LOS ANGELES (CN) — The family of a Latino teenager who was shot 19 times have cast doubt on the account of two Los Angeles police officers who say the 16-year-old pointed a sawed-off shotgun at them before they opened fire.
The way the police tell it, two officers approached a Honda parked in an East L.A. driveway when the driver’s door opened. Sixteen-year-old Jose Mendez emerged and pointed a sawed-off shotgun at one officer. They responded with multiple rounds and the teen was pronounced dead at the scene on Feb. 6, 2016.
Five days later, the LAPD issued a news release under the headline: “Car Theft Suspect Points Sawed-Off Shotgun at Hollenbeck Patrol Officer; Officers Shoot the Armed Juvenile Before He Fires a Loaded 20-Gauge Shotgun.”
The LAPD said its preliminary investigation indicated that Mendez had threatened the officers and suggested, pending further investigation, that the shooting was justified.
But on Wednesday, Juan Mendez and Josefina Mendez called their son’s death a “cowardly,” “cold-blooded” and “absolutely unjustified” killing by police.
The Mendezes say in a federal lawsuit that Officers Josue Merida and Jeremy Wagner shot their son repeatedly, leaving him with 19 gunshot wounds, and that the shotgun was found “concealed” under the front passenger seat.
“Without justification or cause, defendants Officer Josue Merida and Officer Jeremy Wagner shot and killed Jose as Jose attempted to exit a vehicle in compliance with the officers’ orders,” according to the Jan. 11 lawsuit. “This cold-blooded shooting was absolutely unjustified and it is plaintiffs’ goal to show that the cowardly killing of Jose was a senseless and unwarranted act of police abuse.”
LAPD spokesman Sal Ramirez said he could not comment on pending litigation.
Mendez’s attorney Arnoldo Casillas said the family has obtained surveillance video that shows the officers “rushed in blindly” and failed to follow police protocols that could have prevented Mendez’s death.
Casillas’ Long Beach-based firm released two black and white surveillance clips Tuesday to back up the family’s claims.
Though shot from a distance, in the first clip it appears that an officer bolted from his squad car seconds after Mendez entered the driveway. In the second clip, officers appear to be dragging someone or something down the sidewalk.
Casillas said the family wants to review the officers' body camera footage to get a full picture of what happened.
“The family truly wants the information to come forward. They truly want to vindicate their son and what they want to do is to bring all of the facts of this case to light, hopefully with the result being that the federal government, the U.S. Attorney's Office, will prosecute them or do a very serious investigation,” Casillas said in an interview.
Casillas was not specific when asked what evidence shows the shotgun was beneath the passenger seat. He said the assertion was based on a “reasonable conclusion about the facts of the evidence”, but conceded, when pressed, that it “may” have been found there.
Mendez’s parents say their son was going through “troubling times;” he was small in stature, weighing 115 pounds and standing a little over 5 feet tall.
Casillas described Mendez as a “kid” who liked to play soccer and had a taste for hamburgers.
His mother and father say he “appeared to be a child” and posed no threat on the night he pulled the car into a driveway on East Sixth Street after officers had seen him driving the stolen vehicle on Lorena Street in Boyle Heights.
They say Merida and Wagner violated LAPD policies and procedures when they cut into Mendez’s seatbelt and then dragged him 30 feet away from the Honda.
The L.A. County Medical Examiner-Coroner found gunshot wounds on Mendez’s face, back, chest and legs. The officers had cut him from his seatbelt and dragged him down the sidewalk, according to the autopsy report.
The Mendezes say both defendant officers have been involved in other on-duty shootings.
“Defendants Los Angeles and the LAPD were long aware of the propensity of their police officers, including defendants Merida and Wagner, to callously and recklessly use excessive force against members of the public, particularly targeting minority groups, and to engage in deceitful misconduct,” the lawsuit states.
Five days after the shooting, the LAPD said that based on a “preliminary, ongoing investigation” it appeared that Mendez had threatened the officers with the shotgun. The LAPD said that after the officers shot Mendez they immediately called for medical treatment, but Los Angeles Fire Department paramedics could not revive him.
The LAPD specialized Force Investigation Division investigated the shooting. The Board of Police Commission concluded on Tuesday that the shooting was within department policy, Casillas said, prompting the family to file suit.
The parents seek punitive damages for wrongful death, excessive force, municipal liability, assault and battery, and civil rights violations. Named as defendants are the two officers, the city and the LAPD.
Officer-involved shootings have been the focus of chaotic meetings at the Police Commission’s downtown headquarters. Black Lives Matter activists frequently disrupt meetings as they try to hold LAPD Chief Charlie Beck to account for several high-profile shootings. Last year the commission said that it would take a close look at its use of force policies to address officer-involved shootings.
The Mendezes’ lawsuit cites eight instances where officers used excessive force against people, some of whom were unarmed when they died in police custody. The list includes the high-profile shooting of Brendon Glenn in Venice in May 2015.
In that case, Chief Beck said the shooting was unjustified and recommended charges against Officer Clifford Proctor. But in five other cases cited in the complaint, the commission found that the use of force was justified by department policy.