Injustice duly served

September 13, 2012

Clayton Plake updates the struggle for justice for a disabled teenager killed by police.

SUPPORTERS OF Derrick Gaines, a disabled teenager shot and killed by South San Francisco police on June 5, continue to seek justice after San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe completed his investigation and deemed the officer's use of lethal force "justified."

Officer Joshua Cabillo, who remains on paid administrative leave and has yet to face any discipline for the killing, claims that Gaines, a multiracial and physically disabled 15-year-old, was acting suspiciously when he shot the youth near an Arco station three months ago.

The report states that the officer decided to approach Derrick and his companion--also a youth of color--due to what Cabillo asserts were Derrick's "furtive gestures and evasive movements."

The "evasive movements" Derrick made? A refusal to maintain eye contact with Cabillo and a change in the direction he was walking--neither are tantamount to an admission of guilt. And the "furtive gestures" Derrick made refers simply to his repeated attempts to readjust the waistline of his pants, in all likelihood because his belt was too loose, not because he was actively trying to hide anything.

Protesters rally for justice for Derrick near the gas station where he was confronted by police
Protesters rally for justice for Derrick near the gas station where he was confronted by police (Alex Darocy |

THE REPORT'S summary of events is quick and to the point. Upon approaching the two youths, Cabillo began interrogating Derrick. When Cabillo demanded Derrick put his hands in the air, the youth fled. When Cabillo gave chase, he supposedly noticed a gun in Derrick's waistband.

Cabillo drew his service weapon, bore down on Derrick, grabbed him by the back of his shirt, and struck him full force with his gun in the back of head, throwing him to the ground. As a result of the impact, the gun Derrick was carrying went flying.

After this point, the report continues, Derrick "immediately rolled over onto his back," briefly made eye contact with Cabillo, and attempted to reach across his body with his right hand for the gun that the report maintains rested a foot below his left knee. "Fearing for his life," the report's summary concludes, Cabillo fatally shot Derrick in the neck.

Derrick was carrying a gun that night--his family and friends have never denied that. But the gun was completely inoperable due to a missing firing pin, and unloaded. Beyond that, everything else in the report pertaining to that night is completely untrue.

What you can do

Find out more about the September 20 protest for Derrick Gaines on Facebook.

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Cabillo's claim that he noticed the gun in Derrick's waistband before he assaulted him is the first in the string of lies. Claudia Li, who had an unobstructed view of the events as they unfolded, resolutely maintains that it would have been impossible for Cabillo to see any gun in Derrick's possession from his vantage point.

And as if eyewitness testimony isn't enough, the report's account of events that night completely contradicts the story police initially gave to Bay Area media outlets. The South San Francisco Patch reports that the day following Derrick's murder, South San Francisco Police Department Captain Mike Brosnan stated in a press conference that "Gaines removed a gun from his waistband, at which point the officer [Cabillo] feared for his life and shot him."

Yet at no point in the DA's report does it mention Derrick producing--or drawing--a gun. The gun only appeared after Derrick had been assaulted. Within weeks, John Burris, a civil rights attorney whose firm is representing Derrick's family in a civil suit, told the Daily Journal that he had eyewitness testimony that gave the lie to the above account. It's likely no coincidence the story has since changed.

Other details the report provides are similarly problematic. It is highly unlikely that Derrick--at 15 years of age, 5'5" tall, and barely more than 135 pounds--would be able to immediately turn himself over after being pistol whipped and slammed to the ground.

The report also claims that as "others began to gather around, Cabillo moved the firearm [initially within Derrick's reach] away from the body to a safer location." Once again, eyewitness testimony says otherwise. When Derrick hit the asphalt, eyewitnesses say, the gun went sliding, coming to rest at a distance well beyond a foot away from where Derrick lay face down.

Perhaps most significantly, Derrick was left-handed. If the gun had been readily accessible at Derrick's left side, he would not have bothered to reach across his body with his right hand to pick it up. In all likelihood, Derrick never reached for the gun.

In all likelihood, the gun was--as the eyewitness maintains--nowhere near Derrick when Cabillo shot him. In fact, Derrick may have never even turned over onto his back, as eyewitness testimony also suggests. But lying about all of that would be absolutely necessary to justify Derrick's murder.

What the report doesn't hide is equally disturbing. What about the fact that Cabillo, a trained police officer, decided to draw his service weapon--as he knelt over an injured, dazed, perhaps even barely conscious, teenager sprawled out on the street? Derrick was unarmed and incapacitated. The "use of lethal force" seems absolutely unnecessary.

THE REPORT also shows that the DA's office and the South City Police are equally committed to assassinating the victim's character in an attempt to retroactively justify the murder. The report makes sure to mention the existence of drugs in Derrick's system--even though they amounted to a trace amount that could have days or weeks old.

The absence or presence of drugs has absolutely no relevance to the shooting, but the disclosure of such information was crucial, however, in portraying the victim as a juvenile delinquent prone to risky behavior who somehow deserved the death sentence Cabillo gave him.

The simple fact is that Cabillo's character is far from above reproach. As part of South City PD's so-called "Neighborhood Response Team," (an "anti-gang task force"), it's Cabillo's job to deliberately target and harass innocent youth of color.

"Our youth aren't safe," South San Francisco resident Rosa Dubon said, "not only from the growing gang violence, but from our own officers who have sworn to serve and protect. I say this because my family has been harassed numerous times by the same officer who shot and killed Derrick. This officer needs to be punished for what he has done and have his badge burned."

Dubon called the police department "manipulative liars" who "don't represent what our community needs," adding "Something needs to be done."

Something does need to be done. Anger at Derrick's murder continues to combine with general discontent over how the South San Francisco police treat youth, particularly youth of color.

As part of a longer-term plan of action, Derrick's family, friends and allies in the struggle against racial injustice are building a large speak-out and march near the Arco gas station where Derrick was killed, to take place on September 20, on what would have been Derrick's 16th birthday.

Derrick's case is not an isolated instance. Innocent lives are ended by police violence every day in this country. The DA's report only proves that real justice for Derrick, and for all victims of police violence, will never come from above. It has to be fought for from below, and it's up to us to take on that fight.

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