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DA clears officers; releases body cam of OIS after woman tried to run them over

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Robert Salonga
The Mercury News

Four San Jose police officers who shot and killed a woman in a car on Christmas morning, after mistaking her for a suspect in an earlier shooting, will not face criminal charges, according to a report released Friday by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors also made public Friday a 75-second excerpt from a video taken by an officer’s body camera that depicted the frenzied moments leading up to the shooting, which took place after a high-speed chase. The video shows officers screaming at Jennifer Vazquez, 24, to stop and get out of the car, which had crashed into a fence outside an elementary school and become lodged there. In the video, the officers also threaten to shoot her if she does not obey them.

Vazquez is shown rocking the car backward and forward, trying to extricate it from the fence, and then driving it forward, ramming into a police car. The video ends with the sound of gunshots.

The Vazquez shooting elicited heavy controversy in the city, especially once it was learned that she was not involved in the crime that led police to try to stop her car in the early-morning hours of Dec. 25. But police said a witness to the earlier shooting had pointed out Vazquez’ car and they realized the mistake only after they shot her.

A 62-page report released Friday by the District Attorney’s Office also concluded that Vazquez’s refusal to pull over and comply with officers helped solidify their belief that they were pursuing the right person. The report identified the officers who opened fire as Marco Mercado, Eliseo Anaya, Mitchell Stimson and Mark Koska.

“Nothing Jennifer Vazquez did on December 25, 2018, dispelled the reasonable suspicion that she was exactly who the police were looking for, an armed fleeing felon,” Deputy District Attorney David Boyd wrote in the report.

He continued, “Even after the crash, Vazquez’s behavior revealed to a reasonable observer that she was not going to be arrested – no matter what law enforcement would do – and that she was going to use the car in order to escape with no regard for the safety of others.”

The report’s conclusion did not surprise supporters of Vazquez and her family, who noted that police officers in Santa Clara County — and in general — rarely, if ever, face criminal charges for shootings that occur in the line of duty. Lidia Jimenez, a former mentor to Vazquez who has been serving as a spokeswoman for the family, said Friday that Vazquez’s parents were not immediately prepared to comment on the district attorney’s report. After Vazquez was killed, her parents had called for an outside investigation of the shooting.

Source: San Jose Police Department

Raj Jayadev, director of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a social-justice group that had been helping Vazquez’s family in the aftermath of her death, said the report’s conclusion was “disappointing,” but expected. He, too, had called for an outside investigation soon after Vazquez’ death.

“It’s consistent with officer-involved shooting deaths in San Jose, but it is still heartbreaking each time,” he said. “This family, despite all odds, really did have faith that their local D.A.’s office would hold officers accountable for taking the life of a young girl who was unarmed and had her whole life in front of her.”

In the video footage released Friday, taken from Mercado’s body camera, the officers confront Vazquez as she tries to dislodge the white Toyota Camry from the fence. A passenger, Linda Carmona-Bruno, is also in the car.

Mercado can be heard yelling, “Stay in the f***ing car! Do you want to be shot? Keep your hands out!”

Mercado then asks other officers if they have a “40,” a reference to a 40 mm projectile gun that fires less-than-lethal rounds like bean bags and rubber bullets. Soon after, he yells at Vazquez’ vehicle, “I am going to shoot you if you don’t stop!” then tells the other officers, “If she comes at me, I am gonna shoot her.”

The district attorney’s report released Friday, like previous accounts by law enforcement officers, noted that Vazquez was driving a stolen car and had an active warrant for drug possession. The report also noted that she had been convicted in 2014 for fleeing from police in a stolen car and had evidence of methamphetamine in her body when she died.

But critics of the police officers’ actions called those disclosures an attempt to justify the shooting in hindsight, given that the officers were chasing the wrong car. In any case, they said, driving a stolen car should not result in a death sentence.

The Christmas morning pursuit began around 2 a.m., when San Jose police responded to reports of gunfire near Story Road and Clemence Avenue in East San Jose. There, they found two people suffering gunshot wounds and a witness pointing to a white car driving down the street.

The witness reportedly told police, “That way! They shot!”

Officers followed the car, driven by Vazquez, and tried unsuccessfully to get her to pull over. They looked up the license plate and determined that the Toyota was stolen. They also heard about another shooting a few hours earlier, near Stockton and Lenzen avenues, in which a person was injured. The police officers chased the Camry for five miles on city streets and onto Interstate 280, before it exited onto Leigh Avenue and crashed into a chain-link fence at the corner of Fruitdale Avenue next to a playground and Sherman Oaks Elementary School.

The passenger in the car, Carmona-Bruno, 28, was shot once. She was treated and released from a hospital. Prosecutors determined officers were also within their rights when they shot and injured her.

Jayadev said the shooting was one more reason that he and other criminal justice reform advocates were pushing for the passage of state Assembly Bill 392, which would raise standards for police use of deadly force and make it easier to punish officers who don’t meet that standard.

“I wish Jenny’s case wasn’t going to be an example of how we need an elevated standard for when officers can use lethal force,” Jayadev said. “And even if we elevate that standard, it’s still going to come down to D.A.s honoring the law.”

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2 COMMENTS

  1. The woman tried to use her car as a weapon and run over the cops. What do people expect is going to happen? People who break the law and there family’s have lost there minds. The police did there job and if the woman had use any kind of common sense she would have pulled over long before the high speed chase. Long before she tried to run over the cops long before she was shoot. Then the family wants to sue the police because they had a family member who was above the law in there mind WOW. I am sorry the lady lost her life but that was her choice, Not the police choice.

  2. How was that justified? She tried to run over the officers? No, she was trying to escape. Every officer there had more than ample time to mosey out of the way. In no way was deadly force authorized in THIS situation. These officers got away with murder.

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