LOS ANGELES (AP) — A federal judge said Monday he was inclined to rule in favor of news media companies seeking video of a fatal police shooting of an unarmed man in a Los Angeles suburb two years ago.
Public interest weighs in favor of unsealing unpleasant but not gory footage of the shooting of Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino recorded on three police car cameras, Judge Stephen V. Wilson said.
Making the videos public allows viewers to determine if the officers were justified in the shooting — as prosecutors decided — and weigh whether the city of Gardena, California, was wise to spend $4.7 million to settle a suit brought by Diaz-Zeferino's family and another man who was injured.
"To give away millions of dollars in taxpayer money and claim it was justified doesn't seem to come together," Wilson said.
A lawyer for The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg argued the public has a First Amendment right to see the video.
The hearing came at a time of heightened scrutiny in shootings by officers and amid an ongoing debate over whether footage shot on a growing number of police cameras should be made public.
Diaz-Zeferino was searching for his brother's stolen bicycle early the morning of June 2, 2013, when officers stopped him and two other friends. The unlocked bike was swiped outside a CVS pharmacy, but dispatchers erroneously relayed the crime as a robbery, raising the possibility suspects could be armed.
Diaz-Zeferino, who was drunk and had methamphetamine in his system, was shot when he wouldn't comply with orders to keep his hands down, according to an investigative review of the killing.
"As long as the video is not released, the city of Gardena will continue to spin the facts," Sonia Mercado, an attorney for Diaz-Zeferino's family, said before the hearing. "Once released, the public will see that my clients didn't do anything wrong. They were standing there with their hands up in the air."
Lawyers for Gardena said releasing the video could lead to a "rush to judgment" against those officers, and it would make law enforcement agencies reconsider using cameras that are increasingly being mounted in patrol cars and worn by cops.
While promoted by some as a tool to hold officers accountable, cameras can also help clear them in shootings and other confrontations.
In fact, the cameras that recorded the shooting supported witness accounts that Diaz-Zeferino wouldn't obey orders to stand still and keep his hands up, according to a report by the Los Angeles district attorney that determined the shooting was justified. Diaz-Zeferino was shot eight times after repeatedly reaching for his pants.
Citing the fatal shooting of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, Gardena lawyer Mildred O'Linn said releasing the video would jeopardize the officers involved in the shooting.
"Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department will never work again," she said.
Wilson countered that viewers may determine the shooting was reasonable after watching what he noted was "not one of these foggy videos" that is hard to understand.
O'Linn said the media tends to sensationalize such footage.
"That's such a broad generalization," the judge said. "People can make their own minds up."
O'Linn said the camera angle from the officer's viewpoint was "not likely to receive a lot of air time."
"That's the risk we pay for a free press," Wilson said. "Hopefully, the press as a whole is fair-minded. If not, it's not this court's concern."
Wilson said he'd rule in the next few days.
Attorneys for Gardena asked him to stay any ruling against them so they can appeal.