When Valley law enforcement used force in 2017, deaths were more frequent than statewide

A glance at officer-involved shootings in the Fresno area and across California

Here's a visual breakdown of police officer-involved shootings in the Fresno area and across California.
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Here's a visual breakdown of police officer-involved shootings in the Fresno area and across California.

The deadly shooting of unarmed teenager Dylan Noble in mid-2016 by Fresno police officers inflamed community passions and culminated last month in a record $2.8 million settlement of lawsuits by Noble’s parents.

Yet the case is but one of six civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement in Fresno since 2016, and among 18 fatal law enforcement-civilian encounters in the central San Joaquin Valley in 2016 and 2017.

Law enforcement use-of-force data from the California Department of Justice reveals that more than 46 percent – nearly half – of the use-of-force incidents in the Valley in 2017 ended in civilian deaths. That’s about double the statewide rate of about 24 percent. Additionally, almost 70 percent of the people who died from law enforcement use of force in the Valley in 2017 were Hispanic – including all five in Fresno County. That’s markedly higher than the 47 percent rate statewide.

The number of people killed in confrontations with law enforcement in the Valley more than doubled from 2016 to 2017. Twenty of 23 people who were killed or seriously injured by law enforcement last year were victims of gunfire. Thirteen of those cases ended in death, including 11 that involved guns. Ten other people were hurt, eight of whom were shot.

The state began collecting data in 2016 on law enforcement use-of-force incidents that resulted in serious injury or death, or involved firing a gun. All law enforcement agencies in California were required to file reports to the state Department of Justice starting in 2017.

The Valley cases from 2017 are among 724 use-of-force cases between civilians and law enforcement statewide – including 28 in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties – that resulted in 613 civilian injuries or deaths last year. Across California, 172 people were killed by law enforcement; of those, 155 died from gunshot wounds.

Fresno’s officer-involved shootings

Click the markers on the map above to see details about each of the 18 officer-involved shootings by Fresno law enforcement since the beginning of 2016. Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee

In the Valley, nine of the 13 civilian deaths in 2017 were Hispanic people, along with one American Indian and three whites. All five Fresno County civilian deaths were Hispanic.

Statewide, 81 of the 172 people who died and 202 of 442 who sustained some level of injury from law enforcement were Hispanic. White civilians accounted for 55 deaths and 141 injured, while 84 civilian injuries and 26 deaths were among blacks.

The state data indicates that in 155 of the 172 civilian deaths, officers believed the person was armed with a gun or some other type of weapon. In 19 of those deaths, however, the victim was later determined to have been unarmed. In all but six of the deaths, the person was reportedly resisting law enforcement.

Run-ins between residents and law enforcement also resulted in the deaths of two officers statewide last year, while another 253 officers sustained some degree of injury from sprains to fractures to gunshot wounds. In the Valley, five officers were hurt in confrontations with civilians in 2017.

By comparison, in 2016:

  • Five people in the Valley were killed by law enforcement-related use of force, all of whom were shot.

  • Thirty-two more people in the Valley were injured in law enforcement-civilian interactions, including nine who had gunshot wounds.

  • Three officers were hurt in the Valley, but none were killed.

  • Statewide, 156 civilians died, including 142 who were shot by officers.

  • Another 531 people were injured, including 111 whose injuries included gunshot wounds.

  • Five officers died statewide, and 350 others were injured, in their dealings with civilians.

The Fresno Police Department reported two civilian deaths in 2016, two in 2017, and two in 2018 as of late September.

Training emphasizes communication

At the State Center Regional Training Facility, tucked into a collection of bungalows behind Ratcliffe Stadium at Fresno City College, would-be law enforcement officers go through an intensive six-month academy program in which instructors cover more than 40 different learning subjects.

Use-of-force lessons are woven throughout the entire curriculum, but there’s also a full 34-hour block of instruction on assessing situations and making decisions about the different levels of force and which force options are appropriate in different circumstances.

“Not everything is deadly force. It’s all about communication and de-escalation,” academy director Gary Fief said.

Fief and basic academy coordinator Jim Edison said that instruction is followed by field demonstrations and testing in which cadets are confronted by realistic role-playing scenarios to determine how well they have synthesized what they’ve learned in the classroom.

While each law enforcement agency has its own policies and protocols for officers using force, Fief said the academy’s training covers options including control holds, using a baton, pepper spray or chemical Mace, and electronic devices like a Taser.

Those are possible alternatives that can be used before resorting to deadly force with a gun.

“We build up throughout the entire academy … from just contact with a person to non-deadly force to deadly force, and then we do the testing,” said Fief, a 29-year California Highway Patrol veteran. Instructors assess the cadets’ performance and decision making, using a checklist for whether the student took the appropriate action. To pass the academy course, cadets must successfully pass each of three different role-playing situations.

