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California police brace for protests after shootings

Posted: July 24, 2012 5:00 p.m.
Updated: July 24, 2012 5:00 p.m.
 

 

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Police have stepped up patrols in preparation for more protests after two deadly shootings by police officers over the weekend, including one of an unarmed man that sparked fiery clashes just a few miles up the road from Disneyland.

On Tuesday, the man's family filed a civil rights lawsuit seeking $50 million in damages from the city of Anaheim and its police department, claiming 25-year-old Manuel Diaz was wrongfully shot, said lawyer James Rumm.

A protest was planned in front of City Hall for Tuesday afternoon by residents who question what made officers resort to deadly force and later crack down on demonstrators by firing pepper-spray projectiles and bean bag rounds.

The killing of Diaz and another man have taken the tally of shootings by police officers to six so far this year in this Orange County city, up from four a year before, said police Sgt. Bob Dunn. Five of the incidents have been fatal.

"It concerns me when we have any officer-involved shooting," said Police Chief John Welter, adding that he believes an uptick in gang-related crime in the last eight to 10 months is driving the increase.

"There just seems to be a lot more violence between the gangs. As a result, we've increased our gang unit, which has increased our contact with gang members," he said.

Mayor Tom Tait said a description from court papers relayed to him by a reporter that Diaz had been shot in the leg and in the back of his head was "unsettling."

The Anaheim police union on Tuesday issued a statement defending the officers involved in the shootings and said both men killed were gang members who had criminal records.

The union also said that just before Diaz turned toward officers during Saturday's incident, pulled an object from his waistband — a common place where gang members hide guns.

"I believe that the independent investigations by the Orange County District Attorney's Office into both incidents will show no wrongdoing by these officers," said Kerry Condon, the police association's president.

Anaheim is a city of contrasts that ranges from upscale, hilltop homes to packed, gritty apartment complexes. The city 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles is known as home to the Angels baseball team, and above all, to world-famous Disneyland.

As California's Hispanic population has grown, so has the city's, hitting nearly 53 percent in 2010, census figures show.

Residents' concerns about the use of police force in the Orange County city aren't new. Last month, Anaheim decided to look into hiring an independent investigator to review shootings by police amid protests by relatives of those killed in officers' gunfire.

But Latino activists say that isn't enough and want federal officials to probe the Saturday shooting of an unarmed man in broad daylight who police say was a gang member.

Benny Diaz, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens in California, said he wants a citizen review commission to keep tabs on the police department, officers to undergo sensitivity training and federal officials to investigate.

"People are saying, 'you know what? We have to stop this,'" said Diaz, adding that residents' past requests for a probe of officer shootings have gone nowhere. "As an organization we are trying to find peace but there comes a point where you have to stand up strong."

Tait, who has called for state and federal agencies to investigate the shooting, urged the community to remain calm and said he wanted to address any concerns in the Latino community.

"If the Latino community is saying there is a rift, then there is rift, and we need to address that," he said.

In the largely Hispanic, working-class neighborhood where Diaz was killed Saturday afternoon, residents left candles, flowers and posters blasting police.

Jose Gallardo, 30, said he was chatting with Diaz in an alley behind the complex just a few minutes before he saw an unmarked police car pull up carrying two officers. Gallardo said he stayed away to avoid drawing attention from police until he heard two shots and went running.

"He was laying there, dead," Gallardo said, adding that he saw bullet marks in his friend's lower back and neck. "They were searching him — I was like, why are you searching him? He's dead right there."

The death sparked three nights of protests. On Saturday, angry demonstrators hurled rocks and bottles at officers who were securing the scene for investigators, and police responded by firing bean bags and pepper balls at the crowd.

On Sunday, protesters swarmed police headquarters during a morning news conference and later set fire to a trash bin and pushed it into the street outside the apartment complex. On Monday night, Diaz's mother was joined by the relatives of others killed in police shootings in a march near where her son was shot.

Welter said Saturday's incident occurred after two officers approached three men who were acting suspiciously in an alleyway before running away. One of the officers chased Diaz to the front of the apartment complex.

The chief would not say what exactly led the officer to shoot Diaz. But he failed to heed police orders to stop and threw something on the roof of the complex that contained what officers believe to be heroin, Welter said.

Both officers were placed on paid leave pending an investigation.

The second shooting occurred Sunday when anti-gang officers spotted a suspected gang member in a stolen sport utility vehicle. A brief pursuit ended when three people jumped from the vehicle and ran. One suspect fired at an officer and the officer fired back, killing the gunman, who was identified as 21-year-old Joel Mathew Acevedo, authorities said.

Both incidents were under investigation by the county's district attorney office, which asked witnesses to come forward with information or video footage of Saturday's shooting.

The FBI is conducting a review to determine whether a civil rights investigation is warranted, said agency spokeswoman Laura Eimiller.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

 

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