Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas held a news conference yesterday morning regarding the Orange police shooting of 35-year-old Michael Perez in March. Cameras from OnScene TV captured much of the incident, with video already airing on multiple media outlets months ago. But T-Rack chose the case to highlight the OCDA's new policy announced last month on disclosing video and audio of officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths.
"We hope that the release of such evidence may assist the public in understanding how and why these incidents occur while increasing accountability and public trust in law enforcement," Rackauckas said. "We'll release this information while balancing the need to protect the legal rights of those involved." T-Rack then handed over the podium to assistant district attorney Ebrahim Baytieh, who presented the OCDA's legal findings and videos of the Perez shooting.
The news conference was originally scheduled for last Monday, but got cancelled in the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting. This time around, the OCDA also broadcast the event on Facebook live, albeit with terrible, static-plagued audio for the first 11 minutes. Baytieh ran through the details leading up to the shooting. On March 12, around 11:20 p.m., Orange policeman Mikhail Shemyakin took notice of a broken taillight on the white van Perez drove and ran the plates. He learned Perez had an arrest warrant (which was for driving without a license) and tried to pull the van over.
Shemyakin didn't have much luck getting Perez to yield until he finally pulled to a stop in a well-lit parking lot on West Katella Avenue in Orange. The cop ordered Perez at gunpoint to turn off the ignition and put his keys and hands on the dashboard. Several officers arrived on scene to back up Shemyakin. Baytieh informed media that police told Perez, "You need to come out with your hands up" and "Let's end this peacefully." But Perez didn't want to go back to jail.
A standoff ensued. Baytieh introduced a collage of videos taken from OnScene TV and a police dash cam to show the critical moments that followed. Perez can be seen candidly talking to police officers while holding a plastic red gas canister above the dashboard, one that officers feared could become combustible. Police then sneak by the passenger side, break windows and turn on a water hose to flush a shirtless Perez out. He ran to the back of his van before jumping through the front driver's side window. The dash cam, which had a clearer angle of the shooting, showed Perez making a reaching motion behind his back while Shemyakin attempts to detain him. Two loud "bangs" are heard afterward; the first belonged to a less-lethal projectile and the second was a single round from officer Carlos Gutierrez's gun. The shooting happened past the midnight hour.
The footage ends with graphic images of a dying Perez given CPR before being taken into an ambulance. Baytieh showed still photos of the videos and circled where Perez reached for his back waistband where a knife in a sheave was. "Shortly before the shooting, officer Gutierrez sees him touching the knife," Baytieh said. "This is within a second of the shooting." Police recovered two knives from the scene.
"Officer Gutierrez did not fire the shot striking Perez until he believed that officer Shemyakin was about to be stabbed," Baytieh said. "A jury analyzing these facts would correctly and reasonably conclude that officer Gutierrez did not commit a crime in the case." The assistant district attorney noted the investigation into the shooting was now closed with no charges brought forth against the cop.
Family members of Perez watched the livestream of the news conference. They had tougher counterpoints than reporters at the OCDA's office. One woman claimed in real time comments left on the video stream that Perez complied with orders to drop the knife by saying "Alright!" When Baytieh announced the agency's legal conclusions, angry faced reactions floated across the livestream video. The social media handler for OCDA's Facebook page later responded to other criticisms by posting evidence photos of the two knives. The move towards greater disclosure on social media had all the makings of a Facebook flame war.
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But the Perez family also retained legal representation and a state claim has been filed in the case. "The police are the ones that chose to escalate this by breaking the window and trying to flood his car with water," attorney Christian Pereira says." It'd be interesting to see how much time transpired from when he had the gas canister in his hand to when he was actually pulled out of the van."
He has other, more critical questions about the incident after the news conference. "If Perez had a knife in his hand, it's because he grabbed it after they told him to put it down after he was shot," Pereira adds. "If there was anything there that looked liked he had a knife in his hand, they would have highlighted that."