Five years have passed, but that hasn’t made the pain any easier to bear.
Friends and family of James De La Rosa, who was killed in a widely-publicized officer-involved shooting in 2014, gathered at Greenlawn Cemetery on Wednesday to reflect on a life cut short.
“Today I have to remember that it was the last day that I saw my son,” said Leticia De La Rosa, James’ mother.
She said the family has held the remembrance every year, on the anniversary of her son’s death and on his birthday.
This year was the first year she went to work on the day her son died, she said. She works as a cafeteria lady for the Bakersfield City School District.
“I didn’t want to be at home just crying,” she said, looking around at the gathering. “They make me feel good because they loved him a lot.”
De La Rosa, whose legal name was James Villegas, was shot to death by the Bakersfield Police Department in 2014 after an alleged high-speed chase. He was unarmed, but BPD claimed he moved aggressively toward officers, prompting the shooting.
His death struck a chord in the community, with hundreds of protesters and mourners attending a candlelight vigil in his honor.
One of the involved officers allegedly tickled De La Rosa’s toe as he was on a gurney in Kern Medical Center shortly after his shooting, an act that the British newspaper The Guardian used to highlight the high number of police shootings in Kern County.
At the time, much community attention was focused on BPD’s account that De La Rosa led the police on a chase before crashing into a light pole at Highway 178 and Mt. Vernon Avenue. However, some have questioned the police account of the incident, and witnesses said at the time De La Rosa exited his vehicle with his arms out.
Following his death, De La Rosa’s family became involved in political advocacy. They were heavily involved in the recent passage of AB-392, which strengthened standards for use of deadly force by officers.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the law in August, saying it prompted law enforcement officers to rely on de-escalation techniques like verbal persuasion rather than jumping directly into potentially violent encounters.
While advocates say the law is a step in the right direction, the Bakersfield Police Department claimed at the time it had already instituted similar policies, undercutting claims that the new bill would change much.
But while De La Rosa’s death may have prompted some in the family to act, they said they still had difficulty moving on with their lives.
“It gets tougher as the years go by,” said Juan Quezada, De La Rosa’s best friend. “On my drive home, it just hit me that it’s my best friend’s five-year anniversary.”
De La Rosa’s brother, Greg, also said the emotions were still strong.
“I’m pretty emotional, but I stay strong for my mother,” he said.
After the remembrance, the group planned to light candles at the site of De La Rosa’s death at Mt. Vernon Avenue. They said they hoped to keep De La Rosa’s memory alive for years to come.
“Everybody is always going to know James’ story,” his mother said. “Because I’m always going to be a voice.”