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Fresno Family Brings Suit Over Police Killing

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Attorneys for the family of a man killed by Fresno police last year released a video they say shows the unjustified shooting of an unarmed man - but the police chief insists the raw footage shows the officers reasonably feared for their safety.

Police shot Freddy Centeno seven times at or about 11 a.m. on Sept. 3 in Fresno. Centeno, 40, was in a coma for 23 days before he died, on Sept. 26.

Centeno's family sued the city and its police Officers Felipe Lucero and Zebulon Price last week in Superior Court. They claim the shooting was a result of the officers' "unsafe and negligent pre-shooting tactics as well as their careless, wrongful and excessive use of force under the circumstances that they encountered at the time of the shooting."

The family's attorneys, Humberto Guizar and Cristobal Galindo, released a video from one of the officers' body cams that shows the shooting.

The graphic video shows the two police officers get out of their car, identify themselves, and yell for Centeno to get on the ground. They then fire nine shots, seven of which hit Centeno. The time between the officers getting out of the car and firing their weapons appears to be only a couple of seconds.

Galindo told reporters that Centeno did not have the opportunity to put his hands up and do what the officers asked him to do.

"They shot him immediately, not allowing him to do what they said," he said.

The attorneys say that Centeno was mentally ill and the officers had no justification for shooting him.

"Our ultimate goal is to change the policy of the way police officers confront an individual and approach that individual and ask them to be restrained," Galindo said.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer responded that the video shown by the family had been brightened and distorts what happened. He released the raw footage and walked reporters through the incident step by step.

Dyer said the officers were responding to a 911 call in which a woman said she had been threatened by a shirtless man who's claimed he was a federal agent and showed her a black handgun.

The responding officers saw Centeno without a shirt on, Dyer said. The officers saw Centeno reach into his shorts pocket, grab a black object, pull it out and slightly raise his hands, the police chief said, while pointing out the events in a slow-motion version of the video.

Dyer said the black object "clearly appears to be a handgun" and that Centeno began "to raise it and that's when the officers feared for their lives and fired their weapons."

"I have watched this video a minimum of 25 times, both in my office and on a large screen, and each and every time I've watched this video, whether in real time or frame-by-frame, I believed he was armed with a handgun," Dyer said.

"Officer Lucero and Officer Price did not have the luxury of sitting in my office or watching it on a big screen. They made a split-second decision based on what their immediate observations were at that time and with the facts that had been given to them at that time based on the 911 call. They believed Freddy Centeno was armed with a handgun in his shorts pocket and that he had pulled that handgun out and was about ready to shoot." Though the black object turned out to be a black garden hose nozzle, Dyer said, the officers had reason to believe it was a gun.

The police department's internal affairs investigation and an investigation by the city's Office of Independent Review concluded that the officers who shot Centeno had a reasonable fear for their safety.

The city's review, written by Auditor Richard Rasmussen, states that the "nozzle not only greatly resembled a weapon, but the manner in which C [Centeno] produced it was clearly with intent to make the officers think he was drawing a weapon."

Rasmussen concluded that "the officers acted reasonably based upon what they knew at the time."

Centeno's family seeks compensatory and punitive damages for wrongful death, unreasonable search and seizure, excessive force, due process violations and municipal liability for unconstitutional custom, practice or policy.

The Guardian newspaper, of England, which has extensively covered U.S. police killings, reported on Tuesday that as many as one-third to one-half of the people killed by U.S. police have disabilities .

The Guardian article attributes the statistic to a newly released report from the Ruderman Family Foundation.

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