The Los Angeles police officers who shot 16-year-old José Mendez in Boyle Heights a year ago did not activate the body cameras they were wearing until after the shooting was over, according to a report by Chief Charlie Beck released earlier this month. Now the attorney representing the Mendez family in a federal lawsuit against the department says he will add Beck as a defendant, for what he alleges is a failure to implement the self-monitoring technology.
Police say Mendez was driving a car that had been reported stolen and that officers opened fire on him after he pointed a sawed-off shotgun at one of them during a traffic stop. Both Chief Beck’s report and the report of the L.A. Board of Police Commissioners were released on Jan. 10 and found that the officers’ were in reasonable fear of their lives and that the use of lethal force was justified.
The lawsuit challenges LAPD’s account of the shooting — including whether Mendez could have pointed a weapon at the officers and why officers moved his body from the scene. An autopsy report stated that police cut Mendez out of his seatbelt after they shot him; the attorney representing the Mendez family says it would have been difficult for the teen to point a shotgun at the officers with his seatbelt on.
And a surveillance camera on a nearby apartment building, which the family discovered, captured the two officers dragging Mendez’s motionless body by the shoulders down East Sixth Street and placing him face-down on the sidewalk, about 30 feet from the driveway where the shooting occurred. Experts say it is unusual to move a body from the scene of such a shooting.
According to Beck's report to the police commission, the commander of the Hollenbeck division filed a personnel complaint to address the reason for the officers' delay in activating the body cameras. The report states that one of the officers had completed his 90-day training period on proper use of the body cameras, while the other was still in the grace period at the time.
The attorney for the Mendez family, Arnoldo Casillas, calls the absence of body-camera footage "a blatant example of officers refusing to participate in self-monitoring activities."
José Mendez's father says the news about the body cameras has left him deeply disappointed.
“This is a huge blow for me,” Juan Mendez says. “The community demanded these cameras, and the government spent money on them. But they don’t work because the police don’t comply. It shows me there is total impunity for the police.”
Police shot José Mendez about a year after the city approved a $57.6 million program to equip more than 7,000 LAPD officers with body cameras. Supporters tout the body cameras as an advance toward greater transparency for the LAPD. But the ACLU of Southern California has opposed the department’s policy of not publicly releasing body-camera footage in most cases without a court order, and of allowing officers to review the footage before writing their reports or giving statements to internal investigators.
Casillas alleges “a culture against self-monitoring” in LAPD and says the amended lawsuit will hold Beck liable for “deliberate indifference.”
“The police department has a custom and practice of failing to implement technology that they’re purchasing to monitor police activities,” Casillas says.
The officers — identified in the lawsuit as Josue Merida and Jeremy Wagner — fired at Mendez 13 times, according to Beck's report to the commission. The autopsy report on Mendez by the county medical examiner’s office documented a total of 19 gunshot wounds on the body. Craig Harvey, a spokesman for the medical examiner’s office, told the L.A. Weekly that bullets can enter and exit the body more than once if the person being shot turns or moves during the shooting.
The Police Commission report stated that the police car had a camera mounted inside and that it appeared to show Mendez attempting to step out of the vehicle. The report does not state whether the camera filmed the shooting, though it refers to audio of officers giving commands for Mendez not to move and to show them his hands.
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Juan Mendez says he was initially prepared to accept LAPD's account of his son's death — until he and his wife, Josefina, went to the scene a day after the shooting and discovered the surveillance camera.
“The longer we press for information," he says, "the more suspicion I have and my family has that my son was innocent of pointing a gun like they claim.”