A pickup truck hoisting an American flag slowed to a crawl past dozens of protesters outside the Tustin Police Dept. on Saturday, as its driver asked everyone through a rolled-down window why they were there.
“They shot our uncle,” some of them replied.
Friends and family members say they have a number of unanswered questions about why Tustin police fired a gun at and killed Luis Manuel Garcia, a 39-year-old homeless man in the city, on Aug. 9.
Tustin Police Lt. Stephanie Nichols, a department spokesperson, declined to comment over the phone on Saturday as an overhead state Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the shooting is now underway.
That’s because of a new state law giving the DOJ authority to probe local police shootings of unarmed civilians.
Nichols deferred to an initial statement by the department released after the shooting, which states officers were responding to calls about a “suspicious male,” who the department at the time didn’t name, at 15401 Williams Avenue.
“Officers responded to the location and located a man in the bushes in front of the location. The suspect quickly came out of the bushes, advancing on the officers,” reads the statement, which adds that police shot Manuel Garcia, who later died at a hospital.
Family members say they believe Manuel Garcia was unarmed when shot, based on conversations they claim to have had with witnesses of the shooting who came forward at a previous vigil this month.
Loved ones also say much of their knowledge of the shooting comes from news articles.
An Aug. 10 announcement by the state Department of Justice (DOJ) may shed some more light.
The DOJ said it would investigate the shooting under AB 1506, a newly-implemented state law allowing the DOJ to specifically probe local police shootings of unarmed civilians.
The Tustin Police Dept. contacted the DOJ following the shooting, and the DOJ — under Attorney General Rob Bonta — commenced its probe under the new law, according to the announcement.
It’s the latest controversial incident of police officers in Orange County killing homeless people, amid an ongoing regional homelessness crisis that’s seen increasing debate over whether police should be the ones responding to homeless-related calls for service.
Last year, an Orange County Sheriff’s deputy tasked with homeless outreach shot and killed Kurt Reinhold, a homeless man who was unarmed at the time, during a jaywalking stop in San Clemente. The shooting is currently under investigation.
In 2011, the Fullerton police beating death of unarmed homeless man Kelly Thomas gained national scrutiny, and led to the successful recall of three City Council members thought to have insufficiently responded to Thomas’ killing.
An attorney for Manuel Garcia’s family, Michael Carillo, said in a Friday phone interview that his death lends “further credence to the fact that when involving homeless persons with mental health issues, mental health experts should be the first contact before law enforcement.”
“Homelessness involves issues of mental health, drug issues. It’s not a good situation to have an officer involved, and we hope there will be transparency from the police department around this incident,” Carillo said.
It became clear just how large the family and friend circle was on Saturday, with dozens lined along the sidewalk outside the police department, waving signs. Even small children sat on the curb, echoing chants.
“There’s a lot of family here, too many to count,” said Manuel Garcia’s 20-year-old niece, Natalie Rodriguez Garcia, in a Saturday interview at the protest.
Another family member, passing by, chimed in: “This isn’t even the half of us.”
Rodriguez Garcia said her family always offered her uncle help: “He was never alone. We always knew where he was staying. We always insisted on helping.”
Some family members said they routinely visited their uncle.
“After work, almost every day, I would go look for him, I would take food for him, take clothes, money, I would go talk to him. Sometimes people just need someone to talk to,” said his nephew Cristian Garcia, a 25-year-old construction worker, during an interview on Saturday.
He said he would tell his uncle, Luis Manuel Garcia, “‘this is not the life — you have family here.’ He would always tell me he’s okay, he didn’t need anything, but that didn’t stop me from going every day to talk to him.”
“A lot of people may think that, because he was homeless, we didn’t have love for him. But it was never like that. We were always there for him. We always cared for him. We always loved him,” Rodriguez Garcia said.
Cristian Garcia and his cousin, Kiara Garcia, both took the lead within their family in organizing around their uncle’s killing.
They both said Manuel Garcia became homeless around six years ago due to “life problems,” but prior to that he used to work as an electrician and had a home in the city.
Rodriguez Garcia said she had always heard about police violence as an issue, “but now that it’s my own family, it feels completely different. They took someone I loved so much.”
Cristian Garcia says the family knows next to nothing beyond basic details of the shooting:
“It’s just very upsetting — it makes me feel like I’m crazy, because we don’t have answers and aren’t getting any. At all.”
“My uncle was never the type to carry weapons. Every time I would see him, I went through his stuff just to see what he does. He had lighters; he had junk, metal he would pick up to recycle. Never once did I find a knife or anything in his stuff — he was not aggressive either,” he said.
“Before he was homeless, he was the type to have fun, joke around,” he added. “It just sucks, man. It just sucks.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.