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Video shows California police fatally shooting teenager who was reported kidnapped

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Newly released law enforcement footage captures the moment California police fatally shot an unarmed 15-year-old girl who was a reported kidnapping victim.

On 27 September 2022, San Bernardino county sheriff's deputies were searching for Savannah Graziano, who was feared abducted by her father Anthony Graziano after he had fatally shot her mother the day before.

Deputies cornered Anthony Graziano's vehicle on the side of a freeway in Hesperia, 80 miles east of Los Angeles. When Savannah exited the vehicle, they opened fire and killed her. The shooting sparked national concern, with critics questioning how officers wound up killing the teenage girl they were tasked with rescuing.

Sheriff's officials claimed following the shooting that it was unclear whether Savannah was shot by deputies or her father, and they said deputies didn't realize it was her when she got out of the car. For nearly two years, they refused to release footage of the shooting.

But on Friday, the department disclosed nearly a dozen video files to the independent journalist Joey Scott, who filed records requests 18 months prior. The clips - which were shared with the Guardian and include helicopter footage - show deputies shooting at Savannah as she followed their instructions to move toward them. The videos also suggest deputies shot her after two officers remarked that it was the girl who exited. The footage, and the sheriff's narration of the video, further make clear she was killed by deputies, not her father.

The sheriff's department declined to comment.

Police surround a car, far left, driven by Anthony John Graziano, following a gun battle with the man in Victorville, California, on 27 September 2022. Photograph: Will Lester/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images

The footage will increase scrutiny on the sheriff's department, already under fire after deputies last month killed Ryan Gainer, an autistic 15-year-old boy. Ryan was having a mental health episode when he was fatally shot by two deputies within seconds of encountering him. The killing raised concerns about the use of lethal force on children and failures to de-escalate crises.

The search for Savannah started on 26 September 2022, when her father, say officials, shot and killed her mother (his estranged wife) and shot at a father and his child outside a school in nearby Fontana. Authorities that day issued an Amber alert for Savannah, saying she was suspected "abducted/taken" by her father.

The following morning, a 911 caller reported seeing Graziano's pickup truck and Savannah purchasing items at a gas station. Police soon located Graziano speeding on a nearby freeway, prompting the start of a chaotic chase.

When deputies caught up with the vehicle, shots were fired from inside toward police, according to the department, which shared photos that showed its cars were damaged.

The footage released on Friday is the first to shed light on what happened next. Filmed by a California highway patrol (CHP) helicopter, it captures Anthony Graziano speeding through traffic and deputies reaching him after he attempted to drive up an embankment, but lost traction.

When the car stopped near deputies, the footage shows, Savannah exited the vehicle, and a CHP official on the radio can be heard stating : "Girl is out, the girl is out, guys. She's out on the passenger side."

The video shows she crouches on the ground for about 10 seconds, and then walks toward a group of about seven deputies, followed by a boom that appears to be at least one deputy shooting her, though the department blurred out Savannah at this moment. The CHP dispatcher can be heard saying: "Oh no".

The deputies were not wearing body cameras, but the department also shared audio from the belt of the deputy standing closest to the girl. That audio captures the deputy shouting: "Passenger, get out!" as gunfire is heard in the background. The deputy then shouts: "Come to me! Come, come, come … walk, walk, walk".

He then says: "Hey! Stop! Stop shooting her! He's in the car!" At least four shots can be heard in the background after he said to stop. The sheriff's statement describing that audio said: "You can hear [a deputy] calling her over and telling other deputies that the person who exited the truck was the passenger and for them to stop firing, but it was too late."

Savannah was pronounced dead at a hospital. Anthony was also shot by deputies and died at the scene, though the clips do not make clear when that happened. It is also unclear how many officers shot Savannah and how many bullets hit her. The department said Savannah was wearing "tactical gear and a helmet" when she exited, but the footage doesn't clearly capture her outfit.

The evidence released last week also does not make clear who fired at police from inside Graziano's vehicle. The sheriff's department has suggested that Graziano was firing at officers, and that it's possible Savannah also did. The department said "this aspect" of the incident remains under investigation.

CJ Wyatt, Savannah's uncle, said he understood it was a confusing and chaotic situation for officers to manage, but that his niece should not have been shot: "There needs to be better training so that unarmed people aren't killed. Hopefully this video can be used for training - something has to be done differently. She didn't have to die."

In the video, the police response appeared disorganized, he said, and it sounded as if at least one deputy who was calling Savannah was trying to protect her: "You can tell he was really trying to save her, so it's just unfortunate that there was some kind of miscommunication. He clearly knew it was Savannah, so what is the difference between him and the others?"

Wyatt said blame ultimately lay with Savannah's father, who he described as "abusive and manipulative". As her parents were separating in the weeks prior, Savannah had been living in her father's truck, he added: "She was a really sweet girl at her core, and she didn't deserve this." He also paid tribute to his sister, Tracy Martinez, killed by Graziano: "She was a dedicated mother, a hard worker [as a pharmacy technician] and a caring individual." He said he hoped more people struggling with abuse reached out for help.

Sharon Brunner, a civil rights lawyer in San Bernardino county, reviewed the footage for the Guardian and said it appeared no one was in charge of coordinating the officers' strategy. She said it was possible there was "contagious" fire, with deputies' own shots encouraging others to fire. "San Bernardino county does not train law enforcement to handle these high-stress situations appropriately. They have a very brutal approach of shoot first, ask questions later," she said.

She said there could have been better efforts to control the scene and get Savannah to safety: "It sounds like the wild, wild west and an innocent child lost her life because of it."

Jim Terrell, another local civil rights attorney, said the case followed a pattern of the department using "undisciplined fire power".

"Cover and assessment are replaced with fear, anxiety and lots of shots fired," he said.

The California department of justice is investigating the case under a law requiring inquiries into police killings of unarmed people. Officials have not named the involved officers.

The footage puts more pressure on an already embattled department. In addition to the killing of Ryan Gainer, the department has faced criticism after a video last week captured a deputy punching and kneeing a man under arrest in Hesperia. In December, a sheriff's deputy was arrested on suspicion of being under the influence of cocaine and resigned. Last year, the sheriff's department also faced wrongful death and wrongful arrest lawsuits.

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