The family of a knife-wielding suicidal man who was fatally shot by Santa Maria police has taken the first step toward a lawsuit, seeking at least $3 million in damages and better training for officers, their attorneys said Wednesday.
Fresno-area civil rights and criminal defense attorneys Eric Schweitzer and William “Bill” Schmidt held a press conference in a Santa Maria hotel Wednesday to speak about the July 20 shooting that led to the death of 31-year-old Javier Garcia Gaona.
He was shot and killed at South Broadway and Enos Drive after reportedly lunging toward police, who had fired less-than-lethal beanbag and sponge rounds that failed to subdue him.
“We believe the killing was completely unnecessary, and we base this conclusion on the statements of eyewitnesses as well as much of the video that was shot at the scene,” Schweitzer said.
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Last week, the attorneys submitted a claim against the city, the first step toward a lawsuit. If the city rejects the claim, as happens in most cases, a lawsuit likely will be filed in federal court.
“The family is seeking justice,” Schmidt said. “This isn’t just about money. They want to see training of the officers in the Police Department so this doesn’t happen to anybody else again.”
City officials declined to comment on the possible lawsuit.
“Since the victim’s family is now seeking to litigate this matter, unfortunately we are not in a position to comment at this time,” said Philip Sinco, assistant city attorney.
The family’s attorneys contend Gaona was not violent, but was “obviously disoriented and distraught.”
Instead of walking toward officers, the attorneys claim, the man was “dazed and stumbling” from being hit by beanbag rounds.
Schweitzer called the police practices “highly questionable” and said the situation was static because police had time, multiple officers at the scene and had contained the man against a Foods Co sign.
You’d think in the year 2016, with modern police practices and all the resources that were on scene, a better outcome could have been achieved.
Defense attorneys Eric Schweitzer
The morning standoff that led to the fatal shooting attracted dozens of spectators, who gathered at the intersection where two busy grocery stores and other businesses are located.
The attorneys asked why police didn’t use a Taser, although police made statements after the shooting saying a stun gun is less effective at greater distances.
Spectators said the man made stabbing motions to his torso and neck, but the attorneys maintain the videos don’t show he was bleeding and claim he was unharmed.
While police used an FBI-trained negotiator, the attorneys contend police should have summoned a mental health professional or a family member.
“You’d think in the year 2016, with modern police practices and all the resources that were on scene, a better outcome could have been achieved,” Schweitzer said.
The attorneys have been involved in similar cases throughout California, Schmidt said.
“Javier, if he threatened anybody, it was only himself,” Schmidt said. “In our view, and it’s early in the investigation, the officers were not in any type of danger. They overreacted, and we saw what we call ‘contagious fire.’ ”
Gaona was the oldest of five siblings who loved to play with his nephews, his sister April Garcia said.
He reportedly suffered from bouts of depression, the attorneys said.
Officers reportedly fired more than a dozen shots, including those from less-lethal weapons.
Shortly after the shooting, police said three officers fired their service weapons at Gaona after the less-than-lethal weapons, including bean bag rounds, failed to subdue him.
The attorneys said they are conducting a parallel investigation into the shooting.
As is standard in these cases, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the officer-involved shooting to determine whether it was justified. Once completed, that investigation will be reviewed by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office.