The Tuesday morning heat had climbed to 95 degrees when Veronica Nelson and her sons, 9 and 6, began hanging a massive banner and hoisting up signs in front of Fresno police headquarters.
Nelson has followed this routine every week for a year, but she hates coming out here. Police officers have spit at her and flipped her off, she says.
But the worst part – the part that makes it difficult to get out of bed on Tuesday mornings – is seeing her son’s face looking back at her from the group’s signs and T-shirts. She’s reminded of the day she found out there would be no more surprise visits from him in his loud, lifted pickup.
Nelson is the mother of Dylan Noble, the 19-year-old man who was killed by Fresno police during a traffic stop on June 25, 2016. The shooting and subsequent release of body camera footage showing Noble’s last moments ignited a wave of protests and put the Fresno Police Department under a microscope. The two officers involved were later cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, but Nelson has filed a lawsuit against the city, department and each officer, alleging excessive force used against her son.
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The last year has been hard. Nelson isn’t quite sure if she’s healed at all. In November, she separated from her husband, Jason, who became Noble’s stepfather when he was 10. They have since reconciled. Caring for their two sons has kept Nelson going, but the anniversary of her first child’s death has proven to be a heavy burden.
“Now it’s all starting to sink in – the reality of what’s happened,” she said, seated in a merciful patch of shade as a dozen or so friends and family members circle with their signs. “Because for all this time, it’s just been, you gotta go. You gotta keep going. You have little ones. You can’t break. You can’t fall.”
Grief counseling has helped Nelson understand that what she feels on a daily basis is normal.
Now it’s all starting to sink in – the reality of what’s happened. Because for all this time, it’s just been, you gotta go. You gotta keep going. You have little ones. You can’t break. You can’t fall.
Veronica Nelson, mother of Dylan Noble
These demonstrations are rough on her, but Nelson believes they are important for spreading awareness about her son’s killing. Excluding the run-ins with police, she said, most of the reaction they’ve received has been positive. They typically have around eight people, but the group can swell to nearly 20 with multiple generations represented, as it did last Tuesday. Nelson’s mother was there. Everyone wore different shirts with some sort of Noble-related messaging.
Michelle Walker and Joy Kurtz are regulars at the demonstrations. Both of their sons knew Noble, and they remember his infectious smile, massive hugs and bubbly personality. They’d like to be here every week, but both women work.
“We want the community to know how loved he was,” Walker said. “And that this could happen to any one of them. We never thought it would happen to someone we knew, but it did.”
The demonstrators’ signs run the gamut. One reads: “We the people are the voice for Dylan Noble.” The banner, about 10 feet long and emblazoned with fire imagery, echoes that message: “We are Dylan Noble.” But others are more pointed, such as “who do you call when police murder?”
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer had previously declined to comment any further on Noble’s death, citing legal advice from the lawyers defending his department from lawsuits brought by Nelson and Noble’s father, Darren. Those lawsuits have moved slowly through the courts since they were filed in September and October. A trial is set to begin in October 2018.
Who do you call when police murder?
A sign at a weekly protest against the police shooting of Dylan Noble
However, the chief accepted The Bee’s request for an interview, saying it was “important to the public trust” that he respond.
Dyer said he checked with the department’s internal affairs division, and it has no record of Nelson lodging a complaint about the conduct of his officers during their protests. He directed a sergeant to contact Nelson to ask if she’d like to file one.
Stuart Chandler, Nelson’s lawyer, said his progress has been slowed by Manning & Kass, the Los Angeles-based law firm hired by the city to defend the police department. The two sides have disclosed what evidence they anticipate will be used in the trial, but the city’s lawyers have refused to share information Chandler believes is both public and vital to his case: Noble’s full autopsy report and complete copies of the officers’ body camera videos.
Per her attorney, Veronica Nelson has still not received the autopsy report on her son’s death.
Attempts to reach Manning & Kass for comment were not successful.
