Anaheim, California – On a Saturday night in late February, Gerardo Pineda stood on West Northgate Lane in Anaheim, where he says he was waiting to meet friends.
Then, a group of plain-clothes officers from the Anaheim Police Department's anti-gang unit emerged from an unmarked van behind him, ready to arrest him, he says.
Pineda, 19, the only police shooting victim of Anaheim, Calif., who survived this year, then took off running. He ran almost a mile until he turned a corner, then police began shooting, firing at least three rounds, Pineda says.
"I'm running over a fence and they shot again and again…and it hit me in the stomach," says Pineda, who is currently out on bail. "I told them, 'Hey, I got shot. You hit me. I'm dying.’"
Incidents like this have left many in Anaheim's Latino community in an uproar. Six police shootings this year--five of them fatal--have shattered the image of a city best known for housing "the happiest place on Earth." Pineda was the only one who lived to tell his story.
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Last week's shooting of Manuel Diaz sparked nine straight days of protests and riots in the city. Diaz, 25, was shot while running away from authorities on July 21. He was unarmed.
Tensions escalated when officers opened fire on Joel Acevedo just a day later. Acevedo, who police said was a documented gang member, was fatally shot after he fired his gun while trying to run away.
Federal authorities are now investigating all six shootings.
Pineda says he blacked out after he was arrested. He now has scars that span his entire torso—remnants of the surgery he had later that night, after one bullet grazed his leg and another tore through his left side. There is still a dent in his skin from where the second shot entered.
Anaheim police said Pineda fled the scene of a car they had been investigating after it was reported stolen from the Inland Empire. The car, which police described as a 1990s Honda, was possibly linked to a shooting that occurred earlier that day.
Officers arrested Pineda on suspicion of possession of a stolen vehicle and resisting arrest. Anaheim Police said they could not comment further on the shooting because the case is currently under investigation.
Boiling anxieties in the city over the police shootings reflect a deep-seated division within the community. Less affluent Latino neighborhoods with small apartments and cracked streets struggle with gang-related crimes and a relationship with the police that some say is tenuous, at best.
Latinos make up over half of the city’s population, yet many say they do not have faith in the police. Some actively avoid getting the authorities involved in neighborhood problems because they feel targeted and disenfranchised.
Families who fear for their children’s safety are wedged between gangs trying recruit and the police who are trying to root out gangs. In such a dense community, children are sometimes mistaken for gang members or caught in the crossfire, experts say.
“People are frustrated because they can’t trust anybody,” says Benny Diaz, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens’ in California. “It’s very antagonistic.”
The city, Diaz says, is heavily divided, and the best way to patch up relations would be to create programs that bring all facets of the Anaheim community together. Latinos do not feel adequately represented in the city because none serve on the city council, he added.
But police deny that there is a lack of communication with the Latino community, citing their 22-person advisory board and frequent community meetings as evidence of their effort to reach out.
They blame the rise in police shootings—up from four in 2011—on the city's increased crime rate. Gang violence is on the rise, and three of downtown Anaheim's most notorious gangs have injunctions against them, according to Sergeant Bob Dunn.
"The amount of gang-related assaults with a deadly weapon using guns is up 53 percent since January," Dunn says. "The amount of guns seized is up 233 percent."
Experts like Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, attribute this uptick to Anaheim’s changing atmosphere.
The city has changed dramatically since the 1970s, from a predominantly white community to a densely populated, heavily immigrant community. With that level of poverty, Kennedy says, there are gangs that have taken hold, despite efforts to weed them out. Last weekend’s shootings reflect these wider issues.
He added that, while many in the Latino community are suspicious and fear for their safety, now is the time to renew relations with the police and build stronger ties within the city.
“We need to clear the air and investigate the charges first,” he says. “It will take time to rebuild—but it needs to be done.”
Sarah Parvini is a freelance writer based in California.