California – The photo is dark and blurry, but as the police tell it, it shows all you need to know.
Pedro Montanez, 71, a short, slight, barefoot man, stands in a dark parking lot in a defensive stance, with his knees bent slightly and his left arm outstretched. In his right hand, he clutches a pair of black-handled scissors.
About five feet away is Chris Cardova, a towering police officer. His gun is drawn and pointed.
This photograph – a screenshot taken from police body camera footage – offers the first detailed look at the last moments of Montanez’s life. He was fatally shot outside of a neighborhood market on Jackson Street on August 20, 2016, when police responded to a report of a man threatening people with a knife. They found Montanez nearby, shouting and holding a pair of scissors. He refused to drop the scissors, threatened to stab the officers and then dared them to shoot him. Cordova shot him five times.
The Riverside County District Attorney’s Office deemed the shooting justified last year, deciding that Cardova “reasonably believed” he was in danger, but Montanez family has filed a lawsuit arguing that police had no reason to use deadly force because they should have known the elderly, mentally-ill man posed no real threat.
The Indio Police Department now wants lawsuit thrown out, filing the photo published with this story to support arguments that Montanez was dangerous.
“The video footage clearly shows Montanez holding a deadly weapon with a firm grip in a position close enough to stab the officer in the neck, eye, other portion of his face or his torso or leg, and thereby inflict serious bodily injury or death,” said Larry Albers, an attorney for the police department, in court documents.
In response, attorneys for Montanez’s family argue that he was holding the scissors in a “non-threatening manner” with the blade pinched between his right index finger and thumb.
The photo, as filed in public court documents, is too blurry to tell conclusively how Montanez is gripping the scissors. The photo is a single frame from the body camera footage of Officer Kevin Fowler, another Indio cop who was at the scene but did not draw his gun. The footage has not been made public. A federal judge denied The Desert Sun access to the video in March.
Arnoldo Casillas, an attorney for Montanez’s family, said in court records that the police were never in danger, and if they truly felt they were at risk, they could have just backed up.
Instead, Cordova got “unreasonably and deliberately too close” to Montanez, and now police are attempting to use that closeness to justify the shooting, Casillas said.
“The use of deadly force was, against policy, not a last resort, because there were ample opportunities to stay (out) of Mr. Montanez’s way and less-than-lethal force options were available to detain Mr. Montanez, rather than shoot him,” Casillas wrote.
He also argues that the size difference between Montanez and Cordova suggests that the officer could have captured Montanez without deadly force.
Montanez was 5’3” and 113 pounds.
Cordova is 6’5” and 285 pounds.
Police say the size difference is “irrelevant.”
“A small individual armed with a deadly weapon can cause as much harm as a large individual armed with the same weapon,” Albers said in a court motion. “(Montanez’s) close proximity, his movement holding the scissors in a position to strike, and his refusal to obey the officers’ commands made Montanez every bit as dangerous to the officers’ safety as an individual of greater size.”
Montanez had a long history of mental health issues, and at least three of his family members have told investigators that he was tormented by hallucinations, which he would sometimes try to attack with a knife.
It appears that the Indio police witnessed this behavior firsthand in an incident that was eerily similar to the fatal shooting but ended with nobody getting hurt.
One week before the shooting, a different Indio police officer encountered Montanez wandering alone, yelling loudly to himself. When the officer confronted Montanez, the old man pulled out a pair of keys and assumed a fighting stance. In a sworn deposition, the officer said that she and another officer were able to quickly wrestle Montanez to the ground with their bare hands.
Montanez was then taken to a nearby hospital, where he continued to be disruptive and had to be restrained and fitted with a spit mask, according to court documents. Fowler and Cordova, both of whom were at the hospital at the same time, saw Montanez in this state and came to believe he was “crazy,” according to their depositions.
Casillas, the attorney for the Montanez family, argued in court documents that this hospital visit shows that Fowler and Cordova knew the old man was mentally ill.
“They knowingly tased and shot an elderly, extremely slight man that they knew suffered from a mental condition … Their actions were patently reasonable,” Casillas wrote in court documents.
The shooting occurred eight days after the hospital visit. Indio police received a report of a man with a knife threatening a woman and her family at the Rancho Fresco Market on Jackson Street. Fowler, the first officer on the scene, immediately recognized Montanez. Fowler had arrested Montanez just one night prior for allegedly assaulting a gardener. This time, Montanez was holding a pair of scissors.