A prominent civil rights attorney is again taking aim at the Fresno Police Department, accusing Chief Jerry Dyer of allowing his officers to shoot people without fear of punishment.
“There have been over 90 officer-involved shootings in the past 10 years in Fresno, and not one officer has been disciplined for shooting a human being,” San Francisco attorney Arturo Gonzalez says in court papers in preparation for a civil rights trial in U.S. District Court in Fresno.
Gonzalez says he can back up his claim; he has police reports and Internal Affairs documents of dozens of officer-involved shootings. But a lawyer for the Police Department says Gonzalez violated a court order by not destroying the documents.
Gonzalez represents the family of 48-year-old Veronica Lynn Canter, a mentally ill woman who was fatally shot by police in March 2014. He says the evidence shows two police officers busted through the front door of an apartment and killed her within five minutes of being dispatched to a call of a domestic disturbance.
Police say Canter was shot after she armed herself with two knives and charged toward two officers inside her ex-boyfriend’s apartment near Bulldog Stadium.
Police contend Veronica Canter was fatally shot after she armed herself with two knives and charged toward two officers inside her ex-boyfriend’s apartment near Bulldog Stadium in March 2014.
Before the trial can begin, a hearing will be held May 27 to determine whether Gonzalez can use the documents he says show an “institutional problem” about the use of deadly force by Fresno police.
Santa Ana attorney Bruce Praet, who represents the Fresno Police Department, says the police documents are confidential and under a court protective order. In his motion, Praet wants Magistrate Judge Erica P. Grosjean to sanction Gonzalez for letting his police expert, Roger Clark, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s lieutenant, review the confidential material and write a report in preparation for a June 14 trial. Praet is asking the judge to order Gonzalez to destroy the documents and prohibit Clark from testifying.
Gonzalez says the information is a public record because the opposition filed Clark’s report as a court exhibit. He also says the public needs to know the contents of Clark’s report because, Gonzalez said, it clearly shows Fresno police have a pattern of shooting people with impunity.
Police spokesman Lt. Joe Gomez said, “It is inappropriate for us to comment at this juncture because of the court proceeding in May.” Praet could not be reached to comment.
The Clark report says there were 54 police shootings in Fresno from 2005 to 2010 and 33 from 2011 to March 7, 2014, when Canter was fatally shot.
The Fresno Police Department and the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office have ruled all of the shootings justified, Gonzalez says. Clark’s report says “there are at least 22 shootings by the FPD in the past 10 years that were not reasonable and thus unjustified.”
A majority of the victims in the 22 shootings were unarmed, running away from police, or confined inside an automobile or home, the Clark report says.
“All of these shootings were avoidable,” says the report, which summarizes 22 shootings that Clark says were unjustified. The list includes the 2005 killing of Arthur Sanchez, who was shot by his brother, Fresno police officer Louie Sanchez. Because Louie Sanchez did not cooperate in the investigation, he was fired from the Fresno force, the report says. He never was charged in connection with his brother’s death.
In court papers, Gonzalez and Praet detail their positions for the upcoming trial:
In December 2011, Gonzalez won a $1.3 million settlement from Fresno in a high-profile excessive-force case that focused on the killing of Steven Vargas, who was unarmed but high on drugs when a police sergeant shot him inside his SUV on Oct. 27, 2009. Vargas crashed his SUV on the front lawn of a home on McKinley Avenue near Cedar Avenue.
In winning the case, Gonzalez showed the federal jury a pattern of Fresno police shootings from 2005 to 2010 that he contended were unlawful and unjustified. The jury ruled in his favor and found the city liable.
As part of the settlement, Dyer promised to change his department’s approach to officer-involved shootings. But Gonzalez said in an interview that nothing has changed with the Fresno Police Department. “Fresno is still the Wild West” when it comes to police shooting people, he said.
Praet says a protective order required Gonzalez to destroy the documents once the 2011 trial was over. In addition, if Gonzalez is allowed to bring up past officer-involved shootings, it would prejudice the jury against the Fresno Police Department, Praet says in court papers.
