Police stand by actions leading to fatal shooting
SAN JOSE » When four San Jose police officers opened fire early Christmas morning on a white Toyota ramming a patrol car after a high-speed chase, they thought they were aiming at suspects from a shooting across town.
Turns out, they were chasing the wrong car, police acknowledged Thursday. The driver, who was killed, and passenger, who was wounded, were both young women — and unarmed. Now, the family of the driver, Jennifer Vasquez, is demanding justice.
“We feel everything is unfair,” Virginia Vasquez, Jennifer’s aunt, said outside San Jose police headquarters following a news conference Thursday. “It was a different car and different person. We want this to go farther, more investigation.”
During the news conference, Police Chief Eddie Garcia said the shooting was tragic but his officers had little choice but to fire: The women were in a stolen car, led police on a high- speed
chase and, after the vehicle crashed into a fence, refused to get out and surrender. Instead, police say, the driver put officers in mortal danger when she drove into the patrol car they were taking cover behind.
“We have to look at the totality of the circumstances here,” Garcia said. “Had these individuals just complied with the officers, and would have stopped, this would have ended very differently.”
He wouldn’t say how many times Jennifer Vasquez, 24, was shot. She died from her wounds. Her passenger, Linda CarmonaBruno, 28, was shot once and treated and released from a local hospital before being booked into the Santa Clara County jail on an outstanding misdemeanor warrant.
Police would discover after the shooting that both women had had run-ins with police in the past. In particular, Garcia said, Vasquez had been involved in other police pursuits involving a stolen vehicle. Recent mugshots of both women were briefly displayed at the news conference.
Vasquez’s family members say they don’t know why Vasquez fled, but her cousin Conseula Contreras speculated she must have been frightened.
“She was scared. She was scared, for sure,” she said. “You know, when things happen, you don’t think.”
She also said that Jennifer had borrowed the car from a friend.
Family members said Vasquez was returning home to West San Jose — where she periodically lived with her parents — after having Christmas Eve dinner in Los Banos in the Central Valley.
“She was very kind, she had a lot of friends, always smiling,” Virginia Vasquez said, adding that her niece would often accompany her father to local flea markets to sell clothing and other goods. “She was a warm person, always making you feel welcome.”
Vasquez’s parents, Maria Elena Vasquez and Jesus Ramos, told reporters after the news conference that they are demanding a federal investigation and the immediate release of footage from police body cameras, which were in use at the time.
The pursuit began after 2 a.m. Christmas morning, Garcia said, when San Jose police responded to reports of gunfire near Story Road and Clemence Avenue in East San Jose. There, they found two people suffering gunshot wounds and a witness pointing to a white car driving down the street that supposedly carried the sus- pects.
As officers followed the driver, who refused to pull over, they looked up the license plate and determined the car was stolen. Police continued the five- mile chase from city streets onto Interstate 280 before the car exited onto Leigh Avenue and crashed into a chainlink fence at the corner of Fruitdale Avenue next to a playground.
Garcia said the occupants refused orders from police to get out of the car and surrender. Instead, he said, the car rocked back and forth to dislodge from the fence, and when the officers took cover behind one of their patrol vehicles, the driver rammed the cruiser. That’s when four officers opened fire. More than a dozen gunshots can be heard on a witness’s video shared with KGO-TV.
“Given the circumstances … it was reasonable and justified for the officers to feel that their lives were in danger,” Garcia said. “They weren’t the individuals responsible for the shooting … but had they not been in a stolen vehicle, had they not led officers on a highspeed pursuit, had they not tried to ram officers’ car, we wouldn’t be here today.
“At what point exactly they figured out it was a female driving,” Garcia said, “I do not know.”
Raj Jayadev, director of the watchdog group Silicon Valley De-Bug, accompanied the Vasquez family to the police station Thursday. He said that driving a stolen vehicle should not amount to a death sentence.
“Law enforcement mistakes can be lethal mistakes,” he said. “What constitutes an officer feeling the need to use lethal force has to be the highest of bars.”
At the site where the women were shot — near Sherman Oaks Elementary School near San Jose City College — mourners on Thursday brought candles, flowers and photos and set them along the broken fence.
All four officers who opened fire Tuesday were placed on paid administrative leave, which is routine after an officer-involved shooting. The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office and the San Jose Police Department’s homicide unit are conducting a joint criminal investigation and the case is being monitored by the department’s internal affairs unit, the city attorney’s office and the Office of the Independent Police Auditor.
Tuesday marked the city’s sixth officer-involved shooting in San Jose this year, and the second fatal incident.
After Thursday’s news conference, Garcia met with the Vasquez family to offer his condolences.
“I can support and defend the actions of my officers,” he said, “while still having empathy and compassion for a mourning mother.”
A memorial stands Thursday along Leigh Avenue in San Jose where Jennifer Vasquez was fatally shot by police Tuesday. Police said that after a high-speed chase, Vasquez used the stolen car she was driving to ram a police vehicle.
Maria Elena Vasquez holds a photo of her daughter, Jennifer Vasquez, who was killed Christmas Day during an encounter with San Jose police.