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Judge Says Video of Deadly California Police Shooting Should Be Released

A federal judge ordered the release of a video that shows the fatal shooting of a man in Gardena, California, in 2013, but it was appealed.
IMAGE: Gardena police shooting
In this June 2, 2013, frame from Gardena Police Department dash-cam video, officers aim their guns at Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino, right, and two friends while investigating a bicycle theft in Gardena, Calif. Moments later police fatally shot Diaz-Zeferino. Gardena Police Department / AP

A federal judge on Tuesday ordered a California city to release police video that shows officers fatally shooting an unarmed man in 2013 after police mistook him and others for robbery suspects.

The decision against Gardena, a city south of Los Angeles, was appealed and a higher court late Tuesday issued a stay on the order until arguments can be heard.

The video shows Gardena police fatally shooting Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino, who was out looking for his brother’s stolen bicycle with two others early on June 2, 2013, when the three men were detained by police responding to the call of the theft, which was reported to officers as a robbery, authorities said.

The video was published by the Los Angeles Times after the district judge ordered the release but before the appeals judge stayed the order. The Times and other media organizations asked the judge to unseal the videos.

The video shows a man taking off his hat and lowering his hands before being shot. The district attorney’s office said officers couldn’t see one of Diaz-Zeferino’s hands and were afraid he was reaching for a weapon. Another man was shot and wounded.

The judge’s ruling comes as more police departments equip their officers with body cameras, and as questions remain over what videos should be made public. Gardena also paid $4.7 million in civil settlements over the shooting.

"The fact that they spent the city’s money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public’s interest in seeing the videos," U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson wrote in the order unsealing the videos.

Gardena police were called at around 2 a.m. that morning after a bike belonging to Diaz-Zeferino’s brother was stolen, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office said.

Diaz-Zeferino and two other men went looking for the bike, and officers stopped those two men believing they were the suspects, the district attorney’s office said. Police said Diaz-Zeferino approached them and was upset, and he was shot after refusing orders in English and Spanish to keep his hands up.

Diaz-Zeferino's blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit at the time of his death, and tests came back positive for methamphetamine, according to autopsy records contained in the district attorney's office report of the shooting.

Sonia Mercado, a civil rights attorney in Culver City who represented the Diaz-Zeferino estate and others in the civil lawsuit, called Tuesday’s ruling a victory for transparency in government.

"The reason the video is important is to show this human being had his hands up, and was merely trying to explain to the officers that his two friends were not bike thieves," Mercado said.

Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano said Tuesday that "the events that night in 2013 were tragic for all involved.” The department will soon equip all officers with body cameras — but Medrano said "we have serious privacy concerns as it relates to the release of police videos in general."

"The criminal, civil and administrative cases are closed and our position is that everybody who needed to see the videos has had the opportunity to do so," Medrano said of the videos released Tuesday.

Diaz-Zeferino's family wanted the videos released, Mercado said.

"I think it’s important for Americans to see what really went on," she said. "My clients were not lying when they said they had their hands up."