Civil Liberties

Newly Released Surveillance Footage Shows LA County Sheriff's Deputy Fatally Shooting Jonathan Cuevas While He Was on the Ground [Updated]


Two years ago this October, LA County Sheriff's Deputy Julio Jove told three young men, including 20-year-old Jonathan Cuevas, to halt. They had been out partying and drinking, and they had just jaywalked. It was around 1:45 in the morning in Lynwood, California. When Deputy Jove told the three men to stop, Cuevas ran.

Then, Deputy Jove says Cuevas reached for a handgun at his waist, and pointed the weapon at him. So the Deputy reacted by shooting Cuevas multiple times.

The shooting was minor news at the time, Some small amount of community outrage clearly did not have the hoped-for effect as two years have passed since the incident.

And, to be sure, the newly-released, frustratingly grainy and faraway surveillance footage from that night does not discount the claim of Cuevas pulling a gun. But what it does definitively show is that Jove fired multiple shots at Cuevas as he ran — saving the last one for when Cuevas had fallen on the ground. A WCSH6 Portland report says the autopsy shows at least three bullets had already struck Cuevas, bringing the total to at least four.

A gun was found at the scene, but Cuevas' family's attorney  James Segall Gutierrez claims that it's suspicious because the young man's prints were not found on it. He also counts seven total shots fired by Deputy Jove in the footage.

Now the family of Cuevas is filing a $5 million wrongful death suit against the sheriff's department. Deputy Jove is been back on the force, working street patrol, since his actions were judged "within policy." The LA County District Attorney's office told Reason that they investigate every officer-involved shooting, as does each police department or country sheriff's office. More background on their methods of investigations can be found here, including slightly unsettling details such as "All physical evidence shall remain in the custody of the police agency conducting the investigation." 

Check out the footage for yourself:

Again, whatever else is under debate, Deputy Jove clearly fires his gun at the fallen Cuevas. 

According to Southern California Public Radio, Spokesperson for the Sheriff's Department, Steve Whitmore said the video isn't enough for the public to judge:

"This video that was shown today is partial, small part of this story. It is by no means telling the whole story," he said.

Whitmore said because of the civil lawsuit, he was not able to fully comment or divulge more details of the case but said the department looks forward to telling their side of the story in court.

Whitmore also told Reason, when pressed as to the appropriateness of an officer firing at a suspect already on the ground. "what the video doesn't show is what [Cuevas] was doing on the ground and what precipitated that." Whitemore also said Cuevas was "armed and a gang member" and asked, what if Cuevas was shooting at a deputy while still on the ground?  The correct place for details of the shooting to come out is "a court of law," he continued, and that is where it will come out. Whitmore declined to elaborate as to why it took two years to release the surveillance video of the shooting, or to speak to why Gutierrez is claiming that the gun found on Jonathan did not have his prints.   

Go watch Reason TV on how important cameras are in the fight to keep police accountable. If footage of the Ceuvas shooting has been captured on, say, an on-officer camera, there wouldn't be nearly as much trying to decide which person with a vested interest in telling their story their way was telling the truth.

Hat tip to dogged commenter sloopyinca

Updated: The Los Angeles District Attorney's office emailed Reason the closing letter for the Cuevas case, which they concluded was a "lawful self-defense" on the part of the deputy. 

There's lots here, but Deputy Jove had seen Cuevas and his friends Eduardo Villa Jr. and Ernie Campos "flashing gang signs" at cars. And:

Based on their unusual behavior, Jove believed they were setting him up for an ambush. Jove then saw Cuevas pull a handgun from his front waistband.

As Jove jumped out of the police car, Cuevas Walked southbound on the sidewalk Jove yelled to Cuevas, "Let me see your hands! Let me see your handsl" Cuevas quickly turned his upper body toward Jove. Fearing that Cuevas was about to shoot him, Jove fired one round from his service Weapon. Cuevas began running southbound. As Jove gave chase, he saw Cuevas turn once more and blade his body toward him. Jove ñred another round at Cuevas fearing that he was still trying to shoot him. Cuevas ran a short distance before falling to the curb just north of the northeast corner of Josephine Street and Long Beach Boulevard. Cuevas screamed, "You fucking shot me!" Jove ran up to Cuevas and stood in the number two lane of trafñc on Long Beach Boulevard. He was momentarily blinded by the headlights of oncoming vehicles. The drivers were honking their horns at him as he stood in the street. He could also hear Campos and Villa yelling and cursing at him back at the police car.

Cuevas was lying on his stomach with his hands beneath his body at his waistband. He was aggressively moving his shoulders from side to side. Jove repeatedly ordered Cuevas to, "Let me see your hands, let me see your handsl" Cuevas did not comply and continued to move his body While screaming, "Fuck you! Fuck you! You fucking shot me, you fucking shot rnel" Cuevas began "messing with his waistband" then rolled toward his left shoulder. His right shoulder and knee came off the ground. Cuevas was looking directly at Jove while ignoring his commands to show his hands. Jove believed that Cuevas was attempting to roll over in order to pull the gun from beneath his body and shoot him. He fired a third round at Cuevas. Cuevas rolled onto his back and put his hands above his head. Jove saw the gun falling out of Cuevas' waistband. Cuevas arched his back While cursing at Jove and complaining of pain. Jove ordered Cuevas to stop moving several times before it appeared to Jove that he was complying. Jove turned his attention to Campos and Villa and ordered them to their knees. Cuevas began to move again and his hands lowered toward his waistband. Jove repeatedly ordered Cuevas not to reach for the gun. Cuevas ignored the commands and continued to reach for the gun. In fear for for his life, Jove tired two to three rounds from his service weapon to prevent Cuevas from grabbing the gun. He did not believe he struck Cuevas until the last round when Cuevas said, "Alright already, alright," and put his hands back above his head. Cuevas stopped moving but continued to yell profanities at Jove. 

Unsurprisingly, the statements of Villa is not quite as carefully detailed, but do not detail Cuevas constantly reaching for his waistband. Campos did not know Cuevas very well, and did not he was carrying a gun. Villa's opinion was that Cuevas panicked because he was carrying a Smith & Wesson .38. The DA report includes additional details, including confirmation that four bullets hit Cuevas and five were fired. 

Regardless of whether Jove was in the right, it behoovs us to remember that the penalty for carrying a gun, even illegally, should not be death. And a man who has been shot multiple times would tend to move around a lot. Once again, if you're given the power of lethal, legal force, you should be filmed at all times.

The DA's report concludes:

The evidence examined in this investigation indicates that rather than risk arrest, Cuevas chose to flee from Deputy Jove with a loaded firearm in his hand. Cuevas ignored J ove's commands to show his hands, and instead turned toward the deputy on two occasions as he fled. Cuevas' actions placed Jove in reasonable fear that he was about to be shot causing him to respond with deadly force. 

It is undisputed that Cuevas was moving around once he fell to the sidewalk. Although the witnesses attributed his behavior to pain, they were unaware that he was armed with a gun. Jove believed that his life was in jeopardy when Cuevas rolled from his stomach exposing the gun beneath him and ñred additional rounds. Once on his back, Deputy Jove continued to order Cuevas to stop moving and not to reach for the gun falling out of his waistband. Instead of complying, Cuevas placed Deputy Jove in reasonable fear for his life when he reached for the  gun.

Without a camera, though, you still have to trust law enforcement. As the closing letter notes, "The following analysis is based on reports prepared by the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department (LASD), submitted to this office by Adan Torres and Jeff Leslie, LASD, Homicide Bureau." Officials from the DA's office investigate, but there's still a lot of trust to be put in police in these cases.