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California woman fatally shot by police was victim of 'shocking' excessive force, lawyer says

Tracy Gaeta was killed after a K-9 officer in Stockton fired more than 30 shots into her car Feb. 22.

Lawyers for the family of a California grandmother fatally shot by authorities accused police of excessive force Wednesday, saying that even though she backed her car into a law enforcement vehicle, she was unarmed and never threatened officers.

Tracy Gaeta, 54, died after a K-9 officer in Stockton fired more than 30 shots into her car Feb. 22, according to body camera video released April 7.

A lawyer for the family, Gary Gwilliam, said that the officer acted against policies adopted by many departments that bar or discourage police from firing at moving vehicles.

“No matter what was going on with her — even if she had committed a heinous crime — he didn’t have the right to shoot her,” he said in an interview. “She never threatened him.”

Tracy Gaeta.
Tracy Gaeta.

“The excessive force is shocking,” he added.

In a statement, Angelina Austin, a lawyer with Gwilliam's firm, added: "Like too many Black women across this country, Tracy Gaeta is yet another victim of preventable police violence."

In a video statement released last week, the police department said the incident began after Gaeta — who was initially identified as a Black male — was captured in surveillance video striking a police SUV that was stopped at a red light.

After fleeing, she was later spotted and pursued by the K-9 officer, Kyle Ribera, the department said.

Gaeta stopped on a dead end road and backed into Ribera's car, causing him to hit his head, the department said.

According to the body camera video, Ribera then fired 18 shots into Gaeta's car.

Her vehicle's reverse lights remained on, and Ribera fired several more shots. After changing his service weapon's clip, Ribera yelled for the driver to raise their hands, according to the video.

Gaeta began driving, pulling forward several feet, then reversing away from Ribera. He opened fire again, shooting more than a dozen times, according to the video.

Gaeta was taken to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead, the department said.

According to a policy adopted by the Stockton Police Department in 2019, officers are “generally” prohibited from firing at fleeing vehicles. 

It wasn’t immediately clear if the policy is current, but it says a decision to fire at a moving vehicle must be based on the “most compelling circumstances.” Officers are required to avoid putting themselves in situations where they have to use a gun to protect themselves, the policy states.

A Stockton police officer shouts, "hands up" as the car driven by Tracy Gaeta backs up into his car.
A Stockton police officer shouts, "hands up" as the car driven by Tracy Gaeta backs up into his car.Stockton Police Department

A message sent to a number listed under Ribera's name did not receive a response Wednesday night. The Stockton police union also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After the shooting, Ribera was placed on 3-day paid administrative leave before returning to work, Stockton Police Department spokesman Joe Silva said.

Silva declined to comment on Gwilliam's claims but said a multi-agency review was underway. That review will end with a decision by the local district attorney's office on whether Ribera should face criminal charges.

"Whenever there is a loss of life, it is a tragedy for the community and all those involved." he said. "Due to pending litigation, we cannot discuss this matter any further."

Gaeta's family has not filed a lawsuit and does not have immediate plans to do so, Gwilliam said, adding that they are "mainly interested in why she was killed and what the circumstances were."

He said it's unclear why Gaeta ran into the police vehicle or fled the stop. She lived in Sacramento, roughly 50 miles north of Stockton, and her relatives weren't sure what she was doing there.

Gaeta has no history of serious mental illness, Gwilliam said, or a criminal record. He added that she was depressed from a recent breakup.

In a statement released by Gwilliam’s office, Gaeta's daughter, Tressie, recalled her as a "loving, caring grandmother" and the "life of the party."

"My children and I are going to miss her tremendously," she said. "I hope that we can find justice because she did not deserve to die like that."