By: C. Harold Pierce
[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ear a splotchy patch of bloodstained grass outside a row of apartments, Leticia Villa watched her son Robert lay dying. Tustin police were on the scene after responding to a 911 call that came from their family’s home. Robert Villa, a former Santa Ana College student, was holding a knife outside Casa Cortez Apartments, officers said. Four shots rang out, all striking Robert’s body. Witnesses said he was unarmed.
“I want to know who killed my son, because it was more than one police officer. I want to hear this man’s excuse for why he took my son’s life away. I have to live on this planet for the rest of my life, knowing that your Tustin police executed my son,” Leticia Villa said through tears at a crowded city council meeting.
Villa’s death is one of about 40 officer-involved shootings reviewed by the Orange County District Attorney’s office since 2010. He is the second Rancho Santiago Community College District student to be gunned down in as many years, according to reports filed by the OCDA.
Julian Collender, an unarmed Santiago Canyon College student, was shot in Yorba Linda in 2010.
In Orange County, 25 of the 38 officer-involved shootings resulted in fatalities, according to DA reports. Among those, five of those victims were unarmed. Five others had replica firearms, including air soft rifles and BB guns. Officers shot and killed six out of seven suspects armed with knives, a number that does not include Robert Villa, whose death remains under investigation.
Over the past four years in Los Angeles County, 170 officer-involved shootings resulting in fatalities occurred. San Diego County reported 45 and Riverside County has so far reviewed 111 cases.
Based on el Don’s examination of OCDA records, when officers in Orange County open fire, the suspects are unarmed about 40 percent of the time.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation does not keep national records for officer-involved shootings. Such records are only available through the District Attorney’s office of each individual county.
In 2012 convicted gang member Manuel Diaz was fatally gunned down in Anaheim while police chased him on foot. He was unarmed. Activists set fire to dumpsters, rolled them into traffic and protested at city council meetings. Diaz was the city’s fourth officer-involved-shooting death that year and the first of two fatal shootings in two days. His family has filed a civil suit and is in the trial process awaiting resolution.
At least 60 activists from victims-rights groups marched to Tustin City Hall Feb. 18 demanding answers about Robert Villa’s death. Many concerned citizens say that the number of police shootings statewide is more than coincidence.
“This is more of an issue than people think. When you connect the dots, it’s an epidemic,” said Damion Ramirez, whose friend Michael Nida was gunned down in 2011 by Downey police in a case of mistaken identity. “The changes that can prevent this are possible, but people need to demand those changes. The system is set up to protect these officers.”
When an officer kills in the line of duty, it is considered a homicide under investigation until it is cleared by the District Attorney. To convict an officer of criminal charges, it must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt that no legal justifications existed for the officer’s actions,” according to OCDA’s investigation letters. Potential charges against an officer involved in a shooting may include murder, attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and assault.
The Orange County District Attorney has never convicted an officer in a police-involved-shooting, said OCDA spokesperson Farrah Emami.
“If there is no criminal intent, then officers are not violating the law. If the DA cannot prove those things without a reasonable doubt, then you do not have a criminal matter. But you may and often do have a civil matter,” said Andrew Gonis, SAC’s Criminal Justice Department co-chair.
Robert Villa’s family filed a government claim for excessive use of force, violation of civil rights and negligence against the officer who shot Robert, said Humberto Guizar, the family’s attorney. Government claims are a prerequisite for a lawsuit.
[quote]“We have to prove our case in civil court because historically in the OC, the DA rubber stamps these types of cases. It’s one of the hardest places to win because people are pro-police,” said Guizar, who also represents Diaz.[/quote]
In Collender’s case, Shawn Neel, the detective who shot him outside Collender’s home with an H&K G36 assault rifle was cleared of all charges because the DA’s report concluded that he acted in self-defense. Collender was suspected of robbing three people at gunpoint for an iPhone and Oxycontin, a schedule II controlled substance, hours before he was shot. When Collender was confronted by the officer, he reached toward his pocket. Neel fired. Collender was reaching for the stolen iPhone. Neel had reason to believe he was armed, the report concluded.
When engaging a suspect, officers do not have to progress from the minimum amount of force before resorting to potentially lethal force.
“You can go from the minimum to maximum if that’s what the officer objectively and reasonably believes is necessary,” Gonis said.
The Collender’s family filed a civil suit against the Brea Police Department in 2011.
Wrongful death lawsuits rarely go to trial, Gonis said.
Ashley MacDonald, an 18-year-old Huntington Beach resident was fatally shot by officers 15 times in 2009 when she was found wandering in a park with a bloody knife.
The city settled with MacDonald’s family for $125,000.
Many activists say that lethal force should not have been the first option against Robert Villa since he was armed with a knife. Officers are equipped with less-than-lethal weapons, including Tasers, pepper spray, beanbag rounds and batons.
But there is no department standard for use of lethal force against a suspect armed with a knife, Gonis said.
“We don’t put officers in positions where we give them all these specific rules because in the real world, it doesn’t work,” Gonis said. “Officers have seconds to make those calls, and if they make the wrong call, then they’ll be assaulted. Mistakes are very high and they don’t have much room or margin for error.”
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