June 22, 2001

Community Up In Arms Over Response To Police Shootings

By Leilani Nisperos

(Editor's Note: Last week [June 15, 2001] we took a look at the shooting death of 60 year-old, mentally ill, Gabino Benjamin Flores. At the time of this story, this was the sixth fatal shooting of the year.

This week, our reporter takes a look at the changes that have occurred in relation to police shootings and the community's response to the shootings.)

After his uncle, Gabino Benjamin Flores, was shot by police in April, Armando Tamayo became the angry one.

The Flores family dealt with the tragedy in different ways. Tamayo turned to his experience as a preacher. But this time, rather than preaching the word of God, he has brought another message to the community. His mission: to garner support for an independent review board.

Gabino Benjamin Flores, Sr., 60, was shot and killed in his South Bay home after police said he stabbed an officer with a pair of scissors. The Flores family said the elderly man had Alzheimer's, and was wielding blunt tipped scissors. Tamayo doesn't believe the board or any other city group will reprimand the officers who shot and killed his uncle.

"They're going to say that he attempted to kill the officer and the officer felt threatened," Tamayo said. "That's what they're going to say, `It's a legal killing, he tried to hurt the officer.'"

Members of the Raza Rights Coalition, a community group that is supporting Tamayo in his campaign, believe recent shootings fuel outside concerns that the current review board panders to police.

"We feel that it's time for us to create a parallel structure to that, that exists in the city of San Diego," said Christian Ramirez, of the coaltion. "There's enough awareness, there's enough outrage out there for us to have our own police review board."

Their concerns echo calls for an independent review board that grew louder after the highly publicized police shooting deaths of William Miller, Jr, a mentally-ill homeless man armed with a stick, and former NFL player Demetrius DuBose.

Since January, officers have shot and killed six people. There were seven fatal officer involved shootings for all of last year.

"One would think that the numbers would be going down if we're doing a better job of training and were doing a better job of providing officers with less-lethal weapons," said Mike Marrinan, a San Diego civil rights lawyer. "It certainly raises the level of concern."

According to FBI statistics published by the Detroit Free Press last year, the San Diego Police department had a higher per capita fatal officer-involved shooting rate (0.61) per 100,000 residents, than Los Angeles (.56), New York (.39) or Philadelphia. (.49). The shooting numbers were taken from an eight-year period, 1990 to 1998, and were divided by the city's average population during that time.

Police officials discount the numbers, saying the FBI statistics included shootings involving officers from other agencies that took place in San Diego.

Using police department statistics, the total number of officer involved shootings decreases from 64 to 56. While this lowers San Diego's number of per capita shootings (.53) from fourth highest in the nation to fifth highest, the rate is still higher than Philadelphia, Chicago and New York.

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Last year, the police department trained officers in dealing with the mentally ill, and paid $820,000 to provide them with bean-bag shot guns and air Taser guns. Police also increased the scope of a county-wide program that pairs officers with trained mental-health clinicians.

The less-lethal bean-bag guns have been used in 13 cases, said Sgt. Reggie Frank, the department's range master. Any of these cases could have become an officer involved shooting.

But police did not create any major departmental changes.

"There was not a significant amount of policy changes," Frank said.. "There were some little changes, but nothing really major was done."

Police Chief Bejarano focused instead on creating a group that would recommend policy changes to his office. The Use of Force Task Force was created, and has been meeting regularly through the year. They are currently compiling recommendations to be made to the chief and may have a report completed as early as next month.

But without any major policy change in place right now, community groups say police should be more closely monitored.

The homicide detectives from the police department and San Diego District Attorney's office investigate every officer involved shooting. The District Attorney's investigation, unlike what some community members believe, is not looking at whether an officer overreacted, misjudged or not.

"The process determines the legality of the shooting, not the wisdom of the officer or whether a better way of dealing with the situation was available," wrote Paul Morley, chief of the D.A.'s special operations division in an article about the policy. "Those are matters of public discussion, but rarely involve the decision on criminal charging."

He wrote that of the over 450 officer-involved shootings reviewed by the District Attorney's office since 1976, only two resulted in criminal charges against an officer.

The police department's Internal Affairs division keeps statistics on officers involved in fatal shootings, but under the Police Bill of Rights, which is part of the California government code, those records are only kept for five years plus the current year, said Assistant Chief Barbara Harrison. She said there is not a specific number of shootings an officer can be involved in before the department begins to investigate.

"We're not going to look at a specific number and say `Oh that's too many,' you have to look at every situation," Harrison said.

But the police department should be looking at those numbers more carefully, says Marrinan, because of the frequency in which officers involved in a shooting have shot someone before.

"In my experience, it's at least half the time," Marrinan said. "What that tells you is that some officers are more prone to use deadly force. It's something I think the police department should very carefully track."

On Feb. 15, Officer Steve Staton, 34, shot and killed Gerald Tate, 22, during the first officer involved shooting of this year. The district attorney's office cleared him of any wrongdoing in that shooting. On May 24, Staton shot and killed Mario Merino, 29, after Merino shot at the officer during a traffic stop. Police say Staton has been on the force for a year. He has been put into an administrative position while that shooting is being investigated.

Both officers Jeffrey Sterling, 33, and Phillip Bozarth, 38, who were involved in the April 12 shooting of Rene Lopez Vizzuett, 30, had each previously shot and killed another person in the line of duty.

Witnesses in the death of Vizzuett later told reporters that Vizzuett was unarmed when he was shot.

According to articles in the San Diego Union Tribune, Officer Sterling had been on the force for seven years when he was involved in the death of Jose Luis Ramirez on March 13, 1999. Mr. Ramirez was under the influence of methamphetamine.

Officer Bozarth had served for 15 years when he shot and killed Marin Santos Castro Jr. on Jan. 17, 1998.

Officer Bozarth was also involved in the shooting death of Robert Jennings, 35, on July 10, 1993, after Jennings lunged at the officer. The Sept. 15, 1993 Union Tribune article that reported the incident said the July 1993 incident was the fourth shooting Bozarth had been involved in. The April shooting of this year would be the sixth shooting Bozarth would have been involved in, with at least three of them being fatal.

For some, numbers like these point to a need for an independent review board.

Norm Kripke, a former member of the Citizen Review Board that is currently in place, said the board lacks the power to do any real monitoring.

"My feel for this board is that it is was simply a tool for the police department," Kripke said. "They are totally restricted to the report that is handed to them by internal affairs."

Kripke said the board could not call its own witnesses, had no computer, and could not even keep the notes they made on a case. He recommends that the board be given more powers to call witnesses and gather its own information.

He believes that if there isn't an entity created in San Diego that can monitor police, the city will see dire consequences.

"I think what's going to happen is that we're going to have such an enormous blow up that there will be a reaction, and its going to cost the city by an enormous amount of money," Kripke said. "The more shootings go on the more it's going to cost the city, and its going to go on until we have an outside independent review board."

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