Friends and family of Long Beach resident Douglas Derby were outraged last December, when two Long Beach police officers (identified today as Victor Ortiz and Jeffrey Shurtleff, veterans on the force) shot the 35-year-old dead on his doorstep. They said officers should have noted his state of confusion and backed off.
But the L.A. County District Attorney's Office apparently disagrees, ruling in the cops' favor this afternoon. “From the moment Officer Ortiz arrived on scene, he and responding officers began to form a plan to safely take Mr. Zerby into custody,” the D.A. says in its report. [Full PDF available here, or below.]
Derby was holding a water nozzle that cops have maintained they mistook for a gun. When he reportedly lifted it in Ortiz' direction, he was shot 12 times. The coroner later found Derby had 0.42 percent blood alcohol content — along with Valium and THC — in his system at the time.
The case initially sent police-brutality protesters into an uproar. Liberation News reported that a “crowd of family members, community supporters and activists grew to about 100 people” at one “Justice for Douglas” rally in January:
Police Chief Jim McDonnell admitted in a press conference that no verbal warning or command was given for Zerby to drop the object in his hands, a water hose nozzle, in the more than 15 minutes the officers were present prior to the killing. He was ambushed and it was “target practice for the Long Beach Police Department,” according to the Zerby family's attorney, Brian Claypool.
… Following the press conference, a picket line was formed, and loud militant
chants such as “LBPD you are guilty!” and “Justice for Douglas!” filled the air. Community members carried placards that read, “Justice for Douglas Zerby!” and “LBPD: Shoot first, Lie later,” as they picketed.
However, a few months later, young homeless man Kelly Thomas' fatal beating at the hands of six Fullerton officers — egregious and unwarranted, without a shadow of a doubt (with a former-cop father and loads of video evidence to drive things home) — might have re-directed some of the attention from the Long Beach shooting.
Here's what the Los Angeles D.A. was finding, in those down months:
In short: Neighbors reported a man with a handgun in the Belmont Shore neighborhood around 4:45 p.m. — so cops weren't the only ones who mistook the nozzle for a firearm. After they arrived with heavy backup, Derby appeared to start waving the object toward Ortiz, so Shurtleff reacted and fired at the heavily intoxicated man. Ortiz, hearing gunshots, reacted by firing another round of bullets at Zerby.
The Orange County D.A. was accused by the ACLU of always siding with the cops during the Kelly Thomas investigation — and seemed, upon issuing a quick and unexpectedly harsh ruling, to almost want to prove that stigma of a buddy-buddy D.A.-police relationship wrong.
In L.A., though, that still seems to be the norm — albeit over a much hazier case.