The department previously denied Chandler’s public records request for the items, saying they were part of an active investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Chandler said. He has since confirmed with the local United States Attorney’s Office that the federal government will not be filing any charges related to Noble’s death.
Federal officials refused to comment, adding that they never confirm nor deny that any FBI investigation did or did not take place.
Chandler said the city’s attorneys tell him that he will not receive copies of their evidence until he signs a document with the court promising that everything contained in the report and videos will remain confidential. He has refused.
“There’s no reason the city can’t turn this evidence over,” Chandler said. “This is a matter of public and community interest. The police should be forthright with the people of this city.”
Nelson is particularly upset over not seeing the autopsy report.
“I am his mother, and I can’t have his autopsy report,” she said. “I can’t know what happened to him. It’s frustrating. Why am I the bad person? Why are people upset with me?”
The Fresno Bee’s requests for the autopsy report have also been denied.
Reviews of officers’ actions
Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp declined to file criminal charges in December against the two officers who shot Noble, Raymond Camacho and Robert Chavez.
Clips of the body camera footage show Noble failing to follow the pair’s commands and moving towards them with his hands near his waistband. Noble dropped to the ground after Camacho shot him three times, and Chavez soon fired a shotgun blast into the man after he again refused to put his hands up.
Smittcamp said the two officers believed Noble was armed. He was considered a threat at the time each shot was fired because he had failed to comply, so no crime took place.
However, a Fresno Police Department internal affairs investigation and a separate investigation conducted by the Office of Independent Review’s police auditor concluded the two officers violated department policy during the shooting. Dyer said in December that all four shots were justified, but he believed the two officers could have pursued other options between the third and fourth shot – while Noble had collapsed to the pavement. It’s unclear which shot was fatal.
Dyer told The Bee this week that state law prohibits him from going into detail about the two officers’ punishments, but he said one is working as a detective. The other officer – he did not specify which – has not returned to full duty with the department.
Camacho was a 20-year veteran at the time of Noble’s death. This was his first officer-involved shooting. Chavez was a 17-year law enforcement veteran – 10 with the Fresno Police Department – who had a previous officer-involved shooting in 2009.
Dyer also detailed three changes to department procedure, tactics and training that were made after a review of the Noble shooting.
Fresno police officers have received additional training in dealing with ‘high risk’ traffic stops and switching to less lethal options when a suspect has been injured.
Every officer received additional training on “high risk” traffic stops. They were coached on how to approach an armed or potentially armed person who now presents a “diminished threat due to an injury.” They were also instructed to use better positioning and cover, as well as to consider transitioning from their guns to other force options should the threat be reduced.
All rifles and shotguns now have slings, which Dyer said would make it easier to transition to “other force options.”
Finally, the department’s policy on using K-9 units on armed suspects was reviewed. Generally, Fresno police do not deploy dogs when they believe a suspect is armed. Dyer said this policy was found to be very consistent with other law enforcement agencies across the country, so it was not changed.
Nelson’s lawsuit had mentioned all three of these options: Using less-lethal force when Noble was on the ground, not using a shotgun and deploying a K-9 unit instead of the officers confronting him.
Despite no criminal charges being filed, the Nelson and Darren Noble lawsuits could cost the city millions of dollars.
In November, the parents of Jaime Reyes Jr. received a $2.2 million settlement from the city. Reyes, 28, was shot and killed by police in 2012 as he attempted to escape an officer’s pursuit by climbing a fence. That shooting was also ruled justified, and no criminal charges were filed against the officer.
Several other lawsuits against the Fresno Police Department are working their way through federal courts.
Nelson intends to keep holding weekly protests in front of the department until her lawsuit reaches its conclusion. Although many of these cases are often settled, Chandler expects this case to go to trial.
For now, Nelson is focused on honoring her son in a way he’d appreciate. There is a car cruise planned for Sunday night – similar to one held by Noble’s friends and family shortly after his death. The group will meet at the Walmart on Clovis and Herndon avenues at 4 p.m. The drive will end at a private residence, but Nelson invites anyone wishing to celebrate Noble’s life to attend.