DOWNEY - Earlier this month Jean Thaxton was made aware that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) may be investigating her son Michael Nida's case. Thirty-one-year-old Nida was shot and killed by Officer Steven Gilley of the Downey Police Department on October 22, 2011. Thaxton was contacted by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Jeff Leslie regarding the matter. In a phone call, Leslie confirmed that "someone" from the FBI office did contact him to discuss Nida's case, but the investigator was unable to confirm whether or not the agency would be launching a federal investigation. Thaxton has taken the issue to Facebook, urging supporters to write letters to the FBI encouraging them not just to investigate Nida's case, but the Downey Police Department as a whole.
Nida's death has galvanized his family and friends into action, many of whom are now working with anti-police brutality groups and networking with other families who've lost family members to officer-related shootings. One such group provided Nida's four children with Christmas presents, delivered by "Justice Clause." The group also delivered presents to 40 other Southern California children whose parents were killed by police officers.
Nida's case continues to grab headlines, especially after a Reason TV documentary about his death was released in August. Clocking in at just seven minutes and 11 seconds, "Cops with Machine Guns: The Killing of Michael Nida" packs a powerful punch.
To Nida's family members, including his sister Terri Thaxton- Teramura, the details surrounding Nida's death are suspicious. Nida was pursued by the Downey Police Department because he was believed to be one of the suspects in an ATM robbery, though the witness described the suspects as two black males. Nida was contained by officers twice and according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's report released in October, Officer Blanca Reyes initially stopped Nida because she thought "he looked like a gang member". Reyes did not pat Nida down for weapons until after he was shot and lay on the ground near the intersection of Imperial Highway and Paramount Boulevard where he died. The DA report, released just one day after the one-year anniversary of Nida's death, cleared Officer Gilley, stating he "acted in lawful self-defense and in defense of others."
According to Paul Detrick, the Reason TV producer, writer, and editor behind the Nida documentary, the most unusual fact about the case was that an unarmed man was shot in the back with an MP5 submachine gun. "Cops with Machine Guns" explores the militarization of local police departments. Timothy Lynch, the director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, is interviewed extensively in the documentary, saying that weapons such as the one that killed Nida should only be used in "extraordinary and rare circumstances."
According to the documentary, military weaponry began to be acquired by civilian police departments back in the 1980's. Officers usually aren't trained to use the weapons and those who are trained, often train alongside members of the military, which is problematic because as Detrick points out in the documentary, the roles of the military and the police department are very different.
During his interview in the documentary, Lynch says that the military's mission is to "find the enemy and inflict heavy damage; they're not thinking about constitutional rights. Civilian police are encountering people in the community who do have constitutional rights and their job is to use the minimum amount of force ... this is bringing the wrong tactics into our communities and it's totally inappropriate for a free society."
The Downey Police Department chose not to be interviewed on camera for the documentary, but they told Detrick they acquired the MP5s during the mid-1990's. When military weaponry is obtained by civilian police departments it usually happens one of three ways: it's purchased outright, acquired through asset forfeiture, or it's obtained through the Pentagon's 17-year-old 1033 Program, which makes the military-grade equipment available to local police departments for what Lynch calls "bottom dollar prices." In June of this year, the program was put on hold by the Pentagon because the weaponry was being sold by police departments to non-police agencies.
The submachine gun that killed Nida was not acquired through the Pentagon's program. Detrick was unable to determine how the Downey Police Department acquired the submachine gun, though a public records request revealed that the Downey Police Department has participated in the 1033 Program, purchasing a helicopter through the program in 1996.
"It's hard to say how many police departments use this weaponry because unfortunately, we only hear about these weapons when something goes wrong," Detrick said. "It's not just about the weaponry or how big the gun is, it's the militarization mentality. Being a combat soldier in the Marines is very different than working in a small community where you have to be mindful of civil liberties and public safety."
At several city council meetings Thaxton-Teramura has pointed out that Gilley is a liability to the city and his actions on October 22 prove that he is unfit to serve. This is something that Detrick agrees with.
"It does make people in the community feel safe to know that officers have the weapons they need to do their jobs, but we're talking about investigating an ATM robbery and using a submachine gun on a person unrelated to the crime with no weapon - and that person was shot in the back. This poor judgment puts the public in great danger. If an officer isn't trained properly and they misfire, an event like this could be so much more tragic than it already is," Detrick said.
