MONTEREY PARK — The investigation continues into the fatal police shooting of a 22-year-old Chino Hills man who threatened an officer with a large pipe bender outside a fast-food restaurant.
Steve Rodriguez was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after he was shot by two officers about 9:30 a.m. Monday outside a Carl’s Jr. restaurant along Avenida Cesar Chavez. The incident was captured on a cell phone camera by a witness who then posted the video online.
Though the video of the shooting has gone viral on the Internet, Monterey Park police and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials continued to withhold the names of the involved officers Thursday. The two involved officers were described as 12-year and 3-year veterans of the Monterey Park Police Department.
“We’re not, at this point, releasing those names,” Monterey Park Police Chief Jim Smith said.
Officials added that the names would likely be disclosed in the over the next few days.
The Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau is spearheading the investigation into the shooting.
“Everything right now is new,” Smith said. “It’s under investigation by the sheriff’s (department) and DA’s office, which is the normal protocol with us. We’ll continue to follow the investigation. And its a tough thing for the officers, for the family, for the witnesses… for everyone involved.”
Also withheld by authorities Thursday was the coroner’s report in the case.
An autopsy had been carried out on Rodriguez’s body Thursday, however sheriff’s investigators had placed a security hold on the findings, barring coroner’s officials from releasing information on the case, Los Angeles County Department of Coroner Assistant Chief of Operations Ed Winter said.
Because of the security hold, information such as how many times Rodriguez was shot or where the two electrified Taser probed ultimately landed were not available.
Chief Smith declined to comment on the shooting itself.
“It would be inappropriate for me to comment on it at this time,” he said. “I need to let the investigators to do their job.”
Family members of Rodriguez, as well as the sheriff’s detective handling the case, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The officers involved in the shooting have been placed on paid administrative leave and offered psychological counseling, as is the policy for any officer involved in a shooting, Monterey Park police Capt. Eugene Harris said. They remained on leave Thursday.
“We expect them back to work if not next week, the following week,” he added. The amount of time an officer takes for leave after being involved in a shooting varies on a case-by-case basis, but is generally at least three days.
While the digital age has changed law enforcement a great deal in recent years and decades, Harris said the fact that many citizens are now carrying with them cell phones capable of doubling as video cameras makes no difference.
In fact, Harris said, the Monterey Park Police Department has gone “above and beyond” when it comes to using technology to ensure transparency in police work.
Every patrol car is equipped with a video camera, and all officers carry audio recorders, he said.
“Any citizen contact is recorded,” Harris said.
The presence of a civilian camera does not alter police behavior, he added.
“We teach people to perform as if you’re always being watched, taped or video recorded,” he said.
Officers encountered Rodriguez after responding to reports that he was using the heavy tool to smash windows at the restaurant, officials said.
In the video, an officer fires five gunshots at Rodriguez as he advances on the other officer while raising the tool over his head as if preparing to deliver a blow.
Rodriguez stumbles and turns his back to the officers, obscuring the camera’s view of him behind a parked car, before second group of five shots is heard.
The man who shot the video, who asked that his name be withheld due to privacy concerns, said he had mixed feelings about what he witnessed.
“I believe it was the correct response to take action and fire those first shots,” he said. “But while his back was turned to the officer, he paused and made another five shots. That was uncalled for.”
“In my opinion, somebody got shot and that was justified,” the witness added. “But somebody dying, that was not justified.”
“I’m not a cop, I don’t know what they go through. I’m sure it’s completely different mentally going through that. But as a police officer, to me, there job is to set an example and be, honestly, perfect in everything they do. They’re seen as the higher authority.”
Rocky Warren, a retired longtime Placer County Sheriff’s Deputy, consultant, instructor, author and sought-after expert witness in court cases involving police uses of force, reviewed the video and offered his thoughts.
“One of the worst failures of law enforcement is not educating the public about use of force,” Warren said.
Warren himself is no stranger to officer-involved shootings. In 1982, he became one of only four police officers in the nation to shoot a gun from a suspect’s hand on orders in the City of Lincoln.
Warren pointed out that the quality and angle of the video left many factors unknown.
He said, however, that after studying the amateur video of the shooting, “I don’t see anything that causes me to believe it’s unreasonable,” Warren said.
To determine whether a police shooting is justified or not, he said, “The legal standard is: given the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time, was the use of force reasonable? If the answer is yes, then the shooting was justified.”
Public response to officer-involved shootings is often colored by the “Hollywood Effect,” Warren said.
“People think that people are shot and fall down,” he said. In reality, suspects often are not pacified until shot multiple times.
“People don’t understand the threat level,” Warren added.
An average citizen may see a person armed with a weapon such as a knife or club standing about 8 feet away from someone and not perceive an imminent threat of serious injury or death, Warren said.
“With my training, I realize your possibility of being killed is good,” he said.
Police are trained to understand how fast people can cover ground compared with an officer’s reaction time, he explained.
It appeared from the poor quality video that the first five shots were fired by an officer in defense of his partner, who was being threatened by Rodriguez, Warren said.
Because of the limited view of the camera and the fact that Rodriguez went behind a parked car after the first volley of gunfire, “You can’t know why that second volley was fired.”
Warren said officers are trained to meet deadly force with deadly force. In the past, for instance, officers have died trying to disarm an opponent with their batons rather than shooting them, he added.
“We’ve literally had many officers killed when they used non-lethal force in a lethal force situation.”