California authorities have filed murder charges against a former school safety officer who fatally shot an unarmed 18-year-old girl, a rare prosecution for an on-duty killing by an officer.
The Los Angeles district attorney announced Wednesday that Eddie Gonzalez, who had worked as a school officer in Long Beach, was facing one count of murder after he shot into a vehicle near a high school on 27 September, striking 18-year-old Manuela Rodriguez. The teenager, who went by Mona and had a five-month-old boy, was taken to a hospital and put on life support before she died a week later.
Gonzalez had been patrolling the area near Millikan high school, south of LA, when he observed an altercation between Rodriguez and another teenage girl, according to the district attorney’s office. Rodriguez then got into the rear passenger seat of a nearby car, and Gonzalez fired his handgun at the vehicle.
Cellphone video footage that circulated on social media appeared to show the officer firing as the car was fleeing.
“It’s the beginning of justice for the family,” said Luis Carrillo, an attorney for Rodriguez’s family, to the Guardian. “But it doesn’t erase the enormous pain that they live through every day. Nothing can make that pain go away.”
The Long Beach board of education terminated Gonzalez a week after the killing, saying the officer had violated policies of the school safety office. Its “use of force” policy says that officers “shall not fire at a fleeing person”, “shall not fire at a moving vehicle” and “shall not fire through a vehicle window unless circumstances clearly warrant the use of a firearm as a final means of defense”, the district said in a statement.
Law enforcement agencies in the US have increasingly passed policies prohibiting shooting at moving vehicles, recognizing that firing into a car can endanger the public.
“We must hold accountable the people we have placed in positions of trust to protect us,” said George Gascón, the LA district attorney, in a statement announcing the charges. “That is especially true for the armed personnel we traditionally have relied upon to guard our children on their way to and from and at school.”
Gascón, who was elected last year, campaigned on a promise to prosecute officers for excessive force and unjustified killings. In LA, officers are almost never charged for killings.
After last month’s shooting, advocates questioned why the officer had been involved in an off-campus matter. A school district spokesman said at the time that its officers “work both on campus and near campuses [to] ensure safe passage of students to and from school”, and that the officer was on duty and was “conducting safe passage for students leaving Millikan high school”.
The district told the Guardian last month it employed nine full-time school safety officers and two part-time officers.
Advocates across the country have increasingly campaigned for armed police to be removed from schools, and to reinvest those funds in programs and services for students, such as counselors and social workers. Long Beach activists said they had called for officers to be kicked out of local schools prior to Rodriguez’s killing.
The city of Long Beach had also published a racial equity report last year that recommended the school district “reduce use of school police” and “review alternative models”.
Carrillo said he was grateful that the shooting was caught on cellphone camera and questioned whether charges would have been brought without it.
He said he hoped the tragic killing led to reforms: “When something like this happens that is so horrible, it does move the needle … Armed officers around children should never be permitted.”
It’s unclear if Gonzalez has a lawyer, and he couldn’t be immediately reached. He was arrested Wednesday and charged with first-degree murder, according to the LA Times. He is due to face an arraignment on Friday.