Santa Ana Settled Two Police Shooting Lawsuits for $6.8 Million Last Year
Gabriel San Roman / OC Weekly
Within a span of six months last year, Santa Ana settled two multi-million dollar wrongful death lawsuits, including its largest ever for an officer-involved shooting. The city doled out a record $3.7 million last April to dismiss the case brought on behalf of Jason Hallstrom, a man Santa Ana police shot dead in 2013. In September, the city also settled the case of Ernesto Canepa, another man killed by police in 2015, for $3.1 million. No local media outlets reported on either of the multi-million payouts.
The Orange County District Attorney's (OCDA) office investigated both deadly shootings and declined to press criminal charges against officers. Federal civil suits remained the only recourse for grieving relatives to challenge official accounts of the incidents. "In the Hallstrom case, we had three plaintiffs," settlement-winning attorney Alexis Galindo told the Weekly. "It was the manner in which the killing occurred. He was shot in the back."
According to the OCDA report, Travis Mock drove Hallstrom around Santa Ana in a gray Nissan Sentra on March 15, 2013 when SWAT officers John G. Rodriguez and Pete Picone began following them. They took notice of the surprised look on the men's faces once they saw police—that, and their white supremacy tattoos. After a pursuit that led to the 5 freeway before exiting, Mock crashed the car and both men fled on foot into a residential neighborhood. Rodriguez claimed Hallstrom made a movement towards his waistband and, in fear of his life, shot him four times in the back.
Hallstrom continued running until hiding between two homes. Rodriguez found and arrested him. The Sentra turned out to be stolen. Hallstrom died a few days later due to the gunshot wounds. The original complaint filed by the first attorney on the case in 2014 alleged that officer Rodriguez opened fire "without reasonable cause to believe that Hallstrom was either armed or dangerous," adding that it "was done maliciously and in reckless disregard of [his] constitutional rights." During depositions, officers testified that they saw no weapons, much less any object in the men's hands that could easily be mistaken for a gun.
"The big issue was the furtive movement they alleged Hallstrom made," Galindo said. "There was a witness at a home within 50 yards of the shooting who was able to see that Hallstrom posed no threat, that in fact he was running away when the shots were fired. That's what was critical in the case." Picone also shot Mock in the pursuit, but he survived. The city settled his civil case for $175,000 around the same time as Hallstrom's.
Protests erupted in the wake of Ernesto Canepa's killing at the hands of Santa Ana police on February 27, 2015. According to that OCDA report, Canepa became a person of interest in a robbery investigation when a tip led them to a home where he was believed to be. Canepa darted out of the house and into his Dodge Charger. Officer Christopher Shynn got out of his own car and ordered Canepa at gunpoint to turn his engine off. The report deemed Canepa's refusal to comply and shuffling around his car as "pre-assaultive."
Shynn said the car lunged forward prompting him to fire six shots through the window, killing the 28-year-old father of four. Cops later found a BB gun inside the car, but attorney Angel Carrazco claims it wasn't anywhere near Canepa's bullet-ridden body. "There's two phases to every civil rights case: liability and damages," said Carrazco, whose Tustin firm filed suit on behalf of Canepa's family. "The fight is in liability because they never say that they're wrong."
The suit called the use of force "excessive and objectively unreasonable" given that Canepa posed no threat. One of the key questions in the shooting surrounded whether or not there was a pause between the six gun shots or if Shynn fired consecutively. "The officer said there was no pause," Carrazco said. But his firm found a video where only the gunshots could be heard; there was a distinct pause between the first and second volley.
Canepa protest march in 2016
Photo by Alex Scott
Another discrepancy surrounded Canepa allegedly using his car as a weapon. "This vehicle was parked on the street next to the sidewalk," Carrazco said. "It was blocked by a car in front of it, a car in back of it and the police cars that boxed it in so there was no way that the vehicle could have been used as a weapon. That was all concocted." The suit further alleged that officers on scene neither summoned medical care nor allowed paramedics to treat a profusely bleeding Canepa in a timely manner.
The Weekly reached out to the city for comment on the two multi-million dollar settlements, but didn't receive a response. Cities often say they admit no guilt when settling wrongful death lawsuits in police shootings. But for Carrazco, the Canepa settlement speaks to a definite need for changes in the police department.
"It's crystal clear there's excessive force in violation of constitutional rights and it's being justified by putting money on it," Carrazco, a native of Santa Ana, said. "There needs to be more training of these officers, especially those involved in shootings."
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