Note: Since this story was published, District Attorney’s Office investigations into Bours and Vargas determined that both men were advancing toward police with a weapon. Families of both men questioned the D.A. accounts of the incidents.
DOWNEY — Downey police officers have shot people 12 times since 2000, according to investigations from the District Attorney’s office and news reports.
Seven of the officer-involved shootings were fatal, and three or four of those shot by police were unarmed, according to reports from the D.A.’s office and the Sheriff’s Department.
In Whittier, where the department patrols communities with about the same number of people and similar demographics, police shot nine people. Four of the shootings were fatal, and one suspect was unarmed.
Downey police have come under scrutiny after the Oct. 22 fatal shooting of 31-year-old Michael Lee Nida, a South Gate father of four. Nida was unarmed when he was gunned down by a Downey Police officer. Downey’s officers were responding to a report of an armed robbery at a nearby ATM machine when they stopped Nida at Paramount Boulevard and Imperial Highway.
Nida was out on a date with his wife and was crossing the street after buying cigars when he was first confronted by police. Nida twice ran from officers before he was confronted again in an alley behind a drug store. Those familiar with the investigation said he failed to obey officers commands before he was shot. Police said Nida made an “aggressive” move before the shooting.
Police concluded after the shooting that Nida had nothing to do with the robbery.
The Nida family, as well as other families whose relatives were killed by Downey Police, have questioned Downey’s tactics during recent shootings. Others have stated that Downey officers are more aggressive than officers at other departments.
All police shootings in Los Angeles County are investigated by the D.A.’s office, according to spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons.
In Downey, at least two fatal shootings by officers were probably “suicide by cop,” meaning those killed by police were hoping officers would shoot and kill them, according to reports from the D.A.’s office.
Two of the Whittier Police Department fatal shootings were probably cases of suicide by cop, according to the D.A.’s reports. Another case seems to be an attempted suicide by cop, according to statements included in investigation reports.
Although Whittier has about 85,000 residents, the Whittier Police also patrol Santa Fe Springs, which brings the total number of residents to about 102,000, which is about 8,000 less than the number of residents in Downey.
In Downey, officers in 2001 and 2002 shot six people.
A Downey police officer on Oct. 28, 2001 may have shot an unarmed teenager who had just robbed a convenience store, according to a D.A. report on the shooting. Sixteen-year-old Christopher Lara and 18-year-old Jose Rodriguez had used a gun or guns to rob a Circle K market.
An officer chased their car before the men jumped out and ran. The officer and a witness said Lara turned toward the officer and stuck out his hand before he was shot by the officer. The officer said he feared Lara had a gun.
After Lara was hit by two bullets, he kept running before he and Rodriguez were arrested nearby. Rodriguez said he had a gun before the foot chase but threw it out the window before he and Lara jumped out of the car.
Lara declined to answer officers’ questions, and it wasn’t clear if he ever had a gun. The D.A.’s report stated that Lara told employees during the robbery that he was armed. Lara had a grazing injury to his head and a hole in his abdomen. He survived.
Until Nida’s killing, the most high-profile police-shooting was that of Gonzalo Martinez in 2002, who led police on a chase before he was shot to death by officers. The D.A.’s office could not locate their report on the shooting, but the nature of the death was hashed out in open court during a wrongful death lawsuit by the Martinez family against the city. The city prevailed in its defense after its attorney argued that Martinez committed “suicide by cop.” Martinez was unarmed during the shooting, but police said he reached toward his waistband before two officers shot him to death. One of the officers used an MP-5 submachine gun, the same type of gun used to kill Nida.
At one point during the chase, officers believed Martinez was trying to run them over. They fired shots at Martinez’s car, hitting him in the hand before Martinez drove away. Martinez was finally stopped when police officers rammed his car. Martinez smoked two cigarettes before he got out of the car. After he stood up, he allegedly reached for his waistband and was shot to death. Police and witnesses gave conflicting testimony about whether Martinez reached in a way that would lead an officer to think he was pulling out a gun.
A second fatal shooting led to the 2002 death of David Miranda, who likely shot a bullet at an officer before his gun jammed and he was shot to death by the officer, according to the D.A.’s investigation.
All but one of the other shootings by Downey officers from 2000 to 2002 involved someone driving a car toward police, according to investigations by the D.A.’s office. None of those shootings were fatal.
It would be almost four years before a Downey Police officer was again reported to have shot another person, according to D.A.’s records.
