Santa Maria, CA — California cops offered a typical bumbling explanation after video showed them execute a suicidal man holding a knife to his own throat: The man ‘lunged’ at them.
But bystander cellphone video shows something else, entirely: Several Santa Maria police officers cower behind a patrol car, training their weapons on the man, when — following a half hour of failed negotiations — they abruptly open fire, hitting him multiple times as he falls to the ground.
Javier Garcia Gaona, according to family members quoted by local station KSBY days after the July 20 shooting, did not struggle with mental illness.
“He never had problems with anyone,” said brother Armando Garcia. “We were always together and I never saw him offend other people. Plus, he has always lived with my dad; he was never out there on the streets like people say.”
A friend echoed denial of possible psychological issues, saying Gaona had been upset about money he was owed.
“He was just very upset that he didn’t get the money that he needed,” explained friend Adan Partida, who spoke with Gaona shortly before the shooting, according to the Santa Maria Sun.
Santa Maria police had employed the ‘lunging’ narrative until the bystander’s video surfaced online, and though the moment immediately prior to cops opening fire is slightly obscured in the footage, witnesses can be overheard immediately calling the shooting an act of murder.
“You guys are a bunch of assholes! You tell me you can’t get the guy without shooting him?! Murderers! You guys are a bunch of murderers!” an enraged man screams at the police from across the street, repeatedly.
Though KSBY claimed to also have footage of the shooting, according to Photography Is Not A Crime, the station opted not to broadcast the video due to its graphic content. James Jepsen, the man whose cellphone video circulated online, first gave the footage to journalist Oscar Flores, who then posted it to Facebook.
Last week, police attempted to assuage public ire over the fatal shooting by insisting it didn’t qualify as yet another act of lethal force by police in America.
“Some people will try and make this a national issue, it isn’t,” asserted Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin last Tuesday. “What we had was probably a mentally ill person that was reaching out. It usually ends where we can take and get them help. It just didn’t work out that way in this case.
“We have to put it in perspective. The force was graduated. We went from a negotiation with a negotiator that was trained by the FBI, we attempted to use less-than-lethal [force options]. One was the bean bag rounds and the other was the 40 millimeter projectiles. Sometimes the less-than-lethal doesn’t work.”
Onlookers and others have questioned why police didn’t choose to taser Gaona, or continue to try other less-than-lethal options after such a brief period of negotiations. However, Martin defended their choice anyway.
“They say, ‘Why didn’t you taser him?’ Tasers are effective within about 15 feet. They are usually effective about 50 percent of the time,” Martin said. “You can deploy a Taser, but you’d have to get very close to a person. That is something we don’t allow if the person is armed.”
However, as video appears to show, officers might have been within the range Martin describes, where tasering Gaona could have at least been attempted — especially considering a patrol car stood as an obstacle between officers and whatever ‘lunging’ the man did.
“When a police officer or a peace officer perceives a deadly threat, they are trained and continually trained to shoot for center mass,” Martin continued. “The TV stuff about shooting a gun out of somebody’s hand, trying to shoot somebody in the leg while they are running at you with a gun, might sound good in theory, but it just isn’t going to work.”
Members of Gaona’s family remain baffled by the sudden turn of events — both by Gaona, as well as law enforcement’s response to the situation.
“Whenever I would be sad, he would make jokes or start dancing out of nowhere,” recalled Javier’s younger sister, Janet Garcia. “He would buy me toys, like dolls, when I was younger. He would buy me clothes. He would give me money sometimes.”
No matter how adamantly Chief Martin might wish this use of lethal force not to be a ‘national issue,’ the fact is, every fatal shooting, every choice to employ physical force — whether brutal, fatal, or otherwise — illustrates the epidemic of police violence in America. These incidents can’t necessarily be separated for individual consideration distinct from other acts of force because other nations simply don’t have the same issue.
Separate investigations are now being conducted by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s office.