FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – Wrongful death and excessive force claims against two Fresno, California, police officers advance after a federal judge ruled a Latino man shot and killed by police wasn’t posing a threat or resisting arrest.
U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd’s order issued Wednesday addressed motions for summary judgment filed by Fresno Police officers Zebulon Price and Felipe Miguel Lucero and the city, in a case that stems the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man.
On Feb. 3, 2015, Freddy Centeno approached the apartment of Paola Hermosillo, knocked loudly on the door, identified himself as a federal agent, asked for a man named “George” and pulled a black object that appeared to be a gun out of his pocket.
Centeno was shirtless and wearing a pair of black gym shorts at the time.
Since Centeno had identified himself as a federal agent and asked for a man named ‘George’ in a previous encounter, Hermosillo immediately called the police.
Officers Lucero and Price were in the neighborhood responding to an unrelated incident when they got the call that a shirtless man in black gym shorts may have pulled a gun on a tenant in a nearby apartment.
They got into an unmarked car and sped to the scene, where they easily located Centeno walking in proximity to the apartment complex.
The officers jumped out of the car, identified themselves as police officers and drew their guns.
Centeno put his hand in his right pocket and withdrew what the officers thought was a gun, and later discovered was a black spray nozzle.
However, acting under the suspicion the object was a gun, they shot Centeno 8 times. The man died 23 days later.
Soon thereafter, Centeno’s parents and adult daughter filed suit against the two officers and the city of Fresno, claiming excessive force and wrongful death.
Judge Drozd cleared those claims to move forward, although whether the case goes to a jury trial remains to be seen. But Centero’s family offered enough evidence for Drozd to find that a reasonable jury might view the officer’s actions as hasty and unnecessary.
“Considering the other objective evidence before the court on summary judgment, there is clearly considerable dispute as to whether Mr. Centeno’s behavior could have been reasonably been viewed as posing a threat to the safety of the officers justifying their use of deadly force,” Drozd wrote.
Specifically, the black object was not a gun, Centeno never made a threatening gesture or verbal threats toward the officers, never got into a shooting stance and never raised his hand above his waist after reaching in his pocket, the judge noted.
“Mr. Centeno may well not have even understood defendant officers Lucero and Price to be police officers, given the undisputed evidence that they arrived in an unmarked gold-colored Nissan Altima and were not wearing traditional police uniforms,” Drozd wrote in the ruling.
The officers argued Centeno was resisting arrest, saying he turned from them after the encounter. But Drozd said turning was likely a result from the impact of multiple bullets being fired at his body.
Drozd dismissed excessive force claims against the city – leaving them intact with regard to the officers – and advanced the family’s wrongful death claims against all defendants.
The Fresno community has been rocked by multiple police shootings in recent years, including the high-profile fatal shooting of 19-year-old Dylan Noble in 2016.
The mayor of Fresno sought to quell mistrust of the police department on Wednesday, the same day as the ruling, by announcing a new police auditor and the formation of Citizens Public Safety Advisory Board, intended to provide community oversight of the police department.