Body camera video released in fatal Santa Clara shooting of 24-year-old man

The Santa Clara County District Attorney's office on Thursday cleared a Santa Clara police officer who fatally shot a man who prosecutors said was mentally ill and whom they thought was armed, while at least one civil rights activist said he found the scene very troubling and a former judge called the video that was released "useless." 

District Attorney Jeff Rosen also released about 10 minutes of body camera video showing the final gunshots that killed Jesus Geney-Montes, 24, and determined that the shooting was lawful: Geney-Montes had stabbed himself with a knife and told police he had a gun and would shoot them, even though that turned out to be false.  He had no weapon on him when he was found dead. Still, prosecutors determined the fatal shooting was lawful because the fear for their lives was "imminent" based on what they believed at the time.

However, one civil rights activist, Raj Jayadev, co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug in San Jose, who reviewed the video , said he did not see any immediate threat.

“What I saw was deeply troubling," Jayadev said. "I saw a young man shot at point blank range, and there was a fence in between them. No one was in immediate risk. I didn't hear the officer give a verbal warning that he would shoot. At the time of the shooting, I did not see where a reasonable officer would see that their life was in jeopardy. It seemed like an unjustified shooting. The video raises more questions than answers.”

Geney-Montes' family also has challenged the police account and has filed a civil rights suit against the police department.

The video that was released shows much, but not all, of the situation that the District Attorney described in a 53-page report. And the partial release is what bothers LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County judge and former Independent Police Auditor for the San Jose Police Department, who is an advocate for the release of body camera video.

She watched the video three times. And she said she thought its release was completely "useless.'

"The cops are behind a fence and armed to the teeth," she said. "So why did they shoot this man? The video doesn't show the suspect or the shooting. So what am i supposed to learn from this? I want to see the footage from the body camera of the officer who shot the suspect. If they showed us the video of the officer who killed the man, we wouldn't have to speculate, would we? And, if the officer who did the shooting wasn't wearing a body camera, why not? If he was wearing a camera, why don't they release the footage? Where's the transparency? If they have it and won't release it, it leaves the public wondering why."

The portion of the video that is released shows many officers, guns drawn, around a fence in Santa Clara on March 9, where Geney-Montes had barricaded himself inside. For the first part of the video, the officers are mostly calm and ask Geney-Montes if he needs anything.

"Jesus, talk to me, what can I do for you right now?" one officer says.

"Hey, hey, hey, stay right there," someone else shouts out and the tension rises for a moment.

"No one's gonna shoot you....they're not going to shoot you, Jesus." 

"I just want to get you some help, man," an officer says, "especially for that chest wound."

At some point Geney-Montes apparently started "counting down," prompting officers to run and chase him alongside the fence, where Geney-Montes was trying to exit near some bushes.

"Jesus, Stop! Stop!" the officers yelled.

Geney-Montes kept running.

The District Attorney said that veteran police officer Colin Stewart – who prosecutors said had been trained for encounters with the mentally ill –  used his Taser first as Geney-Montes rushed toward him, but it was not effective. If that Taser firing and the rushing toward the officer are in the video, both scenes are hard to see. 

Then, three gunshots are heard on the video as a shirtless Geney-Montes drops to the ground in some bushes near the fence's exit.  Police later found the bloody knife in the bushes near where Geney-Montes had climbed over a fence. There was no gun to be found.

“Seeing Geney-Montes charging towards him and believing his life was in danger, Officer Stewart chose to defend himself by discharging his weapon,” Deputy District Attorney Carolyn Powell wrote in a 53-page public report. “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.”

What is also not shown on the video is that Santa Clara police – including  Stewart - had already been to the Deborah Drive home where Geney-Montes lived with his mother and stepfather four times on March 9.

During those visits, he barricaded himself in his bedroom, threatened his stepfather and himself, and told officers he had a gun and would shoot them if they came in, the report found. Each time officers determined no crime had been committed and that it was safer to back off. On the fifth call, around 5 p.m., his mother reported that Geney-Montes had stabbed himself and fled from his bedroom window, prosecutors wrote in the report.

The District Attorney released the video, adding that it 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.”

The District Attorney's office also released body camera footage from a December 2015 fatal shooting of a William Raff by Palo Alto police. But the office did not release the full footage after San Jose State University police officer killed Antonio Guzman in 2014, choosing only to release three still shots.

California law does not mandate that agencies release body camera footage. Police and prosecutors can decide to release, or not to release, body camera footage on a case-by-case basis.