SUNNYVALE -- The family of a Sunnyvale man shot and killed by officers in an undercover drug sting last week has hired a prominent civil-rights lawyer and is alleging excessive force, claiming the man was shot more than 10 times.

Oakland-based attorney John Burris said 34-year-old Juan Ruelas was the victim of an overzealous attack, the target of more than 30 shots, at least 10 of which hit him. Police described Ruelas as a drug dealer who threatened to harm officers.

"The number of shots is quite disturbing to me," Burris said.

Ruelas was the target of a narcotics probe when he met with undercover officers from the Santa Clara Police Department and Sheriff's Office on Sept. 4 in front of the Hobee's Restaurant on North Mathilda Avenue, according to the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety.

Sunnyvale police were not involved in the operation but are investigating the shooting because it occurred in their jurisdiction.

Police said Ruelas sold methamphetamines to undercover officers for a month prior to the last meeting, which involved the sale of a pound of the drug.

After the sale, police say Ruelas verbally threatened an officer and claimed to have a gun, then made a motion suggesting he was reaching for the purported weapon. That prompted six detectives to open fire, wounding Ruelas multiple times. He was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Police did not find a firearm with Ruelas or in his truck.

"I don't believe it when an officer says he threatened to kill him when there are five or six officers around him who have guns and he does not," Burris said.

Sunnyvale Capt. Dave Pitts said the absence of a gun with Ruelas had no bearing on the decisions by officers to defend themselves. In essence, he said, after the alleged gun claim they had to presume a real threat.

"Officers are dealing with someone selling drugs to them, who threatens them and claims to have a weapon and makes a reaching motion," Pitts said. "Based on the totality of the circumstances, their knowledge of the situation, his comments and behavior, and the action, they have to make a decision if their lives or someone else's lives are in jeopardy and act accordingly."

Burris said Ruelas' family also objected to the idea that Ruelas was involved so deeply with drugs, describing him as a highly regarded demolition worker whose modest lifestyle defied someone raking in drug money.

Five of the officers who fired their weapons are from Santa Clara police, and one is from the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office. One of them is a sergeant with 15 years police experience, while the others range between five and seven years. Their identities are being withheld because of their undercover assignments.

A conclusion of the shooting investigation is not expected for months. Sunnyvale police will present a case to the District Attorney's Office, which will conduct its own review and release its findings.

Burris said there are no immediate plans for civil litigation, and that his primary goal is to conduct an independent investigation free from what he called an inherent conflict of interest when police investigate themselves.

"The family has a right to get answers to this," Burris said. "They have the right to find out if this man's life was wrongfully taken."

Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.