A body cam video of Fresno police mortally wounding a mentally ill man in September drew different interpretations Thursday from lawyers for the man’s family and Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer.
The lawyers, who filed a lawsuit against the Fresno Police Department on behalf of Freddy Centeno’s family, held a news conference Thursday where they released graphic side-by-side footage they say shows two officers confronting, then quickly shooting, Centeno. The Fresno man died 23 days later.
In the body cam video, two Fresno police officers, identified in the lawsuit as Zebulon Price and Felipe Miguel Lucero, get out of their car, identify themselves and yell for Centeno, 40, to get on the ground. They then fire 10 shots – seven of which hit Centeno. The time between the officers getting out of the car and firing their weapons is a few seconds.
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Dyer held his own news conference later in the day and walked reporters through the raw video, freezing it at specific times and pointing out exactly when Centeno reached into his pocket, grabbed a black object, pulled it out and slightly raised his hands.
Dyer said he had watched the video at least 25 times, and each time he believed Centeno was drawing a weapon. He stressed that the information the officers had, based on a 911 call also played Thursday at the Dyer news conference, was that Centeno was armed with a small black handgun in the pocket of his shorts.
It turned out to be a painted garden hose nozzle.
The lawyers’ enhanced video is brighter than the raw footage shown by Dyer. It includes narration and a slow-motion replay of the shooting, which shows the 10th shot was fired while Centeno was already falling down from the first wounds.
“I’ve been a civil rights attorney for 29 years, and I’ve never seen a police shooting this bad,” Centeno family attorney Humberto Guizar of Tustin said.
Officers respond to 911 call
The shooting occurred around 11 a.m. on Sept. 3 near the intersection of El Monte Way and Orange Avenue in southeast Fresno. Centeno was in a coma for 23 days before dying Sept. 26.
Shortly after the shooting, Centeno’s brother, Roger, told The Bee that his brother was bipolar, schizophrenic and abused drugs. Roger lived with Freddy and their parents. In an emotional interview at the shooting scene, Roger questioned the need for officers to shoot his brother.
The department was aware of Centeno’s mental illness, but Price and Lucero were not, Fresno police Lt. Mark Salazar said at the time. Centeno had been issued a misdemeanor citation in February 2015 for interfering with police, and officers had been called to his home in March for a disturbance. They learned he was off his medication and had him evaluated by mental health personnel. Two days later, he was arrested for allegedly possessing methamphetamine.
Minutes before the officers confronted Centeno, police 911 dispatchers received a call from a woman saying a shirtless man had identified himself as a federal agent and threatened her with a gun. The woman describes the man who threatened her as a light-skinned Hispanic man with no shirt, black gym shorts, short hair, and tattoos on his arms and body. She tells the dispatcher that the man put the gun back into his front pocket. Children are heard crying in the background, and she tells the dispatcher she is worried for her daughters and nephew.
Her description of the man matches the video footage of Centeno, Dyer said.
“What the officers knew at the time – what their state of mind was – was what caused them to draw their weapons and to fire,” Dyer said. “Both of these officers felt threatened. They feared for their safety ... and they felt that they were about ready to be shot based on the information they had and the actions of Freddy Centeno.”
The officers were around 15 feet from Centeno when the shooting occurred, Deputy Chief Pat Farmer said on Sept. 3.
Farmer said the officers told Centeno to show them his hands and get on the ground. Instead, he pulled a “pistol-looking object” from his waistband. After shooting him, the officers performed CPR on Centeno until an ambulance arrived.
Both officers were wearing tactical vests and driving an unmarked patrol car, Farmer said. The vests identified the officers as Fresno police.
Attorneys dispute police version
Guizar acknowledged that Centeno was holding the black garden hose nozzle at the time of the shooting, but he said the violent and hasty response by officers was well beyond their legal limits.
“We are not in a war zone; Fresno is a nice community,” Guizar said.
“This was an assassination,” co-counsel Cristobal Galindo of Houston added. “This was not someone who had an opportunity to acquiesce to commands.”
The attorneys said the purpose of the lawsuit was two-fold: To seek justice and restitution for a family that lost a father, brother and son, as well as to notify government officials of a major abuse of police power.
The lawsuit does not ask for any specific damages. Co-counsel Angel Carrazco of Santa Ana said the attorneys plan to ask jurors to award what they think is fair given the video evidence and the family’s loss.
“We’re lucky to have obtained this (video),” Guizar said. Police “usually make us jump through hoops.”
Guizar said California law requires that officers fire only if there is an immediate threat – not a perceived threat.
Dyer: Officers had reasonable fear
On Thursday, Dyer challenged that claim. He said the legal standard is that an officer has a reasonable fear for his safety or the safety of others.
Dyer said that both the department’s internal affairs investigation and an investigation conducted by the city’s office of internal review concluded the officers who shot Centeno had that fear.
Dyer read a portion of that report to reporters: “This case is a great example of the value of body cameras, because without those videos, there could be considerable angst within the community due to the fact that the weapon that both officers saw was in fact a simple garden nozzle. Like it was plainly stated above, this nozzle not only greatly resembled a weapon, but the manner in which Centeno produced it was clearly with intent to make officers think he was drawing a weapon.”
Dyer also questioned how the Centeno family attorneys received their copy of the body cam footage. He said the department had the original footage, but a copy was given to the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office as part of a case submitted by police against Centeno while he was still alive.
Had Centeno survived, he would have been charged with making criminal threats against the woman who called 911 and resisting arrest, said Steve Wright, Fresno County assistant district attorney, on Thursday.
As part of the legal evidence discovery in the district attorney’s criminal case, the video and other evidence were passed to the Fresno County Public Defender’s Office. Calls to the Public Defender’s Office on Thursday were not returned.
Galindo, the Centeno attorney who obtained the video, told The Bee that he received it from a public defender. He said this was within his legal rights as an attorney for Centeno and his family, and that because there was no protective order on the video, he was allowed to show it to the public.
The Bee previously requested the video from police.
DA investigation not complete
Wright also said Thursday that his office is waiting for a copy of the video and police reports as part of a district attorney’s investigation into the officers involved in the shooting. These investigations are done in all officer-involved shootings to determine whether the officers committed a crime.
Dyer said his office is waiting for a final coroner’s report on Centeno’s death before sending that evidence to the DA.
Fresno County sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said the coroner’s report awaits final approval from a doctor who is out of the country. The Bee requested a copy of the report once it is signed.
Shortly after Centeno’s death, his family and local activists staged a protest outside the Fresno Police Department. Roger Centeno said his brother told the family he was going out for a walk and was shot 10 minutes later.
The crowd called for better police training for dealing with people who have mental illness, or the use of less-than-lethal ammunition.
In August, the department began providing officers with training in de-escalation, implicit bias and dealing with people who have mental health issues.
Fresno police Deputy Chief Robert Nevarez said on the day of the protests that Centeno’s actions led to the officers opening fire.
“The caller said a gun was in his right shorts pocket,” Nevarez said. “Officers commanded him to raise his hands, and he grabbed for the object in his right-front pocket and raised it towards them.
“He sped up the time frame for decision-making with his actions.”