“We had closure today,” said Mark Zerby, Douglas Zerby’s father. “I’ll always miss my son. He’s such a part of my life and I’ll remember him everyday: ‘A kind smile and a word of encouragement.’”
I’d met with Mr. Zerby more than a year ago, at the advent of the one-year anniversary of his son’s death. The Mark Zerby I saw before me was a different man than the man I met a year earlier — more aged, but also more at peace, engaged with moving forward in life and his work.
Even with all the losses I’ve experienced in life, I can’t fathom the loss of a child. Moreover, the loss of a loved family member in such tragic circumstances, I can only imagine, must be drilling to the heart. Add insult to injury, the family was kept out of the loop and the police department insinuated that the Doug Zerby was partially at fault for his own death.
Officers Victor Ortiz and Jeffrey Shurtleff killed Zerby on Dec. 12, 2010, while he held a garden hose nozzle, which they mistook for a gun.
“People should be given a warning,” Mark Zerby said. “Lethal force should be the last thing when we have other alternatives.”
Nearly 11 months after Doug Zerby’s death, the Los Angeles County District Attorney determined that though this was a tragic mistake of fact, the officers involved in the shooting of Doug Zerby lawfully acted in self-defense of themselves and others.
While the District Attorney’s investigation acquitted the police officers, jurors in a civil case found, on April 4, that the Zerby’s 4th Amendment rights were violated. They found that the officers’ actions caused his death and that they acted with malice or reckless disregard for life.
“The jury was more than generous with the family,” Mark Zerby said. “They listened to all the family, the facts and made their decision. I’m very pleased with their decision.”
Mr. Zerby maintains he doesn’t harbor any animosity toward the police officers that killed his son.
“I don’t want to assign blame to anybody,” Mark Zerby said. “I just pray that this doesn’t happen to another family and that our police force can learn from [the experience].”
The federal court jury awarded $6.5 million to Zerby’s family: $2 million to Mark Zerby, $1 million to Pam Amici, Doug Zerby’s mother, and $3.5 million to Doug Zerby’s son, River.
While River will be taken care of, there is certainly no substitute for the loss of his father. Mark Zerby said his close-knit family maintains a relationship with his grandson, and plans to personally teach the boy to sail and dive, as his father did in his lifetime.
Indeed, there is no amount of money that can bring back Douglas Zerby to his family. But perhaps the acknowledgement that he was a victim, rather than a responsible party helps bring solace to family hit by double by the bereavement of his death and the insult to his memory.
Perhaps, as Mr. Zerby points out, the judgment may serve as a lesson for a department that embrace their shortcomings, as well as its many accomplishments.