Even though Gilley has been cleared by the DA, Nida's family hopes to win their civil trial against the Downey Police Department set to begin in May of 2013. Detrick agrees that someone needs to take the blame for what happened to Nida.
"It's clear that with Steve Gilley, there was a lack of training. He didn't have an understanding of the weapon he was using and he didn't know when it was appropriate to use it," Detrick said. "I'm not surprised by the DA report. The DA's office is filled with people who used to be officers or who were in law enforcement in some way, so it's difficult to believe that they've given an unbiased opinion. When there are no repercussions for the officer, it seems very likely that something like this will happen again. It shouldn't take citizens dying in the street for changes to occur."
The distrust Nida's family has in the Downey Police Department and the DA's office is well-founded. Detrick says that when something like this happens it's best to release as much information as possible as soon as possible and for the department to own up to its mistakes, but that's not what the Downey Police Department or the DA Office has done. "You have Downey's public information officer behaving as a public relations officer and they're not being very forthcoming with information. Things have to become more transparent." Detrick said.
The public perception of police officers and the level of transparency between the police department and the public are just some of the things Nida's family would like to see change. Thaxton-Teramura and her family are also pushing for the creation of a citizen advisory committee featuring members of the community who will be elected to review complaints filed against the police department, as they believe the Downey PD is unable to provide an unbiased opinion when incidents occur.
"We want whistleblowing in this city to actually lead to repercussions," Thaxton said. "Officer Gilley used excessive force with Miguel Macias months before he killed Michael - that was a red flag. If it was handled properly and Gilley was removed from the force, Michael would still be with us. If smoking marijuana and failing a drug test disqualifies you from getting a job, why shouldn't a violent police officer who shoots to kill become disqualified from serving the public? We've heard that Gilley is back out patrolling the streets and I pray he doesn't take another life."
Thaxton and her family would like to see officers tested for steroids and other performance enhancing drugs because their use makes them more prone to violent outbursts. They're also interested in learning more about the training Downey officers receive, especially as it pertains to racial profiling and sensitivity. Lastly, Nida's Rydas, the group formed to raise awareness about Nida's case, wants the Downey PD to utilize non-lethal forms of weaponry. They want to ensure that Nida did not "die in vain" and that the legacy he leaves behind will be that of a safer, more informed public and a more responsible police force.
This is why Nida's family continues to attend city council meetings, in hopes of affecting change and working with the council to implement new policies. What they've received, they say, is the cold shoulder. Council members abstain from speaking directly to Nida's Rydas during the public comments section of city council meetings, citing the Brown Act. The council members have addressed members of the public in matters unrelated to Nida's death, however. Oftentimes council members do not even make eye contact with Nida's family as they're being addressed.
In a statement regarding the issue, new Mayor Mario Guerra said, "The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office recently concluded that the officer involved in the shooting of Michael Nida acted lawfully. Unfortunately, we cannot comment or engage in public dialogue on this matter as the Nida family has a pending civil action against the City of Downey. Please know that our city council and police department understand that the loss of human life is extremely tragic under any circumstance. Accordingly, we continue to offer our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Nida."
Currently, Thaxton is in a battle with the city over the roadside memorial at the intersection where Nida died. In a letter from assistant city manager John Oskoui dated November 16, Nida's family was asked to take the memorial down by November 30 due to "complaints and safety concerns." Thaxton fought to have the memorial stay until after the holidays, so the city made a concession to let the memorial remain until December 29.
After Teri Ramirez, a member of Nida's Rydas and the mother of Damion Ramirez, Nida's best friend and one of Nida's Rydas most outspoken members, posted the letter from Oskoui on Facebook, City Hall was inundated with calls from Nida's supporters. According to Thaxton, Guerra called her and requested that she instruct supporters to stop calling and demanding that the roadside memorial remain intact because it was "making people at city hall mad." Thaxton believes this is another example of the city acting insensitively towards her family.
Guerra actually has a direct link to Nida. Thaxton's niece was married to Guerra and the couple had two children together, both of whom have tattoos memorializing Nida. Guerra knew Nida his whole life and even baptized two of his children.
"We feel very disrespected by the council," Thaxton said. "We want justice for Michael and we want to make sure that what happened to us doesn't happen to another family. The council and the Downey Police Department should want the same things."
********** Published: December 27, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 37