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National City Releases Records Of Police Officer Who Shot Unarmed Man

The National City Police Department is shown in this undated photo.

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: The National City Police Department is shown in this undated photo.

National City released an internal report Thursday about an officer who shot an unarmed man in 2001.

Officer Aaron Steveson fired a single shot that killed 19-year-old Emmanuel Sotelo on Oct. 5, 2001. Sotelo had dropped a gun and fled from Steveson, resulting in a chase.

Then, according to the report, Sotelo stopped and turned "slightly to his right" while "his hands were in his waistband area."

Steveson said he feared Sotelo was still armed, so he fired a shot that hit Sotelo. Sotelo later died in the hospital.

The District Attorney at the time found the shooting was justified and not a violation of state law. Steveson was placed on administrative leave and then fired.

RELATED: San Diego Police Misconduct, Use Of Force Records Can Now Be Released

The investigation released under SB 1421, the new state law, includes the internal report assessing Steveson's actions. It found that in part because Sotelo was a gang member and was wearing baggy clothing, and because he had already dropped one gun, Steveson believed he was still armed.

"While being a gang member and wearing baggy clothing is not against the law, the possession of a concealed firearm is," the report says. "Running away from police to avoid arrest is also a crime. Should Steveson have chased Sotelo? Absolutely. Arresting criminals is what we expect our officers to do."

But, the report says, it was not reasonable for Steveson to shoot.

"While Steveson's fear was real and genuine, it is, regrettably, clearly unreasonable," it says.

"Thinking someone may have a gun is not enough to use deadly force," it continues. "Steveson did not see Sotelo holding a weapon. Sotelo was, in fact, unarmed and running away. Steveson was not in danger of death or serious injury."

The report finds that Steveson violated National City Police's policies on use of force, discharging firearms, performance of duty and judgement and discretion.

The shooting resulted in protests in the community, according to newspaper clippings included in the documents released Thursday. Protesters marched through the city and called on the California Attorney General to investigate the shooting.

The report released Thursday was the first in a batch of records expected from several local police departments.

SB 1421 says law enforcement agencies must make public internal reports about officers investigated for police shootings and use of force, and who were found to have committed sexual assault or lied during the course of an investigation.

Eight local police unions, however, sued, claiming only records from after the law went into effect in 2019 should be released. At the beginning of March, San Diego Superior Court Judge Eddie Sturgeon ruled the law applies to past records, but he put a hold on releasing them until March 29.

Now that the stay has expired, the police departments must begin releasing their records.


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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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