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The Unjustified Death of Eric Rivera

Another taken too soon by LAPD.

Eric Rivera’s parents, Philip Malik and Valerie Rivera, outside District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s office (photo by Adam Smith)

On June 6th of last year, Eric Rivera was walking along Wilmington Blvd near Denni St. in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles. Two LAPD Harbor Division officers, Arturo Urrutia and Daniel Ramirez, responding to a 911 call of a “man with a gun,” rolled up on Eric, jumped out of the car, shot at him 11 times, hitting and killing him with 7 bullets. Having not put their police vehicle in park, the car launched towards and rolled on top of Eric, where he was left for hours. Eric’s neon green water pistol was found on the sidewalk nearby.

He was 20 years old.

Eric Rivera was born October 25th, 1996 to Valerie Rivera and Philip Malik at Torrance Memorial Hospital; a healthy 8 pound, 1 ounce baby boy. “He was the most beautiful little being,” Valerie said. “He had this thing with hair. He would always be holding onto my hair for comfort — sipping on a bottle, and holding my hair, like a security blanket. I would joke about buying a wig to put him to bed with.”

(photo by Philip Malik)

Eric was a “brave, little daredevil” and stepped on his first skateboard when he was just 18 months old. Valerie said that as he got older he’d be out in the front yard, practicing and trying each trick over and over until he got it. When his grandfather bought him his first bicycle without training wheels at age 4, persistent Eric simply swung his little leg over it and took off. As Eric got better at skating, his father Phil built him ramps and rails to practice on, and at age 7 Eric dropped into his first half pipe.

As a teenager, Eric would come with his father to work, eventually working alongside Phil fixing up his rental houses; laying new carpet, repainting, whatever had to be done to get them ready to rent. People referred to Eric as “Little Phil,” who not only looked like a younger version of his father, but also picked up many of his personality traits and mannerisms. Phil loves cars, and Eric grew up loving them too. “I remember I’d take Eric out cruising in my yellow ’57 Chevy. He was probably 10 or 11, and I did a donut in a parking lot,” Phil laughed. “After that he kept telling me he wanted to get a car when he was older just so he could do donuts.” When Phil bought his house in 2012, Eric helped him fix it up, laying tile in a kitchen remodel, installing sprinklers outside, and regularly helped Phil out around the house with whatever needed to be done.

Growing up in the area, Phil has many stories about the LAPD, harassing him and his friends for no reason. Phil spoke of the times he warned Eric about how to act if police stopped him; yet he never fully believed something like this could happen to his son. On the night of June 6th, as Phil sat watching the evening news, he saw the report of a man killed on Wilmington Blvd. and got a terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach.

7 seconds and the LAPD policy of killing

The LAPD shot and killed 17 people in 2017, once again leading all US police departments in the number of people killed by its officers, and are on pace to surpass that in 2018.

This Wednesday will mark one year since Eric Rivera was gunned down and run over by Officers Arturo Urrutia and Daniel Ramirez of the Los Angeles Police Department Harbor Division. From the time the two officers spotted who they thought was their “suspect” to when they opened fire, just 7 seconds had passed. Ten months after Eric’s death, on April 10, 2018, the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, the Civilian Oversight head of the LAPD, unanimously ruled that the two officers who shot, killed, and ran over Eric acted “within” LAPD policy.

In the abridged Summary of Categorical Use Of Force Incidents and Findings report, released concurrently to the ruling by the Police Commission, one of the officers stated that Eric was holding his “weapon” in his right hand. The other officer stated that Eric was holding his “weapon” in his left hand. The fact that the two officer accounts contradict each other is incredibly troubling. Although both officers activated their body-worn video (BWV) en route to the scene per LAPD policy, their outstretched arms and the police car doors blocked the view, so Eric’s death was not recorded. According to the report, the officers did not activate the dashcam on their police vehicle, a video that would have recorded everything Eric was doing in the few short seconds between when the officers pulled up to him and when they killed him, as Eric was in front of, and eventually underneath, the police vehicle. Any footage the police do have, from the two officers that killed Eric, as well as from the two officers that pulled up seconds later, has been withheld from Valerie and Philip.

Special order 45, approved by the Police Commission on October 20, 2009 states that officers shall activate Digital In-Car Video Systems (DICVS) during the initiation of the following activities:

  • All vehicle stops
  • All Code 3 responses and pursuits (use of lights/sirens)
  • All suspect transports
  • Any other occasion when, in the officer’s judgement, it would be beneficial to do so. This may include, but is not limited to, stops and detentions, crimes in process when recording is reasonably feasible, Mobile Field Force situations, or any situation, condition of event presenting the potential for injury, loss of life, damage to property, or any potential risk-management issue.

How can it be “in policy” for two LAPD officers to “forget” to activate their dashcam, spot someone who might be the suspect they are looking for, and within 7 seconds shoot and kill him?

How can it be “in policy” for an officer, when told by his partner that the car was still in drive, to supposedly jump back in the car to hit the brake, but instead “accidentally” hit the gas, running over an already shot and dying Eric Rivera?

