Fontana police keeps public in the dark on shootings involving officers – Orange County Register

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San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus was quick to disclose information after deputies fatally shot an autistic 15-year-old boy armed with a sharp gardening tool in Apple Valley.

Within days of the March 9 shooting outside a home, Dicus released portions of the body-worn camera footage and defended his deputies at a news conference.

Conversely, in Fontana, more than four months after police shot and killed a man in November while responding to a domestic dispute, the department has stayed mum about the details of the shooting.

Fontana police have been equally silent in two of three other shootings by its officers since then, each time invoking the exemption in state transparency law allowing police to temporarily withhold some details if a case is under investigation.

Said Chief Michael Dorsey: “These investigations take months to complete and I will not be responsible for releasing information prematurely that can jeopardize an investigation.”

While the law may allow such silence, police are still free to release more information, as Sheriff Dicus demonstrated. Media attorneys argue that just because police can withhold some details doesn’t mean they should.

The investigation exemption “is not a ‘get-out-of-jail-free-card’ for public information,” said David Loy, legal director for the First Amendment Coalition, an open government group. “There can’t be a complete black hole, they have to disclose more information than they are.”

In the Fontana shooting on Nov. 11, 2023, police said officers responded to a call of a man threatening family members at 7:30 p.m. in the 7100 block of Big Sur Street. Police encountered the man and an officer-involved shooting occurred, said the news release. An officer was injured.

The state attorney general’s office, which investigates police shootings when the subject is unarmed, is looking into the Fontana shooting and identified the deceased as Jaime Valdez, 33, of Fontana. However, the Fontana Police Department has not released any more details on the shooting, continuing to cling to its vague press release.

Other shootings

The department also has been tight-lipped about other, more recent shootings involving its officers.

On Dec.13, 2023, Fontana police pulled over a car that was identified earlier in a report of someone brandishing a gun. The driver fled on foot, “the situation escalated” and officers fatally shot the man, said the sparse news release. A gun was recovered at the scene, it said.

Again, more than three months later, Fontana police would not say how the “situation escalated” or whether the man was holding the gun when he was killed. In reports published by other media organizations, the man’s family identified him as Jose Pena and said he was shot in the back. 

The family has accused the city of repeatedly refusing to release documents and videos of the shooting to their attorneys, according to a lawsuit they filed in late January.

State disclosure laws

The suit claims the refusals violate state public disclosure laws. Under Assembly Bill 473, they say, Fontana should have released video of the incident 45 days after Pena was shot.

The 2021 bill established the time window for police agencies to disclose video records deemed to be in the public interest. While the law allows police to withhold audio and video recordings they believe could compromise criminal investigations, the bill also requires them to explain their reasoning in writing.

Attorneys for the family pressed the city to release a “critical incident video” documenting the shooting. Such videos have been released by the Los Angeles Police Department since 2018, after city lawmakers passed new rules requiring them to do so.

LAPD was among the first agencies in the state to produce critical incident videos, regularly releasing them on YouTube. While often highly edited, the videos typically provide most of the available video of an incident from officers’ body-worn cameras and from dashboard cameras on their cruisers, as well as audio from 911 calls and radio communication between dispatchers and officers.

Since then, agencies large and small have adopted similar video-release policies.

The Pena family said in its lawsuit that attorneys for Fontana demurred when asked if they would release a critical incident video.

“Amongst other things, counsel for (Fontana) indicated, but not confirmed, that the city may not likely publish critical incident video within 45 days of the shooting,” according to the suit.

An attorney for the Pena family did not return multiple requests for comment.

The Southern California News Group requested the bodycam footage of the December encounter but was denied by the Fontana department as well, citing the investigation exemption and saying the release would have a negative effect on locating, contacting and interviewing witnesses.

February shootings

Two other shootings involving Fontana officers occurred in February.

On Feb. 9, a Fontana officer shot and injured a man in Yucaipa who allegedly had a gun in his vehicle. The officer was part of a San Bernardino County crime suppression unit called Operation Consequences. The man purportedly was pulled over for alleged traffic violations.

Fontana police released the name and age of the person who was shot: Allen Metka, 56. Police said a gun was found in the vehicle, but would not say where the firearm was specifically located or if Metka was holding the weapon. A month later, they would not give an update on Metka’s injury or disclose whether he has been charged with a crime. Police also would not give any information on how the shooting occurred or, still, the specific location of the gun.

And then on Feb. 26, Fontana officers shot and killed a man who fled inside a Home Depot store after running into nearby traffic. The initial news release was vague and said the man armed himself with an “edged weapon.”

Details disclosed

However, the department — in stark contrast with the other shootings — later released more information, identifying the deceased as Marcus Allen Camacho, 36, of Fontana. Police also said Camacho brushed off an attempt by officers to incapacitate him with a Taser and charged at them, wielding a 6-inch, jagged, jab saw blade that he grabbed from the store.

Police said the officers tried to deescalate the situation, to no avail, and that Camacho matched the name and age of an individual arrested that morning in Fontana on suspicion of being under the influence in public. The same person was arrested on the same charge earlier that month.

So why was the Fontana  department more forthcoming in the Home Depot shooting?

“They can do it when they want to,” said attorney Kelly Aviles, who specializes in open government cases.

Like the other Fontana officer-involved-shootings, the Home Depot incident is being investigated by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which is standard procedure. A sheriff’s spokesperson said neither the Sheriff’s Department nor its coroner division could release information on any of the shootings, citing an agreement it has with the Fontana Police Department.

The basic state law regarding the release of police information is the California Public Records Act, which was enacted in 1968 and requires law enforcement to, at a minimum, disclose such things as the name and age of the victim and the circumstances surrounding the incident.

In 2019, SB 1421 expanded the records act to require, among other things, that police reports be released for officer-involved shootings, with delays allowed for cases under investigation.

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