Photos and reporting: Nissa Tzun
Public Fact Finding Reviews for Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Officer-Involved-Shootings are usually held at the Clark County Government Center at 500 S. Grand Central Parkway. While these hearings are not well publicized anyone can attend. February 28, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.
Las Vegas, NV - Thursday morning the Clark County District Attorney's Office announced at the Public Fact Finding Review for the officer-involved-shooting of Junior Lopez that Las Vegas Metropolitan police officers Francisco Rivera and Padilla Mills, would not be indicted for the murder of Junior David Lopez, a young Latino man who was gunned down in the midst of a traffic stop last April.
The hearing lasted a little over an hour and was not heavily attended, which these kinds of hearings usually aren't in Las Vegas, but Amber Bustillos, the fiancee of Lopez, arrived early to listen to what the LVMPD had to say about what occurred that early morning on Friday, April 6, 2018.
Amber Bustillos arrives to the Public Fact Finding Review for the officer-involved-shooting of her fiancé, Junior David Lopez, that happened April 6th, 2018. She is accompanied by her friend Carla Lopez. February 28, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.
Bustillos, Lopez, and their friend Kimberly Gonzalez, were heading home after a night spent in downtown Las Vegas. Lopez had turned down Madge Lane, a well-known short cut road to the main road Bonanza. According to Bustillos, Lopez stopped the car upon being pulled over shortly before 5AM. The police shined their brights on the vehicle and began yelling at Lopez to, "get the f--k out of the car!" Bustillos thought this was odd because a routine traffic stop usually meant the officer would walk up to the window, but there was no time to pause to think. Lopez heard the command so he exited the vehicle immediately. As he did, he expressed, "I have my gun, I have my permit," and threw his gun and hat onto the pavement in front of him.
Bustillos weeps as she relives the horrifying events of that early morning. Throughout the entire hearing it is not acknowledged that the victim's family and witness to the event is present until near the conclusion, when public defender Terrance Jackson attempts to have Bustillos testify to challenge Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's witness, Sgt. Jerry MacDonald's testimony where he recounted Bustillos' witness statement inaccurately. Jackson's request was denied. On Bustillos' Instagram account, she comments, "Today was one of the worst day[s] of my life. For one, having to relive everything that happened and then to hear all the BS coming out of their mouths. I was so disgusted with their actions. [The officers behind us were] laughing while the hearing was going on. No respect! Today was a very disappointing day for me. This justice system is trash and corrupted. Hopefully we find a way to find justice for you baby cause you deserve it." February 28, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.
Bustillos emphasized that Lopez always kept his gun in its holster - he was very responsible as a gun owner and was extremely careful with it because Bustillos' young children lived with them. Both Bustillos and Gonzalez claim the gun was in its holster when Lopez exited the vehicle. Bustillos recalls the police questioning what he was doing by exiting the car which was confusing because of their initial verbal command to exit.
From the body cam footage, Lopez can be seen falling to his knees and opening his hands out wide, at which Bustillos recalls him yelling, "Don't shoot me! Don't shoot me!" With his right hand raised, it appears that Lopez attempts to brush the gun away from him. As his arm reaches his face from an underhand upward motion, the first shot is fired, followed by two other shots. Lopez falls onto his stomach. He lifts his head for a brief moment, at which point you can hear Bustillos screaming and sobbing from the car. Lopez then falls onto his back (away from his gun which is on the pavement a few feet away from him) and both officers can be heard shouting commands not to reach from the gun, even though Lopez' rolling to his back was actually moving away from the gun. Gonzalez and Bustillos both recall Lopez gurgling on his own blood while on his back, trying to breathe. He then turns back over onto his stomach, which Gonzalez and Bustillos both believe Lopez did to clear his airway of blood and a final and fatal shot was fired.
Do eyewitnesses matter in police homicide cases?
Despite Bustillos' initial witness statement and interviews with Fox 5 News (the only mainstream outlet to interview the witnesses of the officer-involved-shooting), and with us, the official police narrative remains unchanged. According to LVMPD, Officers Rivera and Mills pulled Lopez over for reckless driving. No initial command to exit the vehicle is mentioned, and when Lopez is seen exiting the car, one of the officers orders him to get back in the car. Lopez then drops his gun and hat on the ground, falls onto his knees, opens his arms out wide and screams, "Shoot me! Shoot me!" Lopez then reaches for his gun, picks it up and points it at the officers, prompting the officers to shoot him. When he is on the ground, he reaches for the gun again and a final shot is fired.