According to the previously mentioned Use of Force report, written by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, the officer who failed to put the vehicle in park claims that in the moments following the shooting he thought he may have been shot, telling his partner “I don’t know if I’m hit, dude!” He in fact had hit his elbow on the ground. The two officers, including the one who reported being in “excruciating pain”, reportedly returned to work the day after killing Eric, with approval from Chief Beck. Seven days later though, in his weekly report to the Police Commission, Beck stated that the police department still hadn’t ascertained the cause of the officer’s “excruciating” arm injury, saying “One of the officers sustained an arm injury, probably because of the action of the vehicle but we are not sure at this point.”

LAPD policy is in fact a policy of targeting, criminalizing, and, much too often, killing people of color. In a report recently released by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition titled “Before the Bullet Hits The Body,” LAPD predictive policing programs like LASER and PredPol are exposed for what they are; programs that disproportionately target Black communities and other communities of color using flawed police data to pathologize whole communities, as well as the individuals that happen to live there.

On Easter weekend, a few weeks before Eric Rivera’s death was ruled “in policy,” Valerie and her 4 other sons went to Wilmington to light candles at the site where Eric was killed, as they had done regularly for months. When Valerie went to a neighbor’s house to use the restroom, she saw an LAPD Harbor Division cruiser pull up. In understandable fear for her sons, she ran back to find three of them up against the same fence that Eric was killed in front of, two of them already in handcuffs. The officers were asking for the names and birthdates of Valerie’s three oldest boys, while Valerie instructed her youngest son Nick to stay in the car. As two more unmarked police vehicles pulled up, the officers searched her sons and the car of her son Robert’s friend who was there too. It was a neighborhood with lots of gang activity, the officers claimed, and they needed to make sure no one had drugs or weapons. Valerie captured this harassment, by officers from the same division that employed the two officers who killed Eric, in a Facebook Live video that went viral. When Valerie brought the incident up at the next Police Commission meeting, Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill was upset that this type of LAPD harassment was happening to Valerie’s family, still reeling from Eric’s killing. But simply said, this is the policy of the LAPD; target, harass, criminalize. Chief Beck proceeded to validate his officers’ actions of harassing and searching these four young boys with a dismissive statement about the neighborhood being known for gang activity, a catch-all justification by a police department that habitually preys on young men of color simply because of how they look or where they happen to be.

Yet another police killing on the desk of the DA

Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey was elected in 2012. During her tenure as DA, over 400 residents of LA County have been killed by law enforcement — with the LAPD leading year after year — and her office has declined to prosecute in any of these cases. In October 2017, Black Lives Matter — Los Angeles delivered more than 10,000 petition signatures to Lacey’s office demanding she prosecute police officers that kill, beginning with five Inglewood officers who, after intense community pressure, were fired in the wake of shooting and killing Kisha Michael and Marquintan Sandlin as they slept in their car in 2016. So far Lacey has refused, as she has in every other case put before her. This even includes cases where the Police Commission found officers to have acted “out of policy,” like in the shooting of 25 year-old Ezell Ford, killed by Officer Sharlton Wampler in South Los Angeles in 2014, as well as in a case where Chief Beck himself has recommended the DA charge an officer, like in the shooting of 29 year-old Brendon Glenn, killed by Officer Clifford Proctor in 2015 in Venice.

Eric’s father Phil speaks to the crowd gathered for the weekly protest outside DA Jackie Lacey’s office. (photo by Adam Smith)

Every week for the past eight months since delivering the petition signatures, Black Lives Matter — Los Angeles, along with Valerie, Philip, and countless other families who have lost loved ones to police violence, have led a protest action outside of DA Lacey’s office. Week after week they lift up the names of loved ones killed by police and shine a light on the hypocrisy of an office that refers to itself as “the people,” but goes out of its way to protect the police who systematically kill the people. The original chants and demands to “Prosecute Killer Cops” have since shifted to “Jackie Lacey Must Go!” in the face of her continuing indifference, disregard and inaction. BLM-LA organizer and Cal State LA professor Dr. Melina Abdullah recently launched a new online petition demanding that Jackie Lacey step down for her refusal to do her job.

Until justice is real, the fight for Eric continues.

Eric was stolen not just from Valerie and Philip, but also from so many others who loved him. Valerie’s four other sons, Robert (19), Justin (16), Michael (14), and Nicholas (12), Eric’s grandparents, Nana Jane and grandfather Richard miss him dearly. Eric’s parents are resolute in continuing to fight for justice for their son, despite a justice system that seems more intent on criminalizing their son and protecting the police than advocating on his behalf or that of his family. They don’t expect anything from DA Lacey’s office and regularly lead the chorus of community members in demanding she step down. In addition to these weekly actions, both Valerie and Phil regularly attend Police Commission meetings on Tuesday mornings at 9am. In the face of a police department that killed their son, a Police Commission that approved of his killing, a District Attorney intent on enabling police to continue killing, but with a community behind them, Valerie and Phil fight on.

Join Eric’s family this Wednesday night for a candlelight vigil in Wilmington, at the spot where he was killed one year ago. And if you would like to support Valerie directly, as she raises her other boys, and travels weekly between Victorville and Los Angeles to fight in Eric’s memory and on his behalf, please donate to her GoFundMe here.

Adam Smith is a member of White People 4 Black Lives.

White People 4 Black Lives (WP4BL) is a white anti-racist collective and activist project of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (AWARE-LA) and operates within a national network of white anti-racists called Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). WP4BL is rooted in acting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter: Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.awarela.org