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Jury says Los Banos police officer used ‘unreasonable force’ in deadly shooting

GENE LIEB/glieb@losbanosenterprise.com
Los Banos police officers and firefighters discuss the crime scene in the 600 block of Vine Street Monday afternoon after it was reported that he was shot twice. Once in the leg and once in the abdomen. He was airlifted to a Modesto Hospital. Sept. 2, 2013.
GENE LIEB/glieb@losbanosenterprise.com Los Banos police officers and firefighters discuss the crime scene in the 600 block of Vine Street Monday afternoon after it was reported that he was shot twice. Once in the leg and once in the abdomen. He was airlifted to a Modesto Hospital. Sept. 2, 2013. Los Banos Enterprise

A Sacramento jury found Los Banos Officer Jairo Acosta used unreasonable force when he fired the second of two shots that killed 43-year-old Sonny Lam in 2013.

But Los Banos police commanders are backing Acosta, who is now a detective, and plan to appeal the jury’s decision.

“All life is valuable and the use of deadly force is never taken lightly at the Los Banos Police Department,” Los Banos Police Chief Gary Brizzee said in a statement. “But we respectfully disagree with the verdict and stand by Officer Acosta and believe that he acted in self-defense in his use of lethal force during a sequence of events that lasted less than a minute.”

Acosta responded to a domestic violence call on Sept. 2, 2013, at the home of Sonny Lam and his 80-year-old father, Tan Lam, according to court documents.

Tan Lam said the father and son got into an argument in which his son threatened to kill him.

The father, who spoke little English, called police with the help of a neighbor because he was concerned about Sonny Lam’s declining mental health, court documents state.

As Acosta was on his way to the home, he was informed of what was going on but wasn’t told Sonny Lam suffered from a mental illness, according to documents.

When he got there, Tan Lam claims he told Acosta about the mental illness, while Acosta said he had difficulty understanding the father, documents state.

Tan Lam brought Acosta to a room in the home where Sonny Lam was seated in a chair, according to documents.

Sonny Lam resisted Acosta’s attempts to get him out of the room, documents state.

Acosta told officials he saw the son secure what he thought was a blade from a desk. The father disputed that.

The situation escalated into a physical altercation in which Acosta shot Sonny Lam twice, according to documents.

When the father asked Acosta why he shot his son, Acosta replied: “he has a knife,” and Acosta showed Tan Lam a “scratch” on the arm sleeve of his uniform, court documents state.

Sonny Lam was transported to a hospital where he died from the injuries.

The jury on Aug. 15 ruled that Acosta was stabbed by Sonny Lam with a pair of scissors before the first shot.

But after Acosta fired the first shot, jurors found that Acosta retreated and used unreasonable force in the second shot because Sonny Lam didn’t grab Acosta’s gun and didn’t approach Acosta with the scissors.

Jurors ruled Acosta was negligent under state law but didn’t violate Sonny Lam’s civil rights in the shooting, according to the verdict. But they also found Sonny Lam to be comparatively at fault.

The jury awarded Sonny Lam’s family $2.75 million in damages but didn’t assess punitive damages against Acosta.

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