Cop Shootings

Amid Days of Riots, Residents Wonder If Anaheim is Most Dangerous Place on Earth

A rise in violent crimes in the Southern California city has led to a record number of police officer-involved fatalities and days of riots as demonstrators clash with police. Marie Elena Fernandez reports.

Less than five miles from Disneyland, Anaheim police officers killed two young men in separate incidents this past weekend in a working-class section of the city populated mostly by Latinos. The deaths are the fourth and fifth fatal shootings at the hands of Anaheim police offers this year; a sixth man shot by the department’s officers in February survived.

Also known as the home of the Angels baseball team, Anaheim is a melting pot that ranges from upscale hilltop residences to crammed apartment complexes and boasts an estimated population of 341,000 people—more than half of whom are Latino. Its national image, long associated with Mickey Mouse and Republican politics, now includes the stench of police brutality, riots, and reputation for violence that mirrors Los Angeles, its neighbor 25 miles to the north.

“It’s been terrible this year,” said Genevieve Huizar, the mother of Manuel Angel Diaz, the 25-year-old shot by police Saturday afternoon. “You hear about it on the news and now it’s us…nothing is going to bring him back. Nothing. That’s why I’m fighting so hard, and that’s why I’m asking for peace and justice.”

The deaths of Diaz and 21-year-old Joel Matthew Acevedo, who was shot by police Sunday night after, they say, he fired his handgun at an officer while being pursued, sparked four days of violent protests in which riot-clad police officers fired beanbags at women and children and used pepper balls and batons to disperse crowds; protesters hurled rocks, traffic cones and other objects such as shoes, vandalized businesses, and started fires in dumpsters.

By the end of Tuesday night’s protest, which erupted from a peaceful rally after some demonstrators were unable to attend a packed City Council meeting, 24 people were arrested, including four juveniles, 20 businesses had been vandalized, and six people were treated for minor injuries, including a police officer and two local journalists, according to the Anaheim police. Diaz’s family did not participate in the protests and do not condone the violence that has erupted as a result, Huizar said.

At a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Tom Tait said he was “disturbed” by the protests outside City Hall that took place while many Anaheim residents were expressing their concern to the City Council inside. “Some protesters—many of whom we believe were not from our city—chose to take advantage of this evening of dialogue to try to create chaos in our downtown neighborhoods. We will not accept any violent protests, vandalism or arson, perpetrated under the guise of ‘public protest.’”

Tait has called for state and federal investigations into the two incidents in addition to the routine investigation required by the District Attorney’s office. The FBI also has announced that it will review Diaz’s shooting to see whether it warrants a civil rights probe. Huizar and her family filed a $50 million lawsuit against the city of Anaheim, its police department, and its police chief on Tuesday, claiming wrongful death and that Diaz’s civil rights were violated.

Huizar told The Daily Beast that she went to the location of the shooting Sunday morning to find out what happened to her son. While she was there, she said, residents poured out of apartments to tell her what they had seen. Huizar was told that Diaz was at a spigot washing his hands and getting a drink of water when the police officers appeared. According to the events as they are outlined in the lawsuit, two plainclothes officers approached Diaz, without telling him they were cops, around 4 p.m. As they began to chase him down an alleyway, Diaz ran toward the front of an apartment building. Diaz “was not brandishing a firearm, did not possess a firearm, and in no way was he a danger to himself or others,” according to the complaint.

Although there were children playing in the street, the officers shot Diaz on the back of his legs near his buttocks and he fell to the ground. When Diaz fell to his knees, his mother said, an officer shot him in the head and left him on the grass without calling for an ambulance. The complaint states that Diaz was not under the influence of alcohol, medication or controlled substances at the time he was shot.

