Too Quick to Shoot?

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Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

A suburb of Sacramento, California’s capital, is the newest addition to the national debate over officer-involved shootings.

An investigation published this month by The Sacramento Bee found that officers in suburban Citrus Heights (population 87,000) lead California in the per capita rate of shooting deaths at the hands of cops.

The actual numbers were comparatively small.  But according to the paper, of the eight officer-involved shooting deaths between 2010 and 2016, six occurred in a three-year period between 2013-2016 —the same number of fatalities caused by police in Oakland, a city with five times as many residents and a much higher violent crime rate.

Local authorities say the numbers are misleading, and don’t reflect the police force’s overall work. They say that the number and type of calls the police receive should be considered in any analysis of officer-involved shootings, and claim the department’s professionalism is responsible for a decline in crime.

“We don’t have a problem,” Citrus Heights Mayor Jeff Slowey told the newspaper. “I have seen nothing except what I see as positive results from our police department.

“Yes, we’ve had several shootings in a period of time, but I’m not sure that means anything but that the bad guys didn’t look at a calendar and they all fell together in the same period of time.”

The paper based its analysis on an examination of four police shooting databases and official state population estimates.  A further review of each of the department’s officer-involved shootings was conducted using police reports, Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office investigations, court documents, interviews, and information obtained through the California Public Records Act.

It found that two of the six people killed by Citrus Heights police since 2013 were unarmed. One suspect had a gun. Another had a knife. One of those fatal shootings resulted in a $2 million payout to the victim’s family, among the largest such settlements ever in the region.

[Yet a final assessment of the shootings is hampered by the lack of a civilian or independent review board. Unlike many police departments in California, (but like many smaller police forces around the country),]  Citrus Heights, with a force of 90 sworn officers, doesn’t have a process for public scrutiny of police shootings. Moreover, officers do not have cameras in their patrol cars or on their bodies. Police personnel records, including disciplinary actions, are kept confidential by state law.

[Some of those personally affected by the fatalities believe that such limitations encourage police misconduct.]

“They’re a scary police department,” said Gayla Hernandez, whose ex-husband, Jason Wilson, 42, was fatally shot by Citrus Heights police in May 2014. The police department said Wilson assaulted a woman and then fled from responding officers. Hernandez disputes that official account. She said police knew Wilson and may have targeted him.

“Any time they would approach us for any reason … we were afraid something bad would transpire,” she said.

The string of shootings by Citrus Heights police comes as law enforcement nationally has faced pressure to provide more accountability over fatal shootings, particularly of African Americans and mentally ill people. None of the people shot by Citrus Heights police was black, but family members said some may have been mentally ill.

The shooting of Joseph Mann, black and mentally ill, in North Sacramento last July led to significant policy changes within the Sacramento Police Department, including the release of video in critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings.

Scrutiny of police shootings has also fueled a pro-police movement highlighting the dangers of the job and the complexity of the work. The administration of President Donald Trump recently said it will back off of federal civil rights investigations of local police departments. With that change, police oversight and reform will largely revert to cities and counties.

Critics say they’re concerned the city does not provide enough direction and oversight to avoid deadly force. The department functions with a limited budget and busy staff that struggles to respond to a large volume of calls, city officials confirmed. A focus on controlling costs may have hampered its hiring, some said.

Experts on police use-of-force policies also said the “off-the-shelf” version in Citrus Heights focuses more on legalities than protecting lives.

Police Chief Ron Lawrence, who took over the force in October from former chief Christopher Boyd, said he has reviewed the shootings in question. In each case, he said, officers acted appropriately and lawfully to protect themselves and the public.

“They were either under physical attack, they were confronted by an assailant with a weapon and their lives were threatened, or there was an imminent threat,” he said.

Boyd added that he believes some of the victims, whom he did not identify, intentionally provoked police to kill them, committing “suicide by cop.”

The Citrus Heights force would not have the highest rate of fatal shootings by police if its entire history of more than 10 years was taken into account, Lawrence said, an assertion that is almost certainly true given that the department had no fatal shootings during its first four years.

Still, some community members and police experts said that the numbers uncovered by The Bee deserve attention.

Editor’s note:  A video of Citrus Heights Police Chief Ron Lawrence responding to The Sacramento Bee investigation is available here.

