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Orange County DA releases first police shooting video under new policy

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas says he'll release he will reverse course and release information to immigrant right activist? speaks during a news conference to announce that two Fullerton, California police officers were charged in connection with the death of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless man who died after the altercation with several police officers, on September 21, 2011 in Santa Ana, California. Officer Manuel Ramos was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, while Cpl. Jay Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for the first time Wednesday released video of an officer-involved shooting as he announced he had declined to file criminal charges against the officer.

Rackauckas is now one of only two DA’s in California who release such video. Most prosecutors take advantage of a state law that says there is no obligation to publicly disclose evidence, including video.

But Rackauckas, like other law enforcement officials, is under increasing public pressure to release video of police using deadly force as more and more civilian videos of shootings surface. The video can come from a variety of sources, including from cameras worn by officers, mounted on patrol car dashboards and fixed on nearby buildings as part of their security.

“We consider it really important to recognize the importance of the public being able to get this information as much as possible,” Rackauckas said.

Rackauckas is also currently facing a tough re-election bid against challenger Todd Spitzer, who is currently an Orange County Supervisor. 

In the video released Wednesday, officers from the city of Orange and nearby agencies confronted Michael Perez, 33, who refused to raise his hands and get out of his van during a traffic stop, prosecutors say.

As the standoff dragged on for more than an hour, Perez waved a meth pipe and repeatedly said he does not want to go back to prison. He showed police a gas can and threatens to light himself on fire.

Officers decided to ask firefighters shoot high pressure water into the van, which prompted him to move to the back of the van. Officers then start banging the van with hard objects. The sound on the video could be mistaken for gunshots.

Perez moved back to the front of the van as water poured in and emerged through the driver’s side window drenched and looking panicked. At least half a dozen officer swarm him when he allegedly reached for a knife on his belt.

Officer Carlos Gutierrez then opened fire, killing him with one hit.

The shooting prompted cries of anger from bystanders who had stopped to watch.

"What are you shooting him for,” one man angrily asked.

“He’s not doing anything,” shoute a woman.

For Rackauckas and his prosecutors, Gutierrez was justified in killing Perez because in their eyes he was reaching for his knife and an officer was right next to him.

“We specifically had an officer laying hands on Mr. Perez while Mr. Perez was reaching for a knife,” said Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh.

Others might differ after seeing the video – but Rackauckas says he hopes releasing it will add transparency.

He won’t release every video, Rackauckas said. Not all are relevant to determining whether an officer’s use of force was constitutional. And in some cases they are under a federal judge’s protective order.

“I think it’s a good policy in that it recognizes public interest while protecting the investigative and judicial processes,” said Phillip Kopp, an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Cal State Fullerton who studies how law enforcement uses body cams.

Under the new policy, Rauckauckas will also release the results of his investigation to provide context to what the video depicts. His prosecutors must inform all parties in a shooting of the impending release of the video.

“They are not blindsided,” Kopp said.