More than a year has passed since a man in Los Banos took a gun from a police officer, and shot two officers before he was killed.
Los Banos Police Chief Gary Brizzee has repeatedly declined to answer questions about the fatal incident.
An expert on police law said state statutes allows cities and police departments to keep incidents like these out of the public eye, but that doesn’t make it ethical. It’s about transparency, according to Michael Haddad, a civil rights attorney in Oakland and the former president of the National Police Accountability Project.
The Sun-Star has requested an interview with Brizzee more than a dozen times by email, phone and in person going back to Aug. 1. Provided with questions by email, Brizzee has not discussed the case, including whether the officers followed proper procedure, if the department has made any training changes or why he has declined to answer questions.
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Los Banos Police were responding to a domestic dispute around 6:18 a.m. July 31, 2017, inside an apartment in the 2100 block of Gilbert Gonzalez Jr. Drive, according to investigators.
On the day of the shooting, Brizzee told reporters 39-year-old Norberto Nieblas Reyes became argumentative with officers. The chief said an officer used a Taser on Neiblas Reyes but it apparently didn’t work, and Nieblas Reyes pulled the probes off of his body.
Somehow, Nieblas Reyes then took the service weapon from 34-year-old Officer Kristifer Hew before shooting Hew and 28-year-old Officer Aaron Pinon, according to investigators. Pinon was shot once in the upper torso, and Hew was shot three times. Hew was struck in the torso, leg and head — above an eye, investigators said.
While Brizzee has never discussed the fact that Nieblas Reyes managed to take an officer’s weapon, the Merced County District Attorney’s Office confirmed it in a letter that cleared the officers in the shooting.
“A violent struggle ensued whereas (Nieblas Reyes) was able to remove Officer Hew duty weapon and shoot both officers,” the letter said.
Hew was able to use Pinon’s firearm to shoot Nieblas Reyes, who had a history of fighting with police and died at a Modesto hospital, investigators said.
California law surrounding police use of force and similar laws lean heavily on the side of protecting officers rather than transparency, according to Haddad.
“Under the California Public Records Act there’s a number of exceptions local government can claim to hide or conceal information about police shootings or police misconduct from the public,” he said. “It’s easy for them to do. It doesn’t make it right, of course.”
Haddad noted police are public servants enforcing public laws. “If they’re confident that they’re in the right then they would share this information with the public,” Haddad said.
Mayor Mike Villalta declined to speak about the case when reached by phone. He also refused to discuss whether the chief should agree to answer questions. “I’m not going to comment on what anybody else should say or shouldn’t say,” he said.
City Manager Alex Terrazas initially spoke with the Sun-Star on Tuesday and noted city officials were hesitant to discuss the shooting, because of the potential for a lawsuit. He did not return follow-up phone calls.
Los Banos was just last month ordered to pay the family of another man killed by an officer. The federal jury in Sacramento gave a vote of no confidence to Officer Jairo Acosta’s version of events and said his conduct was “malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard” of the constitutional rights of Tan Lam, a 43-year-old Los Banos man killed by the officer in 2013.
The jury awarded Lam’s family $2.75 million.
Brizzee confirmed last month there is body-camera footage from the night of the Nieblas Reyes shooting but denied a formal public records request from the Sun-Star for a copy of the video.
In comparison, police in Sacramento released footage of the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark the day after he was killed by officers, according to reports from the Sacramento Bee.
Those kinds of public records are in dispute statewide. Assembly Bill 748 cleared the Assembly at the end of the session about three weeks ago.
Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, said his bill would provide greater transparency by requiring law enforcement agencies to disclose body camera footage within 45 days, unless they can offer a strong reason to withhold the footage for an additional month. The bill would become law if signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
“It’s clear that body camera technology is being more and more widespread throughout law enforcement,” Ting said shortly after it passed. “It only makes sense that there’s a statewide policy to really govern that.”
The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.