“This kind of rise in the statistics for a town that small … should give rise to concern and the need to look deeper,” said Stephen Downing, a use-of-force expert and former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department who has been involved in numerous reviews of shootings.

Justin Nix, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville and an expert in policing issues, cautioned against “drawing conclusions” from the data, but he said it “is certainly something to raise an eyebrow … I would certainly want to take a closer look.”

Deputies from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department patrolled the area until 2006, when Citrus Heights formed its own Police Department.  The city formed its own department in part to cut costs, said Mayor Slowey.

In 2016, Citrus Heights patrol officers handled an average of 5,691 calls per month, or about 187 calls daily, Lawrence said. He said officer deployment varies depending on call volume, with up to 21 patrol officers on duty each day. Officers regularly ride without partners and dispatchers sometimes must ask officers to leave less-urgent situations to respond to other calls.

On a recent Saturday night, The Bee rode with officers for more than four hours, during which police responded to a string of incidents that highlighted the pressures and pace of the department.

During one call early in the shift, a 63-year-old-man told dispatchers his girlfriend had hit him. Police found him in front of his trailer, where a gorilla mask on a stick stood sentry in a garden of dead roses. Lacking evidence of assault, the officers persuaded him to spend the night at his mother’s house.

Soon after, a man called to report that unknown enemies had implanted a device in his head. When officers located him, he was calm but said the device was telling him to kill himself. Officers gave him a ride to a hospital.

Later, on the department’s 228th call of the day, officers surrounded a domestic abuse suspect in the parking lot of his apartment complex. One officer pointed his gun at the man while a K-9 dog barked and strained at its leash. The man cooperated as a third officer cuffed him and the encounter ended peacefully.

Despite what Lawrence described as a relatively high number of calls, statistics do not suggest that Citrus Heights officers are dealing with a more violent population than other police departments in the Sacramento region. FBI data show that Citrus Heights police reported 44 violent crimes per 10,000 residents in 2015. Four area cities had higher violent crime rates but lower per capita officer-involved fatalities: Sacramento, West Sacramento, Rancho Cordova and Woodland.

One of the difficulties in evaluating police shootings in Citrus Heights is a lack of independent information. With no civilian oversight board for the department other than the City Council and no official video footage of events, police largely control what the public knows about critical incidents.

Lawrence said that the Police Department does not have car or body cameras because both technologies cost too much and raise issues of privacy. Officers do have audio recorders, but there is no department policy mandating officers use them when responding to calls.

Slowey said city officials have talked about getting cameras but “our department thinks we don’t necessarily need (them) right now.”

“We don’t have a trust (issue), or we don’t have an issue where people are saying, ‘Hey, the police did this or the police are doing that,’ ” Slowey said. “If we believed there was an issue of public trust, we’d be on it in a heartbeat.”

All of the fatal shootings by Citrus Heights officers have been reviewed internally by the department, Lawrence said. But disciplinary and personnel records for law enforcement are private by California law, leaving the public in the dark about findings.

Slowey said that the City Council receives reports from police about officer involved shootings, but that he doesn’t consider it his purview to critique specific police actions if the command staff doesn’t find fault.

“I am a banker by trade, a politician by night, so I don’t try to second-guess our Police Department,” said Slowey.


Citrus Heights does not routinely release the names of officers involved in fatalities without a request, though it is public information by law. Another piece of information only available by asking is Policy 300, the department’s rulebook for using force.

Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force expert recognized by the federal government, said the “off-the-shelf” policy on force used by Citrus Heights, while legally sound, doesn’t reflect specific community values or expectations for behavior. Obayashi said that many small departments purchase policy in ready-made manuals, instead of crafting their own, as a cost-saving measure.

Boyd said the policy was purchased from Lexipol, a major publisher of policy manuals for law enforcement and emergency service providers nationwide, as a way to ensure that policies were current.

The Lexipol policy follows established legal guidelines that give officers wide discretion based on the threat an officer perceives in the moment. Deadly force may be justifiably used, according to the Citrus Heights policy, to protect an officer “from what he or she reasonably believes would be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.”

Obayashi cautioned that such one-size-fits-all policies don’t address the culture of an agency or community values.

Downing described some of its rules as “antiquated” and “thin.”

