Modesto, CA — Over the years, the Free Thought Project has reported on police officers shooting people for holding toys, pencils, screwdrivers, food, and even nothing. However, we've never seen a cop shoot a person wielding a junior high yearbook — until now. Though the following incident unfolded in October 2014, video of Jesse Montelongo, 35, getting shot for underhand tossing a book has been kept secret until now.
The newly released video is part of a lawsuit between Montelongo and the Modesto Police Department because after Montelongo underhand tossed the book, officer Dave Wallace tried to kill him. He fired a single shot into Montelongo's abdomen, which has since caused and will continue to cause Montelongo a lifetime of suffering.
"It took us a while to get this video and reveal to the public because the defendants didn’t want it to be seen by the public," said Montelongo's attorney DeWitt Marcellus Lacy. "As a matter of fact they had marked this confidential and attorneys only we believe inappropriately."
According to the police department, they responded to Montelongo's home that night over a domestic dispute. Montelongo was reportedly in a heated argument with his mother and intoxicated. When officer Wallace showed up to the scene, he had his gun drawn.
As the body camera shows, Montelongo is standing in the doorway to his home holding an object on his side. That object was the book. He then tosses the book — underhanded — in Wallace's direction and turns to go back inside. This would be a near-fatal mistake. Wallace then fires as Montelongo retreats, hitting him once in the abdomen, through his back.
"Shots fired — he threw something at me. He wouldn't show me his hands. Threw his object at me," Wallace is heard saying in the video.
Attorneys for Montelongo are claiming that Wallace's use of force was excessive that night, especially considering the fact that their client was unarmed and walking away when the officer fired.
"Jesse was shot even though he was unarmed and clearly did not pose an immediate threat to the officer," Lacy said.
Naturally, police dispute this claim and say that Montelongo posed an imminent threat to the officer's safety and Wallace had no other option but to try to kill the unarmed man for tossing a book because he "suddenly lunged."
"Detective Wallace's actions were consistent with his training and Modesto Police Department policy to try to avoid a lethal threat (by ducking or moving) while simultaneously neutralizing the threat (including with the use of force), which is exactly what Detective Wallace did," said Modesto Police officials in a statement.
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California recently defined when cops can use deadly force and it is unclear if these new standards will apply to Wallace's shooting of Montelongo.
As ABC 10 reports:
New California law, which went into effect at the start of the year, defines when police can use lethal force. Assembly Bill 392 allows police to use lethal force only when necessary to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious injury to officers or bystanders.
Because the shooting happened in 2014, it's unclear whether Montelongo's action of throwing a book would have been considered enough to justify the law's threshold for use of force.
Adding to the irresponsible nature of the shooting is the fact that just behind Montelongo, inside the home, there were multiple small children in the officer's line of fire.
"One has to think and remember there were small children right behind this front door where officer Wallace shot into," Lacy said. "And it was a traumatizing event."
Montelongo filed the lawsuit in 2015 and police subsequently denied the release the body camera footage for five years. The department claimed — likely falsely, according to the attorney — that the video was part of an investigation. This is in spite of the fact that Wallace retired from the department in 2018.
"I can only believe it was because they had a vested interest in keeping this video private," Lacy said. "They have tried everything they could to stall and prevent the disclosure of the video to plaintiffs and to the public, including attempting to unnecessarily mark this video as confidential, pursuant to a protective order."
According toe ABC 10, Lacy stated that records indicate that Officer Wallace had previously been shot at twice in the line of duty before he shot Montelongo and this may have played a factor in why he was so quick to use deadly force.
“Modesto Police really needs to make a better consideration of officers’ readiness to return to duty,” Lacy said. “Had the officer received the psychological help he may have needed following the earlier incidents, Jesse Montelongo might not have been shot, and his family not traumatized by their experience with a law enforcement officer who concluded that a yearbook presented a deadly threat."
Indeed, as you watch the video of the book tossing below, remember the other officers on which TFTP has reported who have diffused far more dangerous situations with no violence at all.