“It may be an encounter where just talking to a person will defuse the situation to where there’s no action taken. It depends on the situation,” he added. “If the person has a weapon or is threatening, and the officer feels a threat, he can use a baton or Mace, or could use his Taser if it’s a situation where he fears for his safety or someone else’s safety.

“If you take that same situation and the person is coming at you with a weapon, or it’s a big person and a smaller officer and he feels that his life or someone else’s life is in danger … and there’s no alternative, then the last resort is deadly force,” Fief said.

There’s also a day set aside during the academy program in which each cadet is subjected to a Taser strike and a spraying with chemical Mace. “We want to show them, here’s how it feels to be Tasered or Maced, so use the amount of force that’s appropriate,” Fief said. “It helps educate them to think, ‘I’m not going to be using this just to use it.’ ”

‘You ought to feel a little edgy’

Edison, the academy’s basic academy coordinator and a 35-year law enforcement veteran with the Riverside Police Department and CHP, said different officers may have different perceptions of fearing for their own safety or others’ safety.

“I was on a felony stop one time, and I looked around and saw several officers with their guns drawn and one officer didn’t; he just stood there,” Edison recalled. “I asked him later, ‘Why didn’t you have your weapon out?’ He said, ‘I didn’t see the threat.’ But the rest of us did.”

“I feel that when you’re in a high-stress situation, you ought to feel a little edgy,” he added. “When I quit feeling that edginess, I interpreted it to be that I was becoming complacent (and that) I’d better get the hell out of here. I worried about that.”

Dylan Noble

The relevance of an officer’s fear for his or her life is often a key question in investigations of officer-involved shootings. “The officer has to explain why he felt he was fearful for his life, and I think they’re looking at that a lot harder now when they assess these deadly-force cases,” Fief said.

One of the most notable Valley cases in 2016 was the fatal police shooting of Dylan Noble. Noble, 19, was unarmed when two officers opened fire during a traffic stop. Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer has said his officers believed Noble may have been armed, and body camera footage showed him move toward officers and yell before being shot.

Noble’s mother and father both filed wrongful death lawsuits against the city of Fresno over the shooting, and the case appeared to be headed for trial next summer. But in late July, more than two years after Noble’s death, the city agreed to a $2.8 million settlement to be paid to the family. It’s a record settlement for a lawsuit against the city.

The progression of options when it comes to use of force is part of the Fresno Police Department’s policy manual, which states that “when a decision has been made to restrain or arrest a suspect, approved force options may only be used when their use appears reasonable under the circumstances.”

A range of options for officers

Those options under the policy include an officer’s baton; pepper spray; chemical agents (such as Mace); Pepperball projectiles; carotid restraint hold or other physical control holds; body strikes; less-than-lethal projectiles such as beanbag projectiles, rubber pellets and others; use of a police dog; electronic Taser devices; and finally, a firearm such as a handgun, rifle or shotgun.

“The safety of hostages, innocent persons and officers takes priority over the safety of subjects engaged in criminal or suicidal behavior,” the policy states. Additionally, “the application of any force option shall be discontinued once the officer determines that compliance has been achieved.”

Other policies specify occasions when deadly force, particularly the use of a firearm, or electronic Taser devices may be used by officers.

Among the points of contention in the Noble case was that while officers believed he may have been armed because he reached behind his back and wouldn’t comply with officers’ demands – that he drop to the ground and keep his hands in sight – the officers didn’t use a Taser or wait for the arrival of a police dog before firing their guns at Noble.

The Fresno County District Attorney’s Office eventually determined the two officers’ actions involved no criminal conduct. The city’s Office of Independent Review, or police auditor, however, found Noble’s shooting was not within the department’s established policies.

In addition to the sizable financial settlement, the agreement between Noble’s parents and the city calls for police officers to “undergo additional training on high-risk traffic stops. That includes how to safely approach a wounded suspect and alternatives to be considered when addressing a diminished threat,” according to a joint statement by the city and attorneys for Noble’s family.

“In addition, department procedure for deploying (police dogs) on possibly armed subjects is being reviewed and researched to ensure department policy is consistent with best practices in law enforcement,” the statement added. “Lastly, all department shotguns and rifles will be equipped with a sling in order to allow officers to more easily transition from the use of a shotgun or long rifle to a less lethal alternative, should the need arise.”

Fief said that situations such as the Noble shooting and other use-of-force incidents across the state and nation often provide fodder for instructors at the police academy to discuss with their students – not to second-guess officers, but to help students assess how they might act in similar circumstances.

“You have to assess the situation. If the guy’s there with a gun and he’s coming toward you, you’re going to go from zero to 60 real quick,” Fief said. “It’s really about the nature of the contact and what (an officer) observes at the time, how that person reacts to the officer and how the officer reacts to the person.”

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319; Twitter: @TimSheehanNews.