Family Of Unarmed Man Killed By Buena Park Police Asks OC DA To Reopen Case

David Sullivan (Courtesy of the Sullivan family)

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Attorneys for the family of a 19-year-old man fatally shot by two Buena Park police officers in 2019 are calling on the Orange County District Attorney to reopen the investigation into the incident.

In June, DA Todd Spitzer declined to file charges against Officers Bobby Colon and Jennifer Tran over the killing of David Sullivan, saying in a letter to the Buena Park police chief that there was "substantial evidence that their actions were reasonable and justified under the circumstances."

Colon and Tran shot Sullivan when he charged them during a traffic stop that went awry. Colon said he thought Sullivan was reaching for a gun in his waistband, although it turned out he was unarmed.

"They didn't have to shoot him," said Kent Henderson, one of the attorneys who represents Sullivan's mother, Deanna Sullivan, in a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Buena Park and the officers.

Colon and Tran should have used Tasers or tackled Sullivan, said Henderson. "It's ridiculous to use deadly force in that situation."

He added: "From the beginning they should have just tried to contain the situation, drop back in a position of cover and call for backup." Henderson, a longtime attorney for victims of police abuse including Rodney King, called the officers' tactics "abysmal."

"They took my 19-year-old son who was just starting to live life," said Sullivan, who described David as a "quiet, gentle person."

Another Sullivan attorney, Humberto Guizar, said the case proves "you don't have to be Black or Brown to be killed by the police." Sullivan was white.

In a statement released Tuesday, the DA's office reiterated its original findings, saying they were based on a "thorough, independent analysis" of the incident. It would be highly unusual for the DA to reopen a police shooting case.

We have asked the Buena Park Police Department whether Colon and Tran were found to have acted within department policy, and whether they faced any discipline.

THE INCIDENT IS ON VIDEO

Spitzer's June decision not to file charges against the officers received almost no media attention; it came just as nationwide protests were erupting over the police killing of George Floyd. And it wasn't a surprise, since DA's rarely file criminal charges against cops who shoot.

In issuing his decision, Spitzer released the video from the officers' body-worn cameras. It shows what happened shortly before noon on Aug. 19, 2019, when Colon and Tran pulled Sullivan over on North Gilbert Street in Fullerton for expired plates. It turns out the Range Rover he was driving had been stolen from the nearby gas station where he worked.

When Colon and Tran asked him to get out of the car, he re-started it and drove backwards — smashing into a palm tree and another car that was driving by.

The video shows Sullivan jumping out of the car, yelling "f*k you" to the officers and running toward Colon.

At first Colon thought Sullivan might be reaching for a gun in his waistband, according to the DA's report, but even after seeing that Sullivan did not have a weapon, Colon fired his first shot because he feared "this big guy coming at me with this look of anger" was going to "attack him, disarm him, and use his gun against him or his partner."

Colon's body worn camera shows Sullivan veering away from him and up a driveway. Colon fires a second and third shot. According to the DA's report, Colon explained he worried Sullivan could cause harm in a nearby business, even though he was yet to see a gun.

(Courtesy of Kent Henderson)

At this point, Sullivan turns around and runs toward the officers again. Both open fire this time. "He's once again reaching toward his back with his left hand and I'm thinking now he's gonna pull out his gun," Colon told investigators.

Sullivan is farther away than when Colon fired his first shot. They shoot him seven times in all. Sullivan died at the scene.

'I THINK THE OFFICER WAS STARTLED'

"Based on Officer Colon's training and experience," the DA's report said, "it is reasonable for him to conclude that suspects typically conceal weapons in their waistband and even though Officer Colon could not see a firearm, he reasonably believed Sullivan was going to pull one out of his waistband."

Around the country, police academies drill into recruits the idea that suspects reaching for their waistband could be going for a gun. And over and over, police shoot unarmed suspects who had their hands near their waistband — sometimes just to hold their baggy pants up.

"I think the officer was startled," said police use-of-force expert Ed Obayashi. "It's very unusual to see a suspect run directly at an officer, not away."

"Maybe another officer would not have shot," he said. At the same time, that doesn't necessarily mean it was an unreasonable shooting, said Obayashi, deputy sheriff and policy advisor to the Plumas County Sheriff's Office.

The law gives officers wide leeway to use deadly force. The Supreme Court has ruled that a police officer is entitled to use deadly force only when "the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others."

A later ruling said the determination of the reasonableness of an officer's use of force "must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation," according to the DA's report.

California this year enacted a new law that raises the standard for when officers can use deadly force from "reasonable" to "necessary," but it's unclear whether it will result in the prosecution of more officers.

AN APPARENT SUICIDE NOTE

After the incident, investigators found "an apparent suicide note in Sullivan's wallet" addressed to his family, according to the DA's report.

Sullivan said the last year before his death had been tough for her son. He had helped care for his dad in Kern County before he died of cancer. She had taken a job in L.A. and David was living with his grandmother in Anaheim Hills when he was killed.

"I think David was just feeling a little lost and not knowing where to turn," Sullivan said. "I think he just panicked" when the officers confronted him.

The pain of her son's loss can be overwhelming, Sullivan said. She recalled trips to Catalina Island where they would camp and snorkel together. He had an older sister and brother. "He loved his sister with all of his heart — they were so close."

Sullivan recalled how David loved music. In high school, he played guitar, the drums, and clarinet in the marching band. He was in theater and participated in an exchange program where he lived in Germany, she said.

"He just liked to try different things," Sullivan said.

"This is something that you can't walk away from," she said. "Every moment it's on your mind. It's in your heart."

"For the longest time I thought he would come back."