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Police Commission to investigate RPD shooting

by Mary shelton Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2002 at 1:56 PM

After hearing comments from over 10 community members concerning a Hispanic man shot by police officers, the Community Police Review Commission decided to investigate independantly

A spirited crowd of at least 50 people turned up to listen to Riverside Police Chief Russ Leach explain to the Community Police Review Commission why two of his officers shot an unarmed Hispanic man to death, Nov. 17.

What they received instead was an account which created more questions than answers, and led to calls for an independent investigation.

After listening to about 10 community members speak, the Commission agreed that an independent investigation would be conducted, but forgot to tell the audience members about their decision. Some thought, the Commission did not want to take such a stand in front of the police representatives.

One commissioner said afterwards, that the commission would investigate, and that they were not going to wait six months before getting involved, as they had with the fatal shooting of a Laotian-American in 2001.

According to city ordinance, the commission has the power to investigate the death of any person which arises directly or indirectly from the actions of a police officer. According to the same ordinance, which led to creation of the commission, a majority vote is needed by the commission to initiate an investigation.

However, in the past, the commission had nixed launching investigations into the separate shooting deaths of detective Doug Jacobs and resident Vanpaseuth Phaisouphanh, both which took place last year.

In past months, the commission has been struggling over creating a procedure of how and when to initiate investigations into officer-involved shootings and other in-custody deaths.

Now, once again the commission has been put to the test, with this latest shooting.

Leach, accompanied by field operations Commander, David Dominguez and Investigations Captain Andy Pytlak gave the latest official account of the shooting that began when police pursued a car weaving through traffic, and ended when two officers shot 11 rounds into Anastacio Munoz, as he sat inside his SUV.

Two police vehicles pursued Munoz until they reached his mother-in-law's house where he drove across two lawns and parked briefly, police said. One officer said in a statement that they had seen Munoz wave a metallic object, and yell to police that he had a gun. A relative of Munoz came out of the house to talk to him, but was quickly ushered back inside by officer Melissa Wagner. Munoz then allegedly drove his car back onto the street, and several officers followed him on foot.

Two of them, Wagner and officer Carl Turner fired at Munoz after he allegedly put his car into reverse and headed towards Turner who was standing in the street. Turner fired four shots, and Wagner who was standing to the side of the SUV, fired seven times hitting Munoz once in the cheek. Several officers called for medical assistance, and Munoz was transferred to a local hospital where he later died.

Then, the officers searched the car, turned off the ignition, according to Pytlak, but he did not mention whether or not they had found any gun or metallic object in the truck. After the meeting, he finally admitted to a reporter with the daily newspaper that police had not found a gun.

Questions were raised immediately after the presentation. One commissioner asked what the speed of the SUV had been when it was heading towards Turner. Before Pytlak could answer, Leach went up to the microphone and said there was something he needed to add to the account, but failed to answer the commissioner's question, sidestepping it entirely.

One speaker who witnessed the shooting and called it, an "execution" said that he had found a spent slug in the sidewalk in an area that was not roped off by police investigators. When he informed the investigators, they simply joked that he should do their job and did not take it seriously, he said.

Several Latino speakers told the police department that it had done its job well, in terms of serving as judge, jury and executioner for someone who was driving under the influence and that there had been a history in Riverside of police officers killing Latinos. Some criticized comments made by a Riverside County District Attorney's office representative the first day after the shooting, when he said that it was a justifiable shooting and that the officers' lives had been in danger. One speaker called for criminal indictments against the officers.

Several current and former members of the city's Human Relations Commission and various police department advisory boards chastized those people's comments as "inappropriate," ones that would foster a "lack of trust," completely ignoring the city's turbulent relationship with its law enforcement agency.

Others appeared to think that if they criticized or questioned a police shooting that the police would stop fighting crime in their communities which are suffering gang violence triggered in part by a series of mass arrests made five years ago, which catalyzed several prison gangs into fighting a war over these communities.

One speaker, the chair of the Human Relations Commission(otherwise known as the "supper club" because its main function appears to be attending dinners and conferences), said to the commission that she knew internal affairs would do a thorough investigation but the community did not know, and she knew many things about the police but the community did not, believing apparently that being white and upper middle-class and on a police advisory board imparts knowlege on a person that 30 years of relationships with police have failed to impart on Black and Latino communities.

She urged for an independent investigation, if only to foster good will and to help police officers get better training. Two representatives of Internal Affairs had a good chuckle over those comments, as they did those made by other speakers.

The Munoz family filed a law suit with attorney Andrew Roth alleging human rights violations committed against Munoz when officers shot him.

In the wake of the controversial shooting of Tyisha Miller by four police officers in 1998, the police department was investigated by federal and state agencies and entered into a five-year stipulated agreement with Attorney General, Bill Lockyer's office in March 2001. As part of the binding agreement, the department had to implement a series of reforms which addressed issues involving inadequate training and equipment and a working environment that was hostile to men of color and women.

The police department was required to hire a consultant to moniter reforms, and retained Joseph Brann who attended the meeting but did not speak.

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