In a clear victory for accountability journalism, the Associated Press, Bloomberg and the Los Angeles Times succeeded in unsealing chilling video footage of Gardena, Calif., police officers shooting two men in June 2013. The video surfaced in a civil case brought against the city of Gardena by the family of 35-year-old Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino (among others), who died from the shots. The other man, Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez, survived the ordeal and also served as a plaintiff in the suit.

Gardena settled with the parties for $4.7 million and expected the footage to remain secret. U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson, in his order yesterday to release the material, vacated those particular expectations: “[T]he fact that they spent the city’s money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public’s interest in seeing the videos. Moreover, defendants cannot assert a valid compelling interest in sealing the videos to cover up any wrongdoing on their part or to shield themselves from embarrassment.”

Wilson’s order rewards a June 8 motion by the three media outlets to get access to the video. “There is a profound public interest in access to the videos that show the events surrounding the police shooting of an unarmed man on a public street,” noted the motion, which cited recent news plumes over police actions in Baltimore and Charleston, S.C. The motion criticized Gardena for citing the same considerations on its behalf: “In a last-ditch effort to justify their demand for secrecy, the City Defendants make the remarkable claim that release of the videos ‘may result in unfounded speculation’ about the incident at issue, which they assert is ‘a legitimate concern given the anti-police sentiment which has recently become so prevalent.'”

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This is the video Gardena police didn’t want you to see,” reads the headline of a Los Angeles Times story on this development. The hazy footage clarifies the public’s understanding of a series of complicated events on the night of June 2, 2013: Agustin DeJesus Reynozo found that his unlocked bicycle was stolen from outside a CVS store; a security guard called 911 to report the crime, but a dispatcher mistakenly classified the incident as a robbery, raising an expectation among responding officers that the perpetrators may have been armed. While Reynozo waited for police at the CVS, his friends — Mendez and Jose Amado — set off on their own bikes toward home and also to look for the stolen bicycle. Diaz-Zeferino, Reynozo’s brother, accompanied them on foot. An officer encountered the two men on bicycles and mistook them for the thieves. As the two men were stopped, Diaz-Zeferino arrived at the scene and allegedly said that the police weren’t looking at the “right guys.”

The stunning video, captured by dashboard cameras in officers’ patrol cars, reveals what happened next. Watch it now. The L.A. County district attorney declined to bring charges against the officers. Diaz-Zeferino had “a blood alcohol count of .22% and methamphetamine in his system” at the time of the shooting, a possible reason why he didn’t keep his arms still as the officers pointed their weapons at him.

Almost as revealing as the video is the brief filed by attorneys for Gardena on June 22 to keep it under wraps. Here’s an abridgment of their arguments seeking darkness:

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* The civil suit over the shootings was long and “aggressively litigated,” with much of the back-and-forth concerning the confidentiality of some evidence.

* A settlement agreement “included a provision that the information previously determined to be confidential would
remain so.”

* Release of the video would be “untimely.” “[T]hey waited more than 2 years after this officer-involved shooting to file this request and are now attempting to intervene in a closed matter which has been fully and finally resolved,” reads the brief.

* Gardena will have wasted its money on the settlement: “[C]lients who pay a premium to maintain confidentiality will be deprived the benefit of their negotiated bargain.” More from the city’s argument:

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This settlement came at a great price to the City of Gardena, which did the right thing to resolve this matter despite great resistance from, and over the objections of, their excess insurance carrier. As a result, the City of Gardena made an substantial independent contribution to settle this matter — not because they wanted to “hide something,” but because it was the right thing to do. Defendants should be entitled to the benefit of this bargain, particularly since it was obtained at a premium based on their desire to finally resolve this matter and maintain the confidentiality of their criminal investigatory files.

To sum up the municipality’s arguments with italics: This is old news and we paid to keep the truth from our taxpayers.

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Judge Wilson spat on the timeliness question, writing that media organizations sought release of the video a mere four months after the February notice of settlement in the case. “A four month delay is not particularly long, especially given that the case was still pending during three of those months,” wrote the judge. News organizations, to boot, are aptly suited to decide when a story has reached its expiration date. No city of Gardena is going to tell the Associated Press, Bloomberg and the Los Angeles Times that their story is “untimely.”

The events of yesterday put news organizations on an interesting ride. Wilson’s ruling came down at 2 p.m. Pacific time and the news organizations got the videos at 4:15 p.m.. Then, at 5:30 p.m., the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit granted an order temporarily staying the release. That was too late — you can’t stuff the video back into the court file. Ed Medrano, chief of the Gardena Police Department, acknowledged that reality in a statement: “Although the video has been released, we are still moving forward with our appeal because we are concerned about the broader implications of this decision.”

The Associated Press could be said to be on an unsealing tear: Earlier this month, the wire service secured once-sealed documents in a 2005 civil suit against Bill Cosby, producing the news that the entertainer had admitted to getting “Quaaludes with the intent of giving them to young women he wanted to have sex with.”

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