Judge Orders Release Of Dashcam Footage City Officials Thought They Had Paid To Keep Buried
from the city-calls-it-a-settlement,-treats-it-like-a-bribe dept
A federal judge has ordered the unsealing of dashcam footage depicting several Gardena (CA) police officers shooting unarmed men (one of them inadvertently). The city’s representatives fought the release of this video for several reasons, none of which appear to be the actual reason: that the video contradicts statements from the involved officers.
Here’s the video:
One of the documents the city chose to release was the District Attorney’s report on the shooting. This is where the contradictions begin. Obviously, the city thought this would be the last word in the civil suit. Statements from multiple officers all suggest the same thing: the man they intentionally shot (another caught bullet fragments to the spine during the hail of gunfire) made several “threatening” moves that left officers with no other choice but to open fire.
The 14-page report is an echo chamber. Officers, responding to a call about a bike theft, encountered three Hispanic males walking with bicycles. Having reached the unfounded conclusion that these were the suspects, they detained the men. (“Detained” being a fancy word for drew their weapons and shouted a lot.)
The report contains repeated claims by multiple officers that aren’t matched by the events depicted in the video. Officers claim Ricardo Diaz Zeferino “ran towards them” and made “furtive movements” in the general area of his waistband. While the video does show Zeferino having problems keeping his hands above his head, it doesn’t show much in the way of “furtive movements.” It definitely doesn’t show his hand “hovering” over his back pocket.
The document is a fascinating depiction of all the things that could possibly make an officer fearful — an emotion that usually results in “discharged weapons,” to use the deflective parlance of hundreds of officer-involved shooting reports: “furtive movements,” other officers “seeming scared,” right elbow “bowing out,” “losing sight” of a hand, “big swinging motion” of Diaz’s right hand, “manipulating something on the right side of his body,” and so on. How a motion can simultaneously be “furtive” and “big and swinging” is beyond me, but then again, I rarely have to explain why I’ve shot an unarmed person.
Beyond that, there’s additional claims made to buttress the righteous shoot. Diaz had a “maniacal grin.” Diaz’s movements became “faster and more deliberate.” An officer expresses his disbelief that Diaz would ignore an order to keep his hands up, believing such disregard for authority to be indicative of Diaz’s intent to kill. Another officer states he believes Diaz was “testing [the officers’] limits” and “closing the ground” between them.
Considering the official background of the shooting, it’s hardly surprising the city spent several months fighting to keep this video from reaching the public. Now that it has been made public, the police department has gone into damage-control mode. At best, its efforts are inept.
Police have said the shooting was justified and that the dash cam videos from the squad cars don’t tell the whole story. An attorney for the city said this week that one of the videos “looks bad” but that it was not taken from the perspective of officers.
I have no doubt that if the video were more exonerating, the city would have never a) fought the release or b) claimed the video “didn’t tell the whole story.” And the claim that a dashcam video is somehow not a police officer’s “perspective” is completely laughable.
Even more laughable is one of the city’s arguments in favor of keeping the video sealed. It basically told the judge that the high-dollar settlement was offered in part to buy silence and secrecy.
The Court’s rationale for sealing the subject videos was the parties’ stipulated protective order—entered against the backdrop of stalled litigation. However, the parties cannot contractually agree to deprive the public of its strong First Amendment interest in accessing these videos, which were filed in connection with a dispositive motion. Defendants assert that the videos should remain sealed because they agreed to settle the case for $4.7 million—an amount above their liability insurance policy—specifically because they expected the protective order to continue and the videos to remain secret.
The court is unimpressed by the city’s “Hey, we paid good money to make this go away” argument:
However, Defendants’ argument backfires here—the fact that they spent the city’s money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public’s interest in seeing the videos. 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. The only valid privacy interest in this case belongs to the Plaintiffs, who have made abundantly clear that they wish the videos to be made available to the public.
Moreover, while the videos are potentially upsetting and disturbing because of the events they depict, they are not overly gory or graphic in a way that would make them a vehicle for improper purposes.
Reason’s Ed Krayewski points out that this is exactly why so many cities offer to settle cases like this so quickly.
Generally such settlements include no admission of guilt by the city—the cops involved usually keep their job, and the settlement money always comes from taxpayers, not from police officers, their unions, or their pension funds. Settlements effectively end discussions on police brutality because many people view them as victories even though they come without admissions of guilt and with the punitive bill being picked up by taxpayers, not cops.
But it didn’t work here. The city paid out and still has to deal with the repercussions of its officers’ actions. It has already filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court. And it has received the most useless of temporary restraining orders in response:
After The Times published the videos online, 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski issued an order that “the police car camera video footage shall remain under seal pending further order of this court.”
And, as long as we’re talking about transparency, let’s discuss the other parties involved in this case. “Interested media organizations” — including the Associated Press, the LA Times and Bloomberg News — all filed motions in support of the video’s release. And while all were more than happy to post the video as soon as it was released, not a single one of them could be bothered to post the court order that gave them access to this footage. Once again, media outlets continue to pretend public court records are somehow proprietary information. Articles quote from the order, but apparently the $1.30 they paid to download it from PACER (if these outlets paid anything at all) entitles them to interpret public documents on our behalf, rather than allow us to read them for ourselves.