The body cam footage does provide a visual guide for what happened that early April morning, but a loose one. Some of the most critical details need more supporting evidence. To start, the scene is dark, and both audio and visual details are hard to make out. Bustillos and Gonzalez, who were closer to Lopez than the officers heard him shout, "Don't shoot me!" twice, but in the video Lopez is faintly heard shouting "Shoot me!" twice. Bustillos questioned this in her interview with Fox 5 News. Secondly, the two witnesses state that the gun was in its holster the entire time, but this is not discernible in the pixelated video. Another point of contention is whether or not Lopez had a gun in his hand when he was shot. Both witnesses claim Lopez never picked up the gun, that the gun was in its holster, but LVMPD, with complete certainty, states that Lopez' gun was in his hand and that he was pointing it at the officers. During the public hearing when this was brought up as a question from the public, Sgt. Jerry MacDonald from LVMPD's Force Investigations Team, referred to a still frame from the video of Lopez' hand in the air after he had either swept the gun away from him, or, picked it up. The image is unclear at best and whether there is a gun present in Lopez' hand is left to the imagination.
Sgt. Jerry MacDonald from LVMPD's Force Investigation Team used this pixelated image to verify that Lopez had a gun in his hand. Still image from LVMPD's presentation at the Public Fact Finding Review for the officer-involved-shooting of Junior Lopez. February 28, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.
Of the five people who were present at the scene, only the narratives of the two police officers involved in the shooting were considered in the construction of the official narrative. We know this because at the hearing, Sgt. MacDonald recalled Bustillos' witness statement inaccurately, picking and choosing what could support the officers' narrative, while the witness herself sat silently, with no affordance to speak, throughout the entire hearing. Also, Bustillos' witness statement the day of the shooting lasted maybe 7-8 minutes and Gonzalez was completely ignored. Police labeled Gonzalez uncooperative, but in an interview with us she said she was never asked for a statement and was distraught that right after shooting her friend, they treated her like a criminal, handcuffing her and placing her in the back of a police cruiser for over 4 hours.
With two additional eyewitnesses to supplement the body cam and dash cam footage, and the officers' narratives of what happened, the Force Investigation Team would have a more well-rounded understanding of Lopez' officer-involved-shooting, if they were really interested. But historically, LVMPD officers are hardly ever found at fault in police homicide cases - Kenneth Lopera, the officer who tased Tashii Brown multiple times before placing him in a fatal, and unauthorized chokehold on Mother's Day of 2017 was the first LVMPD officer in 30 years to be indicted for taking a civilian's life, and the charges were dropped by a grand jury last summer.
Marginalizing witnesses' and impacted family members' voices while allowing the police's narrative to dominate is pattern and practice we have seen in our police homicide investigations over the last decade. Our findings parallel the research of Regina Lawrence, PhD, who for years studied the media construction of police brutality narratives, documented in her book, The Politics of Force:
"The most common voice in the news about police use-of-force is an official voice...Police officers, police brass, and local elected officials, along with attorneys who defend officers against excessive-force suits - typically assert that the suspects apprehended or killed were uncooperative, combative, violent, and threatening...Regardless of what "really" happened between an officer and a suspect, in most cases police retain the power to define those events for the public."
Amber Bustillos sits outside after the Public Fact Finding Review of the officer-involved-shooting of Junior Lopez, her fiancé. She is wearing a necklace with her and Lopez' names engraved, and a shirt displaying Lopez' portrait. Lopez was a good father figure to her young children. February 28, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.
With the first year anniversary of Lopez' police homicide approaching, Bustillos says she and Lopez' family will be celebrating his life. "He was a very happy person, like, if you were down, and he didn't know who you were he would try to talk to you and get you in a happy mood. He's given homeless people our blankets [from] our car. He's taken the blankets off my children to give to someone who doesn't have anything, you know? We just want to celebrate the fact that he was life, he gave everybody life."
The lack of police transparency and accountability in the Las Vegas Valley unfortunately mirrors the same patterns and practices of police departments across the nation. It will take an engaged public, willing to challenge and participate in legislative change in order for the current policing culture to transform. According to Mapping Police Violence, LVMPD ranks 6th in the nation for police homicides.