A video sent anonymously to OC Weekly shows a wounded but still alive Diaz lying on the grass as uniformed police officers arrive on the scene. “He’s still alive man!” a man yells at the officers, who ignore the residents’ pleas for them to call an ambulance for Diaz. Then as an officer tries to cover the camera with his hand, a man reminds him in Spanish, “The law allows us to film,” and the officer backs off. A young woman also is heard challenging the officer: “Why did you have to shoot him in the head?” Later she says, “He wasn’t gonna jump.” Three minutes after the filming begins, an officer turns Diaz on his back. The recording ends before an ambulance is called or arrives. Diaz died in a hospital a few hours later.

“He was left there bleeding,” Huizar said, sobbing. “The officers did not call the paramedics. My son lay there bleeding I don’t know how long. That’s my son and they took him.”

Diaz was her only son and youngest child. Huizar said she experienced five miscarriages trying to have Diaz, because she really wanted to have a son. He graduated from Anaheim High School, where he played football and basketball, and most recently had been working as an office clerk at the City of Long Beach and living with her and his stepfather. But he also had had several run-ins with the law. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to possession of a gun on school grounds, and was sentenced to three years in prison. Last year, he pleaded guilty to a felony possession of a controlled substance and bringing or sending a controlled substance into a jail or prison.

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“We’re not perfect,” his mother said. “We’re all human. He would make you laugh. If you were in a group setting, he’d make sure you had a soda or water or something to drink. He had a kind heart. He was just a good son to me. I named him Angel because I felt he was like a gift from God. We had such a close bond.”

To police, Diaz made a different impression. Although police have released few details about the incident, the Anaheim Police Association, its union, has issued a lengthy statement regarding the weekend’s two officer-involved shootings. According to a statement released by union president Kerry Condon, police were patrolling the area for gang activity when they saw two men standing in an alley talking to another man sitting in the driver’s side of a parked vehicle. One of the officers recognized Diaz as a “documented gang member” who then began to run away “holding a concealed object in his front waist area with both hands.” The officers chased him and ordered him to stop running, but he did not. After a short foot pursuit, Diaz pulled the object from his waistband and turned toward the officers. “Feeling that Diaz was drawing a weapon, the officer opened fire on Diaz to stop the threat,” the statement says.

In the statement, Condon also said both Diaz and Acevedo, who was shot on Sunday, were members of two of Anaheim’s most violent street gangs and were known as “Stomper” and “Yogi” respectively. Acevedo was killed when investigators tried to pull over a stolen vehicle with four people in it, and a pursuit followed, causing a car accident. As the four suspects ran, Acevedo fired at the officers with a handgun. An officer returned fire and killed him.

It was the sixth time this year an Anaheim police officer resorted to lethal force to defuse a situation. In January, Bernie Cervantes Villegas, 36, and Roscoe Cambridge, 29, were killed in separate incidents. Villegas was at an apartment complex where people responded to a call of a man with a shotgun. A BB gun was found near the scene. Cambridge approached a police sergeant who was sitting in his police car working on his computer with a large kitchen knife. A month later, police shot and injured 19-year-old Gerardo Pineda during a foot pursuit. Two weeks later, a patrol officer killed Martin Angel Hernandez, 21, when he was found in an alley brandishing a shotgun, according to police.

“Overall, Anaheim is dealing with an increase in violent crime over the last two years,” said Sean Emery, a crime reporter for the Orange County Register, where the two injured reporters also work. “They had a 10 percent increase in violent crime in 2011 and their stats for this year are on track to match last year’s elevated numbers. That’s come as other cities in the area have marked a drop in crime rate. It’s hard to tell if there’s a specific reason for that. But the police say that a larger percentage of the violent crimes are being perpetrated by gang members.”

Diana Lopez, an attorney for Diaz’s family, denied that Diaz’s death had anything to do with gang activity, and said that he was not a “documented gang member,” as the police are claiming.

“Like many youths, he had trouble in the past that he was correcting and working on correcting,” Lopez said. “The way this incident happened, he was walking around, from the back of the house to the front of the house, something like that. There was no chase, according to the witnesses. And basically what the police officers are doing is what they did to Kelly Thomas. They want to tarnish him. We’re not going to have any of it. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. He was shot execution-style in the back of the head.”