The Year of the Gun
Photo by Nick ShouFor Orange County law enforcement, 2003 ended the way it began—with a perfect record. Not one officer-involved shooting that took place this year led to any charges being filed by the Orange County District Attorney's office. That's hardly surprising, given the fact that the DA's office hasn't filed charges against any police officer in the more than 50 such cases it has investigated in the past five years.
Nonetheless, this year has been truly spectacular, both in terms of the frequency and the fatality of officer-involved shootings. Here are a few highlights from just the first three months of 2003. (We don't have enough space for all 12 months.)
> On Jan. 27, Elmer Bustos died from gunshots fired by Santa Ana police officers who were chasing him outside an elementary school. Bustos, a Santa Ana gang member, was reportedly carrying a handgun—police say it was covered with his fingerprints—but several witnesses contradicted police claims that Bustos had fired at officers.
> Jeffrey Santelli arrived at the Crystal Cathedral Feb. 20 to give his ATM card to his mother. That's when Anaheim gang unit officer Scott McManus apparently mistook him for a gang member and shot him in the stomach. Anaheim police first claimed Santelli was shot after struggling with McManus, but that story crumpled in the face of witness testimony that Santelli merely asked McManus why he was staring at him.
> An OC Sheriff's deputy shot and killed Yorba Linda resident John Rameriz on March 15 after responding to an emergency call from his house. Police claimed Rameriz had threatened them with a butcher knife, but witnesses claim he was already on the ground when police shot him.
Perhaps the most infamous officer-involved shooting of the year actually happened in Huntington Beach two years ago. At about 1:45 a.m. on May 5, 2001, in the city's predominantly Latino Oak View neighborhood, 18-year-old Antonio Saldivar was struck by four of eight rounds fired by Officer Mark Wersching. Wersching claimed he fired the shots in self-defense after a brief chase that ended when Saldivar pointed a rifle at him.
But days later, police acknowledged that the "rifle" recovered at the scene was actually a toy pop-gun with a plastic orange tip that had been left by a neighbor kid the previous day. A few weeks later, police acknowledged that Saldivar wasn't the burglary suspect Wersching was chasing. The suspect turned out to be Brigido Mendez, a local gang member who admitted his involvement in the incident after Wersching arrested him on an unrelated charge.
Wersching was cleared of wrongdoing by his own department and by the DA's office, and since neither Huntington Beach nor the county itself has an elected police oversight board, the story, like so many others, could have ended there. But on May 16, a federal jury in Los Angeles awarded Saldivar's family $2.1 million in damages. Overnight, Wersching became the most expensive cop in Surf City history.
It's easy to read the federal verdict as an indictment of Orange County's refusal to create citizen oversight committees. If you think such committees are expensive or a nuisance, consider the example of ultraliberal San Francisco. There, a citizen panel oversees a police force in a community three times the size of Huntington Beach. According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian's A.C. Thompson, the federal award in the Saldivar case alone was almost half the total amount of money that San Francisco has paid out in the past five years for all wrongful deaths, bad arrests, excessive force claims, and illegal searches and seizures.
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