The Citrus Heights policy, Downing pointed out, mentions the value of human life but doesn’t place a priority on preserving it. Recently, Sacramento’s City Council passed a resolution affirming that, “the sanctity of life is inviolable,” and instructing its police to craft a policy that allows deadly force only when there is an imminent threat to life and such force is “strictly unavoidable.”

“They are way behind the times,” Downing said of Citrus Heights.

Some family members of those killed by the Citrus Heights police question whether the same financial constraints that pushed the city to buy a policy manual also influence its hiring, preventing it from landing the most sought-after recruits. The department’s salaries are among the lowest in the region.

Attorney Ellen Dove said she is concerned that “some of the officers there are worse because of inexperience and because of poor management. The rogues there are more rogue because the tightness with which some supervisors hold the reins is not there from all supervisors. They do not have a consistent policy, which is a bad thing.”

Dove filed a lawsuit against the department in 2012 for excessive force, one of six excessive force lawsuits reviewed by The Bee. It alleges that in three separate instances with three different suspects, Citrus Heights police let a police dog named Bruno continue to bite people after they were subdued.

The city hired a notable defense lawyer, Bruce Praet, and claimed the officers acted lawfully and that the defendants failed to provide enough details, including medical records. Dove said she dropped the suit because she doubted she could win it because of the criminal history of her clients, but that she stands by the filing’s claims.

Mary Beesley said she has similar questions about the training and tactics that led to the shooting of her granddaughter, Gabriella Nevarez, 22, in March 2014.

Beesley said her granddaughter was mentally ill and disliked taking her medications. Nevarez died from a barrage of 17 shots fired by Citrus Heights police Sgt. Jason Baldwin and Officer Alexi Fanopoulos after officers said she rammed a patrol car with her vehicle and drove toward them. At least one witness said Nevarez was in the driver’s seat of her car, with her hands up, when she was shot, according to the district attorney’s review of the case.

Officers disputed that account. They said they feared for their lives.

Many updated use-of-force policies ban officers from shooting at moving vehicles precisely because of what occurred with Nevarez: Officers wounded her with initial shots, causing her to lose control of the car, according to the district attorney’s investigation. Departments including Sacramento instruct officers to move out of harm’s way when faced with a moving vehicle when possible.

Beesley, who called police after Nevarez took her car that morning, said she wonders whether Citrus Heights officers know how to handle situations involving mentally ill suspects.

“Gabriella was bipolar,” said Beesley, who is raising her granddaughter’s son Vincent, 6. “Maybe she was scared, and trying to escape the police. But why did they have to shoot her? Why couldn’t they have used a Taser or something? I just don’t understand it.”

Lawrence maintains that his officers are highly trained, with an average of 12 years’ experience in law enforcement. Officers take special training in techniques for defusing volatile situations, including those involving mentally ill people, without using deadly force, he said. The city also has a grant to work with a local provider on better interventions and understanding for domestic abuse calls.

The chief said his officers receive crisis intervention training in-house “multiple times” each year and also attend sessions on how to use words, “defensive tactics” and tools other than firearms to defuse potentially deadly encounters.

Boyd said that the department has earned multiple awards for community policing, and crime has dropped 28 percent during his tenure. The department is taking part in a regional pilot program that allows a mental health technician to work in the field with officers, Lawrence said.

Fatal shootings, Lawrence said, represent a tiny fraction of the number of incidents and arrests that Citrus Heights officers handle. “While unfortunate, compared to the volume of police incidents we handled, our use of deadly force represents a very small percentage of our work.”

But Frank Straub, former police chief in Spokane, Wash., and current director of strategic studies for the national Police Foundation, said small numbers can matter.

“There is an intangible damage to the community when an officer-involved shooting occurs, because no one is shot in isolation,” he said. “The person has brothers, sisters, mothers and friends. So there is this ripple effect … that maybe to some degree is undermining the trust and confidence that a segment of the community has in its police.”

Hernandez, who lost her ex-husband, feels that distrust. “I have bad things to say about them,” she said of her interactions with Citrus Heights police.

“I don’t care for the way they do things,” Hernandez said. “They are not there to serve and protect.”

Where the numbers came from

This is an edited and condensed version of a story that appeared earlier this month in The Sacramento Bee.  One of the authors, Anita Chabria, is a  2016 John Jay/Quattrone Reporting Fellows, and her  work was assisted by her participation in the Fellowship. The complete story is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.


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