City Appeals Release of Police Shooting Video

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – The city of Gardena has appealed a federal court’s order to release two-year-old videos depicting events leading up to a fatal police shooting of an unarmed Gardena man.
     U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson indicated in court on Monday that First Amendment protections dissolve the city’s objections, telling lawyers on both sides that he was “inclined” to release the footage.
     His order, filed Tuesday, said the public has a right to see video taken by Gardena police’s dash cameras.
     The judge wrote that the “law here is clear” despite the political fallout in the wake of the police shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Eric Garner in New York.
     “This issue arises against a backdrop of tension and heightened scrutiny in the wake of several widely publicized and controversial uses of force by the police,” Wilson wrote. “There is currently an intense public debate about police officers’ use of force and public oversight thereof. The court is sensitive to the valid concerns raised by both sides of this debate. Nevertheless, it is not the function of the judiciary to decide political issues.”
     Wilson granted a motion by Bloomberg, Los Angeles Times Communications, and The Associated Press to unseal the footage after they intervened in the case with the support of the parents of the man shot by police, Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino.
     The city immediately filed a notice of appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
     In the early hours of June, 2, 2013, city of Gardena police shot and killed Diaz-Zeferino, 35, after responding to a call that a bicycle had been stolen from a nearby CVS pharmacy and observing two men riding down a street on bicycles.
     Diaz-Zeferino approached the officers on foot and attempted to explain that his brother had reported the bicycle stolen and the two men were not the thieves but his friends, the parents claimed in a 2013 complaint for violation of civil rights, excessive force, false arrest and false imprisonment, and denial of medical care.
     Diaz-Zeferino’s mother and father’s lawsuit claimed that police had shot their son nine times and that he had “laid on the street pavement, still alive and in agonizing pain” crying in Spanish, “Hasta aqui llegué” (“This is the end of me”).
     The police claimed that the officer was justified because Diaz-Zeferino was acting erratically and was reaching into his waistband, despite a command to place his hands in the air. An autopsy report revealed that he had alcohol and methamphetamine in his system.
     The parties settled the case for a reported $4.7 million.
     Gardena argued it had settled the case believing the footage would remain under wraps.
     Wilson said that that argument backfired because Los Angeles citizens had a right to see events that led to a $4.7 million settlement “presumably derived from taxes.”
     “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,” Wilson wrote in a 13-page order. “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.”
     Wilson was not convinced by city’s argument that the graphic content of the videos should prevent their release.
     “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,” Wilson wrote.
     Three police unions had filed supporting briefs arguing that a decision to release the footage “could impact the debate over police use of body worn cameras,” Wilson noted.
     “Nevertheless, this is a political issue not relevant to the legal considerations here at play,” he wrote.
     The court also denied the city’s request to impose a short stay on the order during the appeal.

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