Death of pedestrian at the hands of LA officer reopens debate on police brutality

Jesse Dominguez, a 33-year-old homeless man who dreamed of being an actor, died Sunday after an encounter with an officer on a highway in Watts

Luis Pablo Beauregard
Murder of Jesse Dominguez in Los Angeles California
A frame from the video in which a Los Angeles police officer shoots Jesse Dominguez on November 19.Dwight F. Lewis

Aspiring actor Jesse Dominguez has joined the list of victims of police brutality in the United States. At least that is what the family of the 33-year-old, who suffered from bipolar episodes and addictions, believes. His parents say this explosive cocktail of drugs and mental health issues was to blame when an interaction with a California State Police officer resulted in Dominguez’s death Sunday night.

Police received calls alerting them to a man walking on Highway 105, a roadway that runs east-west through Los Angeles and along which tens of thousands of cars pass daily. Officers arrived around 3:30 a.m. in the area, in the Watts neighborhood. They found Dominguez wandering on the asphalt on the Pacific Highway. Some officers focused on diverting traffic while another approached Dominguez directly.

That encounter, which lasted only a few minutes, was fateful. A passerby’s cell phone camera captured Dominguez lying face up on the concrete. On top of him is the police officer. The two men struggle until the uniformed man stands up, draws his gun and fires at point-blank range at the man, who is pointing his left hand at him. The officer continues firing while walking backwards, until Dominguez’s body stops moving. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The images went viral. On Monday night, the California Highway Patrol said in a statement that Dominguez pulled out a Taser gun during the struggle, a defensive non-lethal weapon that delivers an electric shock. “The pedestrian was able to access a taser he had in his possession, activated the weapon, and used the taser against the officer. Following the pedestrian’s use of the weapon against the officer, and in fear for his safety, the officer fired his service weapon, striking the pedestrian,” said the statement.

A still from the video of the incident recorded by a passerby on a cell phone.
A still from the video of the incident recorded by a passerby on a cell phone. Dwight F. Lewis

Politicians representing the area where the shooting occurred have also reacted to the release of the video. “The video of this shooting is deeply disturbing,” Senator Steven Bradford, Assemblymember Mike Gipson and Councilman Tim McOsker said in a joint statement. “This appears to be an unnecessary use of deadly force. The community deserves answers. If the roles were reversed, people would be immediately calling for murder charges. I call on the California Highway Patrol and the Department of Justice to be transparent and for the community to be calm and patient during the investigation.”

The California Department of Justice, which commonly handles police shootings, is investigating the incident to determine if Dominguez was unarmed or if the policeman, whose name has not been released, overreacted. It has not specified whether it is investigating the death as a homicide.

“This is absolutely police brutality,” Akasha Dominguez, Dominguez’s stepmother, told the Los Angeles Times. " I’ve pretty much ‘backed the blue’ in a lot of circumstances. There have been issues where [police] used excessive force. But I’ve never been on the other end. Now I have a completely different stance.”

Dominguez’s relatives confirmed he was carrying a Taser to protect himself. According to his father, he had fallen into a deep depression after failing to find work as an actor. His dream was to make it in Hollywood as a screen star or to be a singer but he was unable to find a job in the industry. Instead, he worked several jobs as a waiter, none of which allowed him to find stability or a home. His family, instead, tried to convince him to look for work in other sectors or to study. “That’s what he wanted to do. We weren’t going to crush his dreams,” Jesse Dominguez Sr told the Los Angeles Times.

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