The city of Ceres has agreed to pay $4.1 million to the families of two people shot and killed by the Ceres Police Department.
In August 2018 Carmen Mendez was a passenger in a car driven by a person leading police on a high-speed chase. When the driver stopped at the intersection of Service and Sperry roads in Stanislaus County, Mendez — who was unarmed — attempted to flee toward an olive orchard.
"Carmen hopped out of the car and started running and was shot once in the elbow and once in the back," Mendez family attorney Mark Merin said. The officer is identified in one of two lawsuits filed by Merin as Ross Bays.
Merin is also an attorney in the case brought by the family and girlfriend of Nicholas Pimentel, who was shot by Bays and Officer Darren Venn in October 2017.
Bays and Venn shot and killed Pimentel after they had used their vehicles to pin his vehicle against a fence. Body camera footage from an officer arriving soon after shows that Pimentel still had his foot on the gas before he was shot.
Merin says it’s true Pimentel was still trying to get away, but that was no justification for the officers opening fire.
"The wheels were spinning but his vehicle was disabled and pinned in between two cars,” Merin said. “So this was the justification the officers used for killing him, saying he was trying to get out of there and maybe he would have been successful."
Bays is named in both lawsuits. Venn is named only in the Pimentel suit. Both officers are still employed. Bays is on medical leave according to the chief’s office. Venn is also still employed but was found to have violated the department’s body camera policy.
Then-Chief Brett Smith is also a defendant. He retired in March 2019. New Chief Richard Collins declined to comment.
An officer can be seen walking up to Pimentel’s truck from behind, but the body camera points down as the shooting begins. Pimentel’s girlfriend, Maria Pilar Rivera, was sitting next to him at the time and was uninjured. She claims Pimentel used his body to shield her once the officers began shooting. She is one of the plaintiffs in the suit.
Merin said there is no justification for using deadly force in either incident, “...unless an officer reasonably or objectively believes that he is subject to immediate grave bodily injury or death or that the person whom he is about to use deadly force on is an imminent threat to somebody else."
The complaint also says the police department should have known its officers were "inadequately trained, supervised or disciplined from previous uses of force and workplace violations.”
The department says that Bays' body camera malfunctioned, which he can't be disciplined for. Venn was not wearing his body camera.
The city of Ceres has agreed to pay $2 million in the Pimentel shooting and $2.1 million in the Mendez case.
Merin said he hopes the department will make changes in policy based on the settlement.
“This is a wake-up call for Ceres certainly,” Merin said.
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