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Police dashcams captured the final moments of 34-year-old Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, who was fatally shot by Los Angeles officers in the city of Gardena in 2013, but the videos were kept from the public until a federal judge ordered its release on Tuesday, ruling that the material is of public interest.
Gardena immediately appealed US District Judge Stephen Wilson's decision and was soon granted a stay on the order by a higher court pending arguments, but the videos are already circulating online. The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and Bloomberg had challenged the protection of the videos.
In June 2013, Diaz Zeferino was looking for his brother's stolen bicycle with two friends. Police officers investigating the theft mistook Diaz Zeferino's friends as the thieves, and he attempted to clear up the confusion after they were detained.
The videos show the three unarmed men with their hands up, illuminated by the flashing lights of the cop car. Police approach the men, guns drawn. A green laser beam focuses on Diaz Zeferino, who stands in the middle of the three men. He raises and lowers his arms a number of times, as though trying to explain something, and then removes his cap and lowers his hands. Shots from the officers follow, killing Diaz Zeferino and injuring one of the other men, who has since recovered.
The officers involved in the shooting — Christopher Cuff, Christopher Mendez, Christopher Sanderson, and Matthew Fong Toda — were not charged, and were permitted to return to their duties in full capacity just one month after the shooting. The LA district attorney's office determined that the shooting was justified because the officers believed that Diaz Zeferino was reaching for a weapon.
Earlier this year, the city of Gardena settled a lawsuit filed against it by Diaz Zeferino's family for $4.7 million. Because the incident cost the city such a hefty sum, the family's attorney Samuel Paz — who calls the shooting "cold-blooded" — has argued that the footage is a matter of public interest under California law.
"The fact that they spent the city's money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public's interest in seeing the video," said Judge Wilson in his ruling. "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."
Gardena had argued that the release of the footage would lead to a "rush to judgment" of the officer's actions.
The videos have been released to a public whose sensitivity to incidents of police brutality has been heightened in the aftermath of highly publicized officer-involved killings over the last year, including those of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, that have sparked a national outcry over heavy-handed police tactics in America.
"These shootings happen, and they go into silence mode," Paz told VICE News. "Comments from the officers are sealed. Evidence is sealed."
"We live in America," he added. "Our officers' conduct shouldn't be secret. This is about civil rights."