When the two Anaheim police officers approached Manuel Diaz on a summer afternoon five years ago, he was leaning into a car, chatting with a couple of friends who were parked in an alleyway. Diaz fled on foot and turned the corner of an apartment complex on Anna Drive. He was quickly approaching the black, iron fence at the end of the yard—the only thing separating him from the street and police.
But before he reached the fence, he turned slightly, possibly to look over his shoulder. That’s when Officer Nick Bennallack fired two shots at Diaz, a move he later said was necessary because he believed Diaz was armed and reaching for his waistband. As a dying Diaz twitched on the ground, police searched him for a weapon. They found only a cellphone and a pipe.
The July 21, 2012, slaying sparked outrage in Anaheim, leading to downtown riots and the largest police-brutality protest in OC history. But long before that day, officer-involved shootings drove bitter wedges between police departments and OC communities. In the summer of 1988, Westminster police officer Steven Phillips shot 18-year-old Frank Martinez to death during a neighborhood birthday party. Martinez’s family filed a $110 million lawsuit, but a federal jury sided with Phillips and stuck the family with paying his $20,000 legal fees, plus $24 in punitive damages.
In 2001, Huntington Beach policeman Mark Wersching gunned down 18-year-old Antonio Saldivar, causing tensions to rise in the city’s largely Latino Oak View neighborhood. (Wersching is still on the force, despite costing Surf City taxpayers more than $2 million in legal settlements for his brutality.) Five years later, dozens gathered outside Huntington Beach Police Department to protest the fatal police shooting of Ashley MacDonald, a distraught 18-year-old holding a penknife.
And then came Diaz.
But behind the headlines of OC’s most controversial police shootings, there are many other encounters that fill slim news-column spaces with sparse details provided by authorities. Brought together, from the outrageous to the ignored, there’s the story of police shootings themselves, one that hasn’t been told in OC. How often do officer-involved shootings happen? Who’s most likely to die by the gun in police encounters? Which department is OC’s deadliest? How many unarmed people get shot? Are police ever prosecuted for on-duty shootings by the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA)? (Spoiler: no!)
For this special report, we scoured hundreds of OCDA reports, newspaper articles, police records and death certificates for officer-involved shootings from 2006 to 2016. The task proved to be arduous, especially when we first picked up a data disc from the OCDA only to find it blank! But through our research, we identified and analyzed 173 police shootings during that time frame, 96 of which were fatal.
With data-filled graphics and even our best impression of Harper’s Index, our findings here will surprise, challenge or confirm cynicisms whether folks fly the “Thin Blue Line” U.S. flag or chant “Black Lives Matter!” That’s a bet as sure as Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and his crew finding the next police shooting justified.