For five years Laurie Valdez relived her partner’s death.
She spoke to people who watched as San Jose State University Police Sgt. Michael Santos, accompanied by Officer Frits Van Der Hoek, fired the rounds that fatally felled 38-year-old Antonio Guzman-Lopez, the father of her then-4-year-old son Josiah and guardian to her then-10-year-old daughter Angelique. She listened to the 911 calls. She read every word of the district attorney’s detailed report that cleared both officers of wrongdoing. She litigated the case in federal court. She shared her grief at public rallies to change laws and in private support groups to comfort families bereaved like hers by police killings.
On Feb. 22, for what Valdez says was the first time, she actually watched him die.
Surrounded by friends, reporters and San Jose State officials, Valdez pulls her chair up to a conference table to view a 17-minute clip from Van Der Hoek’s body camera. It starts with Guzman-Lopez kneeling on a sidewalk at Eighth and San Salvador streets just outside SJSU proper. He carries his daughter’s purple backpack, a water bottle and the jagged blade of a drywall saw. The two officers close in. Guzman-Lopez stands up, says “it’s OK, it’s OK,” and starts walking.
The cops tell him again to stop. Their commands seem lost on Guzman-Lopez, an undocumented day laborer who spoke only broken English and, a toxicology report later found, was addled by drugs. He keeps moving. Van Der Hoek fires his stun gun and throws a baton toward Guzman-Lopez, who loses his balance and falls to the ground.
Van Der Hoek yells to Santos, “Shoot him, shoot!” Shots fire.
Almost everyone in the room watching the clip gasps and tears up. Valdez starts sobbing. Charlie Faas, San Jose State’s vice president of administration and finance, hits pause to give her a chance to regain composure. Once she does, the footage resumes with the officers cuffing Guzman-Lopez even after he’s shot. Face down on the sidewalk, he gasps for breath as officers cut off his blood-soaked clothes.
“I lost him all over again,” Valdez says some hours later. “I heard the life go out of him.”
Thanks to a new law, police video once available only to authorities and few others will become public to anyone who asks. Though Valdez had long since made the details of her case public and once declined a chance to watch the same recording at the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office with her lawyers because she wasn’t ready, she opened up last week’s viewing to the media in part to call attention to the new legislation. Her hope, she says, is that it provides a counterpoint to official narratives about police force.
“Now everyone will know the truth,” Valdez, 54, says.
Of course, how people interpret the facts is another matter entirely.
AB 748 becomes law on July 1. Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who authored the legislation, modeled it after a Los Angeles Police Department policy to release videos within 45 days of an incident unless it interferes with an ongoing investigation. Together with SB 1421, a law effective since Jan. 1 that requires police to release information about sustained misconduct, it stands to dramatically bolster transparency in a state that has long been one of the most secretive in the nation when it comes to law enforcement.
Valdez, through a group named after her son called Justice for Josiah, aggressively lobbied for both bills. And as soon as she could, she asked for public records on the two officers involved in Guzman-Lopez’s killing. The recent viewing of the body cam footage was the first part of the university’s response. Next comes a public release of the same video followed by the disciplinary dossier on Van Der Hoek and Santos.
In addition to a host of journalists who filed records requests the moment the option became available at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day, at least 10 South Bay families each initiated a similar process. That includes relatives of Steven Juarez, a man who died in 2018 by a policeman’s carotid chokehold that the DA last week ruled lawful after a near-one-year investigation.
Now like never before, Valdez says, the public has power to scrutinize the DA’s summaries of cop-caused fatalities, which deem virtually every such incident justified.
Faas downplayed the gravity of the new disclosure laws that made the Guzman-Lopez clip public, saying they expand access to footage already available by other means. “She could have watched this video at any time in the past few years,” he says of Valdez. “And frankly, everything you’re seeing, or will see when this video is released, is something that four or five different entities already saw. There’s nothing new here.”
If Guzman-Lopez’s killing—the first local case in which body camera footage played a critical role—has shown anything, it’s that visual documentation doesn’t always provide the kind of clarity that reformers would hope. Two sides could view the same video and come away with vastly different conclusions.
In the footage of Guzman-Lopez, Valdez saw a homicide. Prosecutors saw a legally justified shooting, as did judges in trial and appellate court.
Faas, who facilitated last week’s viewing, describes what happened in that 17-minute clip as a measured response to a potential threat, which began with a 911 call about a man swinging a blade on his way through the campus. “He was asked to get onto his knees, then he got up,” Faas says. “The officer said put the blade down, he refused to. And when the Taser did not work … Mr. Guzman starts running toward the officer. [The choice] was either to get stabbed by this 14-inch blade or shoot.”
Police fulfilled their duty, according to Faas.
“If my officers see something that is endangering our students, staff and faculty, then it’s their job to act and to work on this situation,” he says. “To me, this is pretty clear that the DA, the court and almost everyone who looked at what happened here came to the same conclusion: that these officers were within the law, within their rights and within sound judgment in doing what they had to do.”
Charisse Domingo, a criminal justice activist for Silicon Valley De-Bug and a personal friend of Valdez, watched the same video that morning and thought otherwise.
She saw grave miscommunication, overreaction and a failure to de-escalate. She saw Van Der Hoek proceed to mark evidence at the scene, which she says she found surprising since his actions automatically made him part of a use-of-force inquiry. She saw details absent from police descriptions of the incident, like a baton thrown after the stun gun activated and the “it’s OK, it’s OK,” that became Guzman-Lopez’s last words.
“It really raised more questions than answers,” Domingo says, “but those are questions the public should be asking about these incidents.”
Courtney Macavinta, co-founder of youth advocacy group The Respect Institute, also watched the clip with Valdez and Domingo and came away with an impression like theirs.
“This is someone who was moving very slowly before he fell,” she says of Guzman-Lopez. “He’s a little bit out of it, you could tell, but not being overly aggressive at all. You would think that with all their responsibility and their training, police could find a way to make this not fatal. I think a regular person would look at what happened here and say, ‘Why aren’t they de-escalating?’”
If the powers that be deemed the Guzman-Lopez shooting lawful, Domingo and Valdez argue, then maybe the metric should be changed. To that end, the new laws opening up body cam footage and misconduct records to public view could bolster the case for updating California’s use-of-force standard for the first time since 1872. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) introduced a bill that would allow officers to use deadly force only when necessary, as opposed to when “reasonable” under the status quo.
“If nothing else, all this video and all these police reports could show us what in the policy needs to be changed,” Domingo says. “Instead of accepting that these are the rules ..., we should be looking at how to prevent this kind of killing in the first place.”