Poncho turned 21 a few days before. He was anxious to be permitted to enter the local Mexican dance club a few blocks from home for the first time.
Poncho was quiet, soft spoken, eager to work, ready to help, and unusually religious for a person his age. I had dated his sister for over five years by then and he was like a son to me.
His family took him out to the dance club that night to celebrate his birthday. It was hoped he would possibly mingle with single ladies who might be attracted to this tall, slender, quiet young man.
Around this time, I was shuttling between UCLA and the Phoenix college where I was dean of the Justice Studies Department. That weekend I was in L.A. but promised to teach Poncho some dance steps once I was back in Phoenix.
As the night club let out at 2 a.m., a loud crowd gathered on the street. Two men were engaged in an all-out brawl a few houses down the block from the club. A crowd of more than 50 formed a circle around the pair as the two went at it in the street.
Two gunshots rang out. One of the two had a gun.
Somehow the unarmed man fighting dislodged the weapon from the hand of the other. The gun went flying and dashed across the pavement. It came to rest against the curb near Poncho’s feet.
Poncho reached down and picked up the gun by the barrel. He held it with a straight arm along his right side to prevent it from being used by another.
Poncho, already behind the ring of spectators, stepped back a few more feet to prevent anyone from taking the gun.
As the shots rang out, the two off-duty Phoenix police officers who worked as bouncers at the nightclub drew weapons and raced toward the crowd.
Without saying “police — put the gun down” and with no other warning, one of the officers running toward the crowd fired three shots at the tall slender boy of 21 holding a gun by the barrel, right arm extended straight down against his right leg.
Poncho was shot in the back of the head. He went into shock. His pale body went limp. He was propped up by four siblings but was unable to speak. He died in two minutes.
I flew back to Phoenix on the first flight.
A licensed investigator in Arizona, I was cleared to interview witnesses. I worked with the investigation team, examined the body, and reviewed the autopsy report. A number of witnesses verified to me the description I portrayed above.
A hundred friends and family held a “march in silence” in protest of the wrongful loss of this innocent life. The family hired an attorney. I grieved like I never had before.
Three years later a jury ruled that police officers have an unfettered right to use deadly force if shots were heard, even if someone held a gun in a manner where it could not harm another.
The jury ruled that police could not be held accountable for using deadly force, even when off-duty and working a private event.
It was clear back then that the standards for criminal conduct for common citizens did not apply to police. The jury’s message was that police could not to be held accountable for using deadly force, even if policies were ignored.
What is the difference between now and then — 20 year?
Little else has changed.
Today, peaceful protesters are asking that we have respect for life. They ask that treating all with equal dignity and compassion be considered sacred. Protesters ask to remove immunity for police misconduct.
It is a protest against heavy-handed and unnecessary aggression and deadly force by anyone, even law enforcement. Choking out compliant detainees, who were being stopped for only jay-walking or “looking suspicious,” should not be an inherent right of any government-sponsored profession.
I am reminded as I engage in investigating police misconduct throughout the years that law enforcement still gets a pass on being inappropriate. I am reminded that many good cops, who show restraint and good judgment, are forced to accommodate some who should not wear a badge.
I am reminded by the Black Lives Matter movement that often heinous police misconduct is forgiven.
The officer firing those deadly shots apologized to the family and left the force.
I still miss Poncho every day.
Finally, change is at hand.
All lives matter.
Jonathan Kraut directs a private investigations firm, is the CEO of a private security firm, is the COO of an acting conservatory, is a published author, and Democratic Party activist. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal or of other organizations.