SAN JOSE — Off limits to the public for more than five years, body camera footage of a fatal encounter between a pair of San Jose State police officers and a man carrying a blade was released late Friday under California’s new police transparency law .
Senate Bill 1421 requires agencies to make public all records about shootings and certain other uses of force, as well as disciplinary records about officers who commit sexual assault and dishonesty-related offenses.
In addition to the roughly 18-minute video, SJSU released more than 400 pages of documents related to the Feb. 1, 2014, shooting of 38-year-old Antonio Guzman Lopez.
The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office did not release the footage after clearing the officers in May 2015, citing a policy of keeping evidence in uncharged cases sealed. However, out of “empathy and respect” for the family, prosecutors at the time allowed a handful of citizens to view the video, including an attorney for Lopez’s partner, Laurie Valdez, and two family advocates: local NAACP chapter president the Rev. Jethroe “Jeff” Moore and Asian Law Alliance executive director Richard Konda.
One side saw a lawful police shooting of a man, holding a blade, closing in on an officer, while the other saw an execution of a man, holding a tool, just trying to walk away.
“The findings speak for themselves,” the university said in a statement after prosecutors cleared the officers.
Konda disagreed, telling this news organization in an interview at the time, “I did not see Antonio make any aggressive move in the video. I think charges should be filed in this case.”
Now, with the release of the footage, the public will have its turn to consider what happened.
According to a report produced by the District Attorney’s Office, Lopez was shot twice during a confrontation with Sgt. Mike Santos and Officer Frits van der Hoek after someone called 911 to report a man resembling Lopez walking through campus, acting erratically “with some sort of knife … stabbing the air and doing a bunch of crazy stuff.”
The two officers spotted Lopez as he walked off campus to the block south of Eighth and San Salvador streets, where they caught up to him on foot. Santos, working off the idea that Lopez was armed, approached with his handgun drawn, according to the report. Lopez, who had briefly dropped to his knees on the sidewalk, stood up and began walking away. Van der Hoek walked past Lopez to get in his path, where the officer saw Lopez was carrying a “big long knife” with a “sharp tip” at waist level.
In the footage, van der Hoek orders Lopez to “drop to the ground” while Santos tells him to “put that on the floor,” referring to an object that would later be identified as a roughly 12-inch blade resembling a drywall saw. Van der Hoek tries to fire his Taser, but the prongs do not appear to penetrate Lopez’s clothing.
Lopez is then shown moving toward van der Hoek, who backpedals and yells at Santos to “shoot him, shoot.”
Santos told investigators that “I thought for sure this guy was about to stab (van der Hoek)” before he opened fire. Both of his shots hit Lopez in the back, with one bullet ricocheting into the window of a nearby sorority house. Lopez later died at a hospital.
While SJSU complied with a request for its records under SB 1421, the San Jose Police Department is refusing to do the same. The department says it will wait until legal challenges around the state to the law are settled. At issue is whether the law covers records from prior to this year; police unions insist it does not.
So far, four judges in Southern California and one in Contra Costa County have ruled the law covers older records. An appellate court in Los Angeles and the state Supreme Court have rejected, without comment, a union appeal of one of the cases.
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Not all agencies are waiting to disclose documents. Records released around the state have shown cops fired for having sex on duty, use of force violations, dishonesty, and in one case in San Bernardino County, stealing thousands of bullets from two law enforcement agencies.
Staff writer Robert Salonga contributed to this report.