When a police officer pulls the trigger, injuring or killing someone, the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA) sends in its team of investigators. The OCDA is tasked with probing police shootings for nearly all local law-enforcement agencies, except Huntington Beach, which has the Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigate its cases. (A transparency black hole, but that’s another story!) For decades, the OCDA has declined to prosecute any police shootings. Why?
Two U.S. Supreme Court cases in the 1980s—Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor—certainly made it difficult to deem police shootings criminal by considering an officer’s probable cause in believing deadly force to be necessary and if it were “objectively reasonable” given the circumstances at the time—not in hindsight. Both are often cited in OCDA reports that justify police shootings in OC. (The agency doesn’t consider matters of policy, training or liability—just criminal culpability.)
But that hasn’t stopped people from getting angry and protesting when bitterly disputed police shootings happen. In the years surveyed by our special report, the Weekly came across the five most egregious cases that led to big protests in the streets or sizable settlements out of court. Rest in peace to all the deceased.
5. Ashley MacDonald (Aug. 26, 2006): A distraught MacDonald ran out of her mom’s apartment with a penknife in hand. She stopped at a nearby park. Huntington Beach officers Shawn Randell and Read Parker arrived and ordered MacDonald to drop the knife, but she lunged at them from a close enough distance with it to justify unloading 15 bullets into her. The OCDA declined to press charges, and Huntington Beach settled a lawsuit three years later for a measly $125,000.
4. Andres Ramirez (Dec. 10, 2010): Santa Ana policeman Frank Gutierrez was patrolling an apartment complex with his partner when he spotted Ramirez standing in a carport, saw a partially concealed knife and ordered the man to put his hands up. Ramirez crept backward, instead, looking to his right and left. Shortly after, Gutierrez got out of his patrol car; he claimed Ramirez prepared to pivot around. That’s when the cop shot him in the head. Gutierrez picked up the knife, but then dropped it after realizing his mistake. The OCDA declined to press charges three years after the incident, with Gutierrez giving his side of the story 20 months later. Santa Ana settled a wrongful-death case for $1 million, with the family’s attorney stating Ramirez was shot in the back of the head.
3. Jason Hallstrom (March 15, 2013): Travis Mock drove Hallstrom around Santa Ana in a stolen Sentra when SWAT officers John Rodriguez and Pete Picone began following them. They believed the pair belonged to a white-supremacist gang and noticed how surprised they looked once the two saw police. After a short pursuit, Mock crashed the car, and both men fled on foot into a neighborhood. When Hallstrom moved his hands toward his waistband, Rodriguez opened fire, striking him once in the back and in the torso. Hallstrom, unarmed, died at a local hospital days later. Santa Ana paid a record $3.7 million to settle a suit filed after the shooting.
2. Julian Alexander (Oct. 27, 2008): Anaheim officer Kevin Flanagan was chasing three juvenile burglary suspects when Alexander, an African-American, exited his home amid the nighttime commotion, a broomstick in hand. Flanagan shone his flashlight at the 20-year-old newlywed father-to-be and ordered him to drop his stick. When Alexander raised it to his chest and moved toward Flanagan, the cop shot and killed him. John Welter, Anaheim’s chief of police at the time, called the shooting a “tragedy” and described Alexander as “innocent,” but nobody stood guilty for his death. Anaheim, usually stingy with police-shooting settlements, agreed to a $1.55 million payout.
1. Manuel Diaz (July 21, 2012): Officer Nick Bennallack decided to approach Diaz, who was hanging out in an alley. Diaz ran through an apartment complex with Bennallack in pursuit. The officer claimed he saw Diaz take an object out of his waistband and begin to turn toward him. Bennallack shot Diaz in the head and buttocks around the same time an object flew into the air. But Diaz didn’t have a weapon. The shooting angered residents; Anaheim PD pelted the growing crowd with less-lethal projectiles. Both images fueled days of angry protests, culminating in the Anaheim Riots that summer. The revived civil trial is slated to begin next month.