When they're wrapped up in a plastic bag, sealed with red tape that says EVIDENCE, garden shears don't look especially threatening.
But they're sharp and they're big, with at least 8-inch blades, and Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin held the tool up at a press conference Thursday afternoon to explain why two officers might have reacted with deadly gunfire when Carlos Mejia allegedly swung the shears at them on May 20.
Today's Salinas PD press conference was the department's first public response to the officer-involved fatal shooting on Tuesday, which has drawn outrage and even violent police confrontations in East Salinas.
Mejia, who was first identified today by police, allegedly broke into an Alisal house on Tuesday afternoon, exposed his genitals to the woman who lived there and threatened her with a pair of garden shears, then choked her small dog in the backyard.
Police pursued Mejia in a quick and close encounter that ended on the corner of North Sanborn Road and Del Monte Avenue with Mejia dead.
"When we apply force, the force is designed to overcome resistance and eliminate a threat. There is no guarantee a single bullet, or three or four is going to do that," McMillin said.
"We do not train to shoot people in the leg, because that may not stop the threat."
A widely circulated video is grainy and hard to see. As of Thursday night, the video had more than 141,000 views. On the video, it looks like Mejia, 44, was fleeing from police officers, who chased him to the corner. Residents have reacted strongly, saying he was gunned down like a dog.
McMillin walked reporters through slowed-down and zoomed-in segments of that video, as well as security camera footage from a neighboring bakery. The closer view—part of which is included in this post—is designed to show in greater detail how the police shot only after Mejia had drawn the shears from his backpack, and seemingly began to lunge toward an officer.
McMillin didn't go so far as to defend the shooting, which remains under investigation.
"There are a lot of details in there that I think when people look on a small screen, like a phone, you don't understand exactly what has happened," McMillin said.
"My point and hope here is to make people understand why the officers did what they did. I understand the emotion around this incident. I understand how it looks."
Community members from East Salinas appeared at City Hall Tuesday night to ask City Council to order an outside investigation into the incident. McMillin said Salinas PD will keep with its usual protocol of investigating its own officer-involved shootings, while both officers remain on administrative leave.
But he pledged today to turn over the final report to the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice for review.
"My very strong belief is Salinas Police officers are well-versed in how to investigate these kinds of incidents," McMillin said. "We have a fantastic crime scene unit, fantastic detectives. We know the psychology behind officer-involved shootings."
McMillin also played the audio recording of the radio conversation between a dispatcher and the two cops on the scene, identified in copspeak as 2 Lincoln 11A and 2 Lincoln 11B.
"He's non-compliant, at gunpoint and taser," 11B says. Then moments later: "He's got some sort of weapon in his bag."
After a pause in the audio, 11A says, "He's swinging the thing at me."
A pursuit follows, and Mejia trips slightly and removes his backpack, which he appears to use as a shield.
Lincoln 11A can be heard yelling in the background: "Drop it! Don't do it!"
One officer deploys a taser, which has no effect. (It's not clear at this point why the taser malfunctioned.) Gunshots—which aren't heard on the audio—are fired, and Mejia is down on the sidewalk, on a corner that remained blood-stained on Wednesday afternoon.
That's where a crowd gathered, starting with a small protest at around 1pm yesterday, and eventually swelling to as many as 1,000 people last night, plus 100 officers from several agencies.
Cops were avoiding the immediate scene, knowing it was an anti-police gathering. But around 9:15pm, 23-year-old Constantino Garcia was shot. The young man had moved to Salinas less than a week earlier with his wife and their child, Deputy Chief Terry Gerhardstein says.
When police moved on to the scene, the tension escalated; they struggled to remove the crowd, and lost access to evidence they might've collected on the homicide, Gerhardstein says.
He estimates there were at least 100 witnesses; so far, no witnesses have come forward. There are no suspects.
One officer began administering CPR to Garcia, and a protestor threw a bottle, striking him in the head. The injured officer was treated at a hospital and released.
"The Salinas Police Department is committed to protecting and upholding the right to protest," McMillin told reporters today. "We hold that right as sacred.
"That being said, the violence that we saw last night—and I have to believe it was not driven primarily by the people with legitimate concerns, but by people who merely joined in and antagonized the crowd—is unacceptable."
Mayor Joe Gunter echoed that sentiment, more sternly, and laid the blame on last night's violence on the organizers of the peaceful protest.
"What upsets me is last night, we had people doing a legitimate protest, and they allowed it to get out of control," Gunter said.
"Those leaders need to step up; they're partly responsible for what occurred. Some people should hang their head in disgrace today."
A community meeting was scheduled for 6pm tonight to plan a march on Sunday.
Even with additional evidence and better video footage that might bolster the deadly use of force by police, the community unrest remains palpable. Osmar Hernandez was fatally shot by police in a totally unrelated incident on May 9 after allegedly waving a lettuce knife around the crowded Mi Pueblo parking lot, then beginning to remove it from his waistband as police approached. His family members have filed a claim against the city of Salinas, and plan to sue.
And at one point in last night's melee, protesters stole a police radio from a police car. Then the person holding the radio sent out this broadcast: "This is just the beginning, motherfuckers."