Gonzalez says the dozens of police shootings are critical to show officers have a pattern of using unreasonable force against citizens, especially the mentally ill, even after the December 2011 settlement.
Civil-rights attorney Arturo Gonzalez says the March 7, 2014, killing of Veronica Canter “is a classic case of what’s wrong with the Fresno Police Department.”
Gonzalez says the March 7, 2014, fatal shooting of Canter “is a classic case of what’s wrong with the Fresno Police Department.”
Just 20 days before the shooting, a Fresno police officer arrested Canter for lying nearly naked on a busy street, court documents say. Police took her to a psychiatric care unit.
That officer knew how to help Canter, Gonzalez says. On the other hand, the officers who confronted Canter inside the apartment didn’t consider her mental state, though dispatch had told them they were dealing with a mentally distraught person, Gonzalez says.
Court records say Canter’s ex-boyfriend had called 911 to report she had locked him out of his apartment. Police say Canter was acting strangely, talking to herself and dancing outside the apartment before police arrived. When the apartment manager complained, the ex-boyfriend went outside to persuade her to come inside. Once inside, she locked him out.
“He could see see through the sliding patio door that she continued to act strangely, dancing around wearing a basketball net as a skirt and yelling incoherently,” court records say.
Within five minutes of arriving, Officers Douglas Cox and Edward Louchren had kicked open the door, used a stun gun on her and then fatally shot her, court records say.
After the shooting, Dyer told news reporters when officers entered the apartment, Canter came out of the kitchen and threatened them with an 8-inch carving knife. Officers ordered her to drop the knife but she refused.
In court papers, Praet says Cox tried to immobilizeCanter by shooting her with a Taser stun gun, but the device did not stop her assault. Louchren “was forced to use deadly force in the justified and reasonable defense of himself and his partner,” Praet says.
If she grabbed a knife, it was because she saw two men with guns bursting in.
Civil-rights attorney Arturo Gonzalez
Gonzalez contends the officers used unreasonable force against a mentally ill woman who was involved in a minor domestic dispute. “At most it was a misdemeanor,” he says. Instead of trying to calm the situation, the officers yelled at Canter.
“She was scared,” Gonzalez said. “If she grabbed a knife, it was because she saw two men with guns bursting in.”
Louchren fired five times at Canter, who did not have any drugs or alcohol in her system at the time of her death, court records say.
Gonzalez contends Fresno police violated its own policy in dealing with the mentally ill. He says officers are required to train every three years. Cox and Louchren had only two hours of training in 2009, five years before the shooting, court records say. “The failure to train officers regarding mentally ill subjects resulted in the defendant officers’ use of excessive force in the shooting of Ms. Canter,” Gonzalez says.
Praet, however, denied Fresno police have “any sort of unconstitutional custom, policy or practice with respect to dealing with mental illness, the use of force, training, or disciplining officers.”
He also said the Canter case is different from the Steven Vargas case in 2009.
Mike Palomino, the sergeant who fatally shot Vargas, had been in two officer-involved shootings that year and at least four other police shootings in his career. Louchren had only one shooting, and that involved an armed suspect, Praet says.
Vargas was unarmed when he was shot and killed. “It is virtually undisputed that Veronica Canter came at the officers with two knives,” Praet says in court papers.
Palomino also fired several shots at Vargas, reloaded and fired several more. But when confronted by Canter, “Louchren fired only five shots,” Praet says.
Gonzalez says Cox and Louchren ignored clear indications that Canter needed help. Because Canter was alone in the apartment, Gonzalez says, the officers could have called for a supervisor for advice or asked dispatch to send out an officer trained to deal with mentally distraught people.
“Not all police are bad. Most officers are good officers,” Gonzalez says. “But there’s an institutional problem with the Fresno Police Department when it comes to officers using deadly force. They know nothing will happen to them. But you don’t get a free pass just because you wear a badge.”