It was a beautiful July morning for the residents of a West Anaheim, California, neighborhood. Some walked along the streets and children played outside, enjoying the clear skies.
But the tranquil day was cut short, officials say, when Anaheim police officers Kevin Pedersen and Sean Staymates got a call. What transpired next was captured by their body-worn cameras: the officers are seen racing through the heavily populated neighborhood in their police cruiser, unleashing a hailstorm of bullets in pursuit of a suspect believed to be armed and dangerous.
The footage, which authorities called "disturbing," was released Wednesday following an investigation into Pedersen and Staymates by the Orange County District Attorney. Prosecutors say the men were summoned to a home on July 21 belonging to the parents of 50-year-old Eliuth Penaloza Nava, who sat outside in a white truck. His brother had called police to report Nava was "hallucinating" because of an unknown drug, and that he was armed with a knife and gun inside his vehicle.
The officers fired a combined 76 shots as they chased Nava through West Anaheim, which prosecutors called "alarming and irresponsible." Sixty-four of those shots came from Pedersen, a probationary officer, who was dismissed by the department, Anaheim Police Chief Jorge Cisneros said during a Wednesday news conference. Staymates will be disciplined, he said.
While prosecutors wrote that they were perturbed by the officers' conduct, they lacked evidence to bring criminal charges against the two men, who were "justified in believing that Nava posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to both officers and to others."
On the video, Pedersen pulls out his pistol immediately upon confronting Nava, who ignores instructions to stop his vehicle. He drives off instead, prompting a two-minute pursuit where Pedersen is seen firing his weapon repeatedly through his windshield, using his other hand to navigate. Staymates, who rode in the passenger seat, is shown assembling a rifle.
Appearing to talk into his radio, one of the men indicates they saw Nava "pointing the gun backward at us, and then at himself," an observation was corroborated by several witnesses, according to prosecutors.
The officers whiz by houses and cars throughout the chase. At one point, Pedersen tells Staymates: "hold on we got too much traffic here buddy . . . don't take a shot, don't take a shot, we got people in front of us."
While some bullets struck homes and vehicles, only Nava was harmed, according to prosecutors. They said the suspect's weapon - later determined to be a CO2-powered air pistol - was "black in color and extremely similar in appearance" to an authentic gun.
The incident ended in front of the house where it began, according to prosecutors. Both officers got out of the car and continued to shoot, with Pedersen firing at least 30 more times toward Nava's direction. The shooting doesn't stop until Nava is pulled from the vehicle, riddled with bullets. Prosecutors say the final shots, which appear superfluous, were because Pedersen believed Nava was "armed and still alive."
An autopsy revealed Nava sustained at least nine gunshot wounds to the head, neck and upper extremities.
"Both Officers Pedersen and Staymates reasonably feared their lives were in danger multiple times during the pursuit when Nava pointed the gun directly at them," prosecutors wrote in a summary explaining why they did not pursue criminal charges. They added: "A jury analyzing these facts would justly conclude that it was reasonable for Officers Staymates and Pedersen to believe that their lives and the lives of others in the area were in danger.
At Wednesday's news conference, Cisneros said the footage was "difficult" for him to watch, even as an almost-30-year veteran of the department. Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu agreed, telling reporters the officers' actions fell short of the community's standards.
"I share the disappointment of all that have seen this video," Sidhu said. "Whatever led to this incident, the loss of life is tragic."
The Washington Post