Authorities concluded Thursday that Santa Clara police acted lawfully when they fatally shot a mentally ill man who turned out to be unarmed.
Officer Colin Stewart shot 24-year-old Jesus Geney-Montes on March 9, after Geney-Montes stabbed himself in the chest several times and reportedly told police he had a gun and would shoot them. The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, which investigates police shootings, determined that Stewart was justified in killing Geney-Montes because he feared for his own safety.
In an unusual step, the DA also released Stewart’s body camera footage, which documents the final 11 minutes of the standoff.
“Seeing Geney-Montes charging towards him and believing his life was in danger, Officer Stewart chose to defend himself by discharging his weapon,” prosecutor Carolyn Powell wrote in a 53-page report on the incident. “Under the facts, circumstances and applicable law in this matter, Officer Colin Stewart’s use of force was in response to an objectively reasonable belief that he was facing an immediate threat of great bodily injury or death.”
Fulvio Cajina, an attorney representing the victim’s family in a wrongful death suit against the city of Santa Clara, says he came away with the opposite conclusion after watching the video.
“Our reaction is still the same,” he told San Jose Inside in a phone call Thursday. “This was an unjustified police shooting.”
Cajina says the video proves Geney-Montes was shirtless, unarmed and trying to evade officers, not charge at them, as Powell claims. There were no civilian bystanders at risk, the attorney adds, and there was no reason why officers couldn’t have taken “all the time in the world” to de-escalate the confrontation.
In the body-cam footage, cops repeatedly tell Geney-Montes they’re not going to shoot him while aiming their guns at him.
“They’re not going to shoot you, Jesus,” a cop shouts over a fence separating Geney-Montes from the officers.
Over the next several minutes, he adds:
“Nobody’s going to kill you.”
“Jesus, I want to get you some help, especially for that chest wound, my man.”
“They’re not going to shoot you. Focus here, Jesus.”
“We’re not going to shoot you, bro.”
At 9:45 in the clip, Geney-Montes—who reportedly had his hand in his shorts pocket for most of the standoff—bolts away from police. Stewart, gun aimed ahead of him, chases him from the opposite side of the fence. The cop then leaps over a wall and continues his pursuit on a dirt trail as Geney-Montes turns for cover around an embankment.
Stewart stops at a closed gate and turns toward Geney-Montes, who’s on the other side of a chain-linked fence. Geney-Montes turns and Stewart fires four rounds at Geney-Montes, who then crumpled to the ground.
“Shit,” Stewart says, lowering his gun as other officers jog up to the scene, where one of them found a bloodied knife in the bushes.
The DA released the clip on YouTube, with a disclaimer: “This video is graphic and viewer discretion is advised. The District Attorney’s Office tries to balance the values of privacy and transparency. Finding the right balance is important to maintain and build public trust in the criminal justice system. We are releasing this video because it was relevant to our decision.”
To Cajina, the video reinforces the family’s claim that Geney-Montes was wrongfully killed. Police had several opportunities to avoid a fatal outcome, he says.
The DA’s report notes that Santa Clara police had already been to the family’s Deborah Drive home four other times that day. Each time, Geney-Montes locked himself in his bedroom, threatened his stepdad and himself, and told cops he had a gun and would shoot them if they broke in. Each time, police determined that no crime had been committed and that it was safer to let the family work things out.
At 5pm, Geney-Montes’ mother called police once more, reporting that her son had knifed himself in the chest and fled from the bedroom window. When police arrived, they found him standing atop an embankment by the family’s apartment complex.
The rest of the encounter is caught on video. Below is Powell’s description of events in the DA report, as well as video of the shooting.
“Geney-Montes turned toward Ofc Steward and came back at him,” the report states. “At that time, Ofc Stewart was cornered with a cement wall behind him and a locked chain link fence to his left and the defendant coming toward him from the front. Ofc Stewart fired four shots to stop Geney-Montes’ advancement toward him. All four rounds hit Geney-Montes. Despite life-saving measures, Geney-Montes was pronounced dead at the scene.”