Do Fresno cops shoot most often at blacks and Latinos? ACLU says yes in new report

The Reverend Dr. Floyd Harris Jr., center, leads about 60 people in a march through the New Light For New Life Church Of God neighborhood for a rally in west Fresno Saturday morning, Aug. 15, 2015. About 70 people marched and rallied calling an end to police violence and supporting the Black and Brown Lives Matter movements.
The Reverend Dr. Floyd Harris Jr., center, leads about 60 people in a march through the New Light For New Life Church Of God neighborhood for a rally in west Fresno Saturday morning, Aug. 15, 2015. About 70 people marched and rallied calling an end to police violence and supporting the Black and Brown Lives Matter movements. ezamora@fresnobee.com

Fresno police officers fire their guns most often at black or Latino people, according to a report issued Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Many times, shooting incidents involve officers who discharged their weapons before, the report said.

Furthermore, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office didn’t file criminal charges in an officer-involved shooting from 2001-2016, the report found.

Privacy surrounding personnel information prevented the ACLU from obtaining certain details about officer-involved shootings by the Fresno Police Department, so the social justice group is calling on California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to further investigate the issue. The group wrote a letter to the attorney general’s office that included findings from the report and requested the top law enforcement office in the state to conduct a “civil pattern or practice” investigation of the Fresno Police Department.

“To get to the bottom of the causes of these problems and figure out why the department has such a high number of shootings as an agency is going to take an agency with greater access to information than we have,” said Novella Coleman, the ACLU’s staff attorney based in Fresno.

The Department of Justice confirmed it received the letter and will review it.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer in an email to The Bee refuted the findings of the report, pointing to a 2017 Fresno County Grand Jury report that provided “favorable” findings after assessing policies, procedures and training. The grand jury reviewed officer-involved shooting investigations between 2000 and 2017.

“I am confident the attorney general would come to the same conclusion,” he said.

Dyer said he wasn’t surprised by the ACLU report, and said the organization produces studies that support an anti-police agenda.

By the numbers

Between 2001 and 2016, there were 146 officer-involved shootings by Fresno police.

Of those, black or Latino people accounted for 80 percent of people shot by Fresno officers, despite making up 52 percent of Fresno’s population, the report found. Though whites make up 29 percent of Fresno’s population, they accounted for only 8 percent of victims of officer-involved shootings.

The report also noted that people living in low-income communities of color in south Fresno are more likely to experience officer-involved shootings, as opposed to people from wealthier, predominantly white communities in north Fresno.

At least 55 Fresno police officers have been involved in an officer-involved shooting in the 15-year period, meaning the same officers were involved in 62 percent of the 146 officer-involved shootings, the report found. One officer identified in the report was involved in seven officer-involved shootings in that time. Another was involved in six, and a third was involved in five.

“That seems high, especially when you consider a lot of officers go their whole career without discharging their weapon,” Coleman said. “It’s problematic not just for the community being exposed to incidents of force, but it’s also troubling for the individual officers. It shouldn’t be a daily activity where officers are discharging their weapon. That invokes trauma for the officers, too. That’s a number the department should want to lower.”

The ACLU report also tallied 19 lawsuits stemming from officer-involved shootings from 2008-2016. Eight of those lawsuits have been closed, amounting to a bill costing more than $5.3 million. That number doesn’t include open cases or $1.5 million a jury awarded to the family of Stephen Willis after determining a Fresno officer was partially responsible for the death.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer shows the police body cam footage of the shooting of Freddy Centeno in September, in which it appears Centeno was reaching into his waistband and pull out the garden hose nozzle. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Dyer said numbers alone do not tell the whole story.

“There are going to be more uses of force, (including) deadly force, in neighborhoods that are plagued by gangs and violent crime,” he said.

He said officers who have been involved in repeat shootings may be assigned to other units and are monitored.

Dyer also said the report’s racial disparity findings are “without merit,” noting the city’s success in defending excessive force cases. “No judge or jury has ever found a pattern or practice of excessive force in the Fresno Police Department,” he said.

However, a 2016 report from the city’s independent review office found that blacks are more likely than others to be interviewed and detained by Fresno police. At the time, Dyer didn’t dispute the findings and said police were working to curb violence between black gangs.

Policies and recommendations

The ACLU report recommended the police department make some changes, such as: require continued evidence-based, anti-bias and de-escalation training; mandate proper and consistent use of body cameras; make department policies, training and data available to the public; hire a diverse work force; and eliminate the use of social media that stigmatizes Fresno residents.

Coleman also said she noticed that although the department has a “use of force” policy, it doesn’t properly address deadly force.

Dyer said the department already has practices that include many of the recommendations.

The report also said people who were interviewed said the department’s “community cookouts” were perceived as “photo-ops,” and that use of force caused community perception of police to decline.

“I take offense to the ACLU’s assertion that the police department has damaged relationships with the community,” Dyer said. “We have an incredible relationship with our community and are very engaged in community policing. How can the ACLU make that judgment from San Francisco?”