In 2006, Downey resident Peter Pelayo was shot while trying to evade officers inside First Baptist Church of Downey, where Pelayo was an employee at the time.
An officer tried to pull over a car driven by Pelayo because they headlights weren’t on. Pelayo drove to the church parking lot, got out of the car and ran into the church, according to the D.A.’s report. It was dark and still early in the morning. An officer found Pelayo in a church room, and he ordered Pelayo to come out with his hands up. The officer reported that Pelayo ignored him. The officer said Pelayo pointed a “metallic gray object” at the officer before the officer fired about six-to-eight rounds at Pelayo during the next few moments, according to the D.A.’s report. Pelayo ran and hid under a stage. Sheriff’s deputies were called to help Downey’s officers, and a sheriff’s dog later that afternoon bit Pelayo before he came out and was arrested. Officers learned that Pelayo was hit in the leg and the thumb by the officer’s bullets. The “gray metallic object” was probably a set of church keys, according to the report. A gun was never found, and Pelayo insisted he never had a gun. On the early morning of the attempted traffic stop, Pelayo had been stealing things from a nearby movie theater, according to the D.A.’s report. Pelayo also had a suspended driver license and a pair of outstanding traffic tickets, according to the report.
The next two fatal shootings were probably “suicide by cop,” according to testimony included in D.A.’s investigations. In one of the instances, a man in 2006 threatened to kill himself several times before he pointed his gun at Downey officers. The officers shot the man to death. An MP-5 gun was used during this shooting.
And during a 2007 fatal officer-involved shooting, a man pointed a fake handgun at an officer before he was shot to death by Downey officers. The man left a suicide note in his ashtray.
Almost three years went by before another reported police shooting by Downey Police.
Steven Bours, 30, was shot to death in 2010 while he held either a hatchet or hatchet-like-tool while he walked in the street at Paramount and Imperial. Police said Bours advanced toward them with the hatchet raised before they shot Bours. That shooting is still under investigation, and Bours’ family has filed a civil-rights lawsuit against Downey alleging that officers were seeking revenge for a fight between Bours and officers a month before the shooting.
Then on Oct. 12 of this year, 41-year-old Manuel Vargas was shot to death near railroad tracks at Old River School Road and Firestone Boulevard. Police said Vargas charged at them with a folding knife and a stick. A family friend said Vargas had recently become despondent after losing his job and was a peaceful person. That shooting is also under investigation.
Whittier Police from 2000 to 2006 shot nine people. They haven’t had a shooting in five years.
In 2001, a man hiding in a closet with a machine gun was killed after he jumped out of the closet and shot at officers. Two officers were hit before they killed the man with the machine gun.
In 2002, Adrian Medina was shot to death inside a home as he was holding a knife and walking toward officers. A female friend of Medina’s was trying use her body to shield Medina from the officers before they shot him. According to the D.A.’s report, the two officers were yelling at Medina to drop the knife and for the woman to back away. But both failed to obey. Medina reportedly thanked the officers for shooting him.
In April 2003, an officer killed Jeffrey Brian Johnson after a struggle in which Johnson allegedly got control of an officer’s gun while Johnson was wrestling with two officers. Neighbors testified that Johnson was acting crazy before the shooting and asked them to get a radio so he could “call the Air Force.”
Also in April 2003, officers shot 45-year-old Paul Williams to death after Williams pulled a gun on officers. Williams left what appeared to be a suicide note, but blood stains made it difficult to read, according to the D.A.’s report. The report says that Williams told his sister that he was going to have police officers kill him.
Two other non-fatal shootings involved men driving their cars at officers.
Then in 2006, a Whittier officer was responding to call to find a maroon Honda. The driver was suspected of making terrorist threats. In addition, the car was believed to be stolen. The driver was reported to be a South Side Whittier gang member and was suspected to be armed, according to the D.A.’s report. A Whittier Police officer spotted a car matching the description and tried to pull it over. The driver of the Honda sped away.
The Honda slowed and driver Fred Sanchez jumped out while the officer was still following in his car. The officer tried to avoid Sanchez but ended up hitting Sanchez with his car, according to the report. Sanchez ran, but the officer caught up to him in a wash near Coyote Creek. The officer shot Sanchez when Sanchez was reaching toward his waistband, according to the report. Sanchez was hit in the back and the butt, according to the report. He was unarmed and no gun was found at the scene. A passenger who was with Sanchez said he thought Sanchez had a gun, the D.A.’s investigation reported.