, so officers’ further actions, such as approaching the wounded person, will not be shown.

The ALCU looks forward to seeing and responding to the District Attorney’s written policy once it is completed, Hill said.

Some other departments across the nation have released police camera footage showing officer actions ranging from gunning down a man who was running away to dancing or lip-syncing to popular tunes. Several officer-involved shootings of black men have sparked riots and raised calls call for reforms, spurring authorities to release video that showed the officers’ actions in better light.

A Washington post study last October found that among the 49 fatal shootings by police across the country since January that year that were captured on officer body cameras, the footage was released in only 21 cases.

Washington, D.C., is working to grant wide public access to police body camera videos. In many cities, Forth Worth, Texas; Sarasota, Fla.; to Baltimore, Md., police body camera footage is subject to the states’ public information laws. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the policy allows for a copy of a police body camera recording to only be released in response to a valid court order or by approval of the police chief.

In San Diego, an officer-involved fatal shooting in April last year led to a public demand for the release of security camera footage showing the encounter. After getting a judge’s permission, Dumanis in December released video showing San Diego police Officer Neal Browder driving into an alley in the Midway District and firing at Fridoon Rawshan Nehad, who was walking toward the officer.

Dumanis said she was doing so to give the community a more complete picture of what had happened. Several people near an adult book store reported to police that a man was threatening people with a knife. Browder said he saw a shiny object in Nehad’s hand and Nehad ignored orders to drop the item and to halt. Police said he was later found to not have a knife.

Here are summaries of three shooting reviews released on Friday, and videos of the incidents released by the District Attorney:

  • The fatal shooting of Lamontez Jones, 39, in the Gaslamp Quarter on Oct. 20. It raised public concerns because some witnesses said officers fired a second volley at him after he was down. Videos shot from cellphones at two locations, and from a security camera showed Jones aim a pistol at motorcycle Officer Scott Thompson, who fired at him and wounded him. Jones fell to the street, then raised up a little and lifted the gun again. Thompson and Officer Gregory Lindstrom then shot him repeatedly.
  • They did not turn on their body-worn cameras. Zimmerman has defended that oversight, saying events moved too quickly. Jones’ mother has filed a claim of wrongful death against the officers, the city, and the San Diego Police Department.
  • The fatal shooting of Dennis Richard Fiel, 34, on May 17, 2015. Fiel, suspected in a series of shootings, led police on a pursuit in Serra Mesa. He ditched his car, ran into some bushes and pulled a handgun from a backpack. He and officers Joshua Hodge and Mario Larrea exchanged gunfire. One body-worn camera showed the officer’s extended arm holding a gun and picked up his voice yelling for Fiel to get on the ground, then gunshots. Officer Heather Seddon was wounded in the neck by one of the officers’ rounds or a richochet.
  • The non-fatal shooting of Michael John Taylor, 28, on March 12, 2014. Members of the San Diego Regional Fugitive Task Force followed him into a Ramada Inn parking lot in Point Loma. He was in a stolen car and video from an elevated surveillance camera showed him back into a U.S. Marshal’s deputy’s car, then hit police Officer Brian Sanchez’ car. Sanchez walked in front of Taylor’s vehicle and Taylor pulled forward, hitting Sanchez. Sanchez fired four rounds into the windshield, wounding Taylor.
  • Dumanis said she plans to release reviews of officers shootings, and related videos, on a more timely basis than has been done in the past year. She said there are about 11 cases with completed reviews, and those will be released a few a time in coming months.
  • Her office provided a tally of officer-involved shootings across the county that showed 17 in 2013, 12 in 2014 and 19 in 2015.

Copyright 2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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