The family of Freddy Centeno, who was mortally wounded in a confrontation with Fresno police, joined the Fresno Brown Berets in a small protest outside the Fresno Police Department on Wednesday afternoon.
Centeno, who has a history of mental illness, was shot by police Sept. 3 at El Monte Way and Orange Avenue in southeast Fresno after he allegedly threatened a woman and pulled a gunlike object on officers. Centeno died from his injuries on Sept. 25. The object turned out to be a water pistol-type device with a trigger.
About 30 people showed up outside Fresno police headquarters to talk about the shooting of Centeno and others.
“Brother Freddy didn’t have a weapon,” said the Rev. Floyd D. Harris Jr., a vocal activist against police brutality in Fresno. “He had an illness.”
Harris, Juan Rafael Avitia, president of the Mexican American Political Association and leader of the Fresno Brown Berets, and activist Gloria Hernandez spoke at the protest. A few of Centeno’s family members, all clad in black, stood behind the protesters and wept during most of the proceedings.
Their message was simple: Freddy Centeno should still be alive.
“The police say they thought he had a gun,” Roger Centeno, Freddy’s brother, said in an interview. “Since when is a thought a reality? When is a plastic nozzle considered a weapon?”
Roger Centeno said his brother was bipolar, schizophrenic and abused drugs. Freddy lived with Roger and his family.
However, Centeno said his brother was sober the day he was shot by police.
“He told us he was going for a walk,” Roger Centeno said. “Ten minutes later, we heard the gunshots.”
Centeno said his brother was shot nine times. Fresno police officials were unable to confirm this number, saying they had yet to receive a coroner’s report for the case.
Here is the Fresno Police Department’s official account of what happened:
On Sept. 3, officers arrived after a 911 caller reported that Centeno had knocked on her door, pointed a gun at her and asked if there were any drugs in the home. When police arrived, Centeno ignored commands to put his hands up and grabbed a “water pistol sprayer-type of device with a trigger,” Deputy Chief Pat Farmer said just after the shooting.
The officers believed the water sprayer was a handgun, Farmer said, and shot Centeno.
Centeno had a brief history with the Fresno Police Department. On Feb. 26, he was cited for interfering with police. On March 14, police were called to his residence for a disturbance. They learned Centeno was off his medication and had him evaluated by mental health personnel. He was arrested two days later for possessing methamphetamine.
Fresno police Lt. Mark Salazar said the officers who shot Centeno had no prior knowledge of his mental health problems.
Protestors on Wednesday said the officers should have pursued other options, such as less-than-lethal ammunition, before using deadly force. They made reference to Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer’s promise to community members to hire outside agencies to train officers to better handle mentally ill suspects.
In August, Dyer told community members that de-escalation, implicit bias and mental health training was already underway for officers.
On Wednesday, Fresno police Deputy Chief Robert Nevarez said the officers responding to the Centeno call did not have time to implement any of this training.
“The 911 caller, a woman with three children in her home, told dispatch that a man pointed a gun at her,” Nevarez said. “That’s what officers knew as they arrived at the scene three minutes after the initial call.”
Nevarez said a 911 call for an active threat is the highest priority for police officers, and that they “won’t ever apologize for responding quickly.”
“The caller said a gun was in his (Centeno) right shorts pocket,” Nevarez continued. “Officers commanded him to raise his hands, and he grabbed for the object in his right front pocket and raised it towards them.”
“He (Centeno) sped up the time frame for decision-making with his actions.”
Nevarez said that officers could have handled the situation differently if they had more time to assess it, but even that may not have changed the outcome. Nevarez said that police don’t use less-than-lethal force on suspects they believe to be armed with a gun.
The Centeno shooting was the first of three officer-involved shootings that week.
Dyer said the uptick in police shootings was the result of increased aggression towards officers, not officer aggression towards suspects. None of the officers involved in these shootings were charged or disciplined. All were placed on administrative leave for three days during internal investigations, then returned to duty.
For Roger Centeno, the loss of his brother has been difficult to bear.
“It’s been so painful because we had so much hope,” he said. “Freddy was so strong – the doctors tried everything to save him, but all of his organs were damaged.”
Centeno said his family has retained legal counsel, but he would not comment on whether they will file a lawsuit against the Fresno Police Department.