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Police say fatal shooting by officer was justified. A judge says a jury must decide

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 family of a Fresno man shot and killed by police three years ago can move forward with a civil rights lawsuit that accuses the Fresno Police Department of excessive force and negligent wrongful death, a federal judge ruled this week.

In making his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Ishii said a jury must decide whether officer Trevor Shipman was justified in shooting Casimero “Shane” Casillas outside an east Fresno home in September 2015.

Police contend Shipman feared for his life because Casillas was about to strike the officer with a metal pipe. Shipman fired three times, mortally wounding Casillas.

But Ishii said Shipman and police officers made contradictory statements about the shooting, including whether Casillas put Shipman in danger.

Casimero Casilla_fitted.jpeg
Fresno police shot and killed Casimero Casillas on Sept. 7, 2015, after he evaded a traffic stop for a seat belt violation. On Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, a judge ruled that Casillas’ family can move forward with its civil rights lawsuit that accuses the Fresno Police Department of excessive force. The trial began Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Fresno Police Department

For example, the ruling says Shipman said “he ordered Casillas to halt his approach, yelling at the top of his lungs.” But two police officers and two bystanders who were near where Casillas was shot never reported hearing Shipman’s commands, the ruling says.

Shipman also said “Casillas held the pipe at chest level.” But two officers said Casillas had the pipe down by his side, the ruling says.

In addition, Shipman said Casillas rushed toward him. But other officers said Casillas moved slowly.

“The court cannot ignore the possibility that Officer Shipman’s testimony may be self-serving,” the ruling says. The officers’ contradictions, the ruling says, “raise genuine issues of material fact as to the kind of threat Casillas posed to Officer Shipman. “

In response to the ruling, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said: “As with any critical incident where officers and or witnesses are under stress, there are differences in perception.” Because of the stress, time and distance can become distorted, he said.

“Although Officer Shipman has since transferred to another policing agency, the City of Fresno will continue to aggressively defend his actions throughout the civil process,” Dyer said. “I am confident that the City of Fresno will prevail in this lawsuit once all of the facts are presented to the jury.”

The ruling, made public on Tuesday, was in response to the city’s motion for summary judgment that sought to dismiss the family’s claims. Ishii dismissed one claim, but kept intact the key complaints of excessive force and negligent wrongful death, said Fresno attorney Bill Schmidt, who represents the Casillas family.

The ruling says Ishii also denied the city’s request to give Shipman “qualified immunity.” In general, a police officer would have “qualified immunity” and not held liable if his actions were reasonable.

Schmidt said Casillas is survived by a wife and five children. He also said Casillas’ killing is similar to that of 19-year-old Dylan Noble, who was fatally shot by Fresno police during a traffic stop in June 2016.

Police said officers feared for their lives when they shot Noble because they thought he had a gun in his waistband. After he was shot four times, including twice while he lay on the ground wounded, officers discovered Noble was unarmed.

In August, the Fresno City Council approved a record $2.8 million settlement with Noble’s parents to resolve their city rights lawsuit against the police department.

Schmidt said the similarity is this: Police rushed to apprehend Casillas because of a seat-belt violation. When Casillas failed to comply with the traffic stop, Schmidt said, officers overreacted. “They resorted immediately to deadly force when there were other less-lethal options,” he said.

Police captured the shooting of Noble with body cameras worn by officers. The officer who shot Casillas, as well as backup officers, didn’t take video of their actions, Schmidt said.

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The ruling, which has a diagram of the crime scene, gave this account of the Sept. 7, 2015 shooting:

Around 5 p.m. police tried to pull Casillas over but he failed to stop. With police in pursuit, Casillas drove toward his friend’s home while obeying “all traffic laws,” the ruling says. After a short pursuit, Casillas parked his car near Clovis Avenue and Saginaw Way and went inside his friend’s home.

Police set up a perimeter and dispatched police dogs to search for Casillas. Shipman, meanwhile, stationed himself in a room or breezeway between the home and a garage.

Multiple officers moved into the backyard and warned Casillas that dogs would bite him if he didn’t surrender. Casillas was then seen in the backyard, carrying a pipe, “which he held pointed at the ground,” the ruling says.

He soon encountered Shipman.

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Casillas moved slowly toward Shipman but “did not raise the pipe in an assaultive manner,” the ruling says. Shipman then fired three times, killing him. “Officer Shipman gave no verbal warnings to Casillas and declined to use his Taser (stun gun) or other less-deadly force to prevent Casilla’s escape,” the ruling says.

The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office investigated the shooting because it took place in an unincorporated area of Fresno County near Tarpey Village. After the investigation, Dyer said the sheriff’s office under the direction of the District Attorney’s Office, as well as an Internal Affairs investigation by police, determined that the use of deadly force was justified.

“The city of Fresno’s Office of Independent Review concurred with this finding, as did I,” Dyer said back then. “The City Attorney’s Office is prepared to vigorously defend this matter through the civil process.”

But Schmidt said on Thursday that the killing was unjustified. “Judge Ishii correctly determined the facts and the law,” Schmidt said. “We look forward to going to trial and getting justice for his family.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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