By Ernesto Saavedra
(Author’s note: The author reached out to a representative of the Fresno Police Department and the Law Office of James P. Segall-Gutierrez with little to no response due to a number of factors such as timing. However, this story will be followed closely and more will surely come about this in future publications.)
During Memorial Day weekend, the Law Office of James P. Segall-Gutierrez announced that it is serving a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Fresno and the Fresno Police Department (FPD) for the death of 22-year-old migrant worker Miguel Moreno Torrez on behalf of Torrez’s family. In addition to the civil rights violations, the City and the FPD are being charged with negligence, intentional/negligent infliction of emotional distress, violation of the Bane Act (denying the civil rights of an individual; California Civil Code Section 51.7) and violation of California Government Code Section 845.6 (a public employee (i.e., the police) knowing about someone needing medical care and then denying someone that medical care), to name a few.
The incident occurred on June 11, 2014, after a witness, seeing Torrez fighting with his brother outside of their home, called 9-1-1 for help. Police arrived shortly thereafter and, according to a press release from the law firm, shot Torrez 16 times (many news sources and community reported Torrez was shot 17 times), killing him. The FPD has gone on record saying Torrez had a knife, threatened his brother with it and was not complying when asked to put the knife down, becoming a threat to himself and others and prompting the officers on the scene to shoot Torrez. However, the law firm refutes the FPD’s claims stating that Torrez posed no threat, had his hands up and he did not understand the officers’ demands because they were in English and Torrez is a native Spanish speaker.
“Torrez had his hands up in the air, and or was raising his hands in shock as he heard the unintelligible commands from Doe Officers. In those seconds, at least five to six bullets pierced through Torrez’s right armpit.” The law firm goes on to note that the remaining bullets went through Torrez’s back indicating that he was shot in the back as he was going down.
Furthermore, the law firm states that “Torrez did not charge at [the] Doe officers and the commands given by [the] Doe officers were given in English. Torrez did not understand the Doe officers’ English-language commands to comply with the orders to ‘get down on the ground.’” As previously noted, Torrez is a native Spanish speaker and like many migrant workers in the Central Valley came here to earn enough to support his family in Mexico.
Just three weeks before the killing of Torrez, the FPD killed 27-year-old Martin Figueroa. Figueroa’s family called 9-1-1 because they feared for his life and needed help. He was apparently high on methamphetamines and up for days. After trying to negotiate with Figueroa, the FPD moved in, shooting and killing him because he was brandishing a knife and they felt threatened. The killing of Figueroa followed by the killing of Torrez sparked outrage in the community because they deemed the killings as excessive use of force and feel they were preventable.
On June 16, 2014, roughly 100 activists, family members and friends of Torrez, Figueroa and other victims of police shootings rallied and marched. Their demands were simple: 1) that the FPD use negotiations and mental health intervention when confronting a suspect who appears to be suffering from mental and emotional distress and 2) that the FPD use less than lethal force as its first response when confronting suspects who appear to be a threat to themselves or others, weapon or no weapon.
Francisco Chavo Romero, Assistant of the Civil Rights Division with the Law Office of James P. Segall-Gutierrez, said that this is the beginning of what will surely be a long trial. “We filed the federal civil rights lawsuit so the ball has started rolling. Now we just wait for their [City of Fresno and FPD] response.”
This comes after years of trying to hold the FPD accountable for excessive use of force, with various protests and lawsuits. In a municipality where the City’s representatives seem to unconditionally support the FPD, even when its own officers are being indicted, and public opinion is often swayed with Chief Jerry Dyer’s “charm,” many are curious as to what will come of this. Time will tell.
Ernesto Saavedra is the editor of the Community Alliance. Contact him at ernesto. email@example.com.