Editorials

Fresno police made serious mistakes leading to teen’s fatal shooting. That must change

The video showing a 16-year-old boy being shot in the head by a Fresno police officer as the youth tries to flee is shocking, disturbing and powerful. It has once again ignited local conversations about whether police are properly held to account when using lethal force, or supported enough for doing a job that keeps the public safe but puts them in the line of fire of dangerous individuals.

The official record is that the 2017 shooting of Isiah Murrietta-Golding, a suspect wanted for murder, was a justified use of force. The police Internal Affairs Bureau investigation cleared Sgt. Ray Villalvazo from any wrongdoing in firing on the teen, and that was backed up by both the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office and the city’s Office of Independent Review.

However, the OIR report includes findings that present serious questions for police, such as why a SWAT team was not called to help secure the street where the teen boy had been discovered.

Opinion

As it is, the civil suit contends police acted with excessive and unlawful deadly force, and committed assault and battery with negligence.

The context

Here is the background of this case, as stated in the OIR report:

Police responded on April 14, 2017 to a report of shots being fired at East Ashcroft Avenue and North First Street. There officers found a car crashed into a tree, the 19-year-old driver dead as a result. Three passengers in the vehicle were injured and taken to hospitals. Witnesses reported hearing up to six gunshots. Two teen brothers — including Murrietta-Golding — were identified as suspects. No weapon was found.

The next day Fresno police detectives went to a house where the boys were thought to be living. After an hour of surveillance, officers saw a vehicle drive up and a male — believed to be Murrietta-Golding — made several trips from the vehicle to the home and back again.

Officers decided to wait until the car left the neighborhood. Once it drove away, FPD units pulled it over in a shopping center at Shaw and Fresno. The boy initially complied with officers’ orders, but just as he was about to be taken into custody, Murrietta-Golding made a break for it and fled on foot.

A chase ensued for several blocks, police repeatedly yelling for the teen to stop. The teen got to a daycare center that, fortunately, was closed for the day, and jumped a fence. Villalvazo and another officer ran up and the sergeant orders Murrietta-Golding to stop. The teen looks back at Villalvazo as he reaches for his waist. “The officer, believing the suspect was reaching for a weapon, fired one round, striking the suspect,” the OIR report says. Murrietta-Golding fell instantly, and died despite emergency first aid.

Officers discovered that the teen was unarmed.

What Independent Review found

In his 2018 first quarter report, Independent Reviewer John Gliatta determined that Villalvazo’s use of force was justified under Fresno police guidelines that permit officers to fire on escaping suspects who represent a danger to officers or the public.

Gliatta determined the teen’s actions — namely, his decision to run, then reach for his waistband while fleeing — were significant factors in the shooting.

But Gliatta also found fault with responding officers and their supervisors in significant ways.

For one thing, no formal “tactical operations plan” for the capture and arrest was written, despite the fact the hunt for Murrietta-Golding involved different units within the department. Such a plan would have clarified each team’s specific role in the manhunt and arrest.

The briefing among officers looking for the suspect was not mandated, Gliatta said. One officer was called in on his day off, and he did not get the benefit of all the information conveyed in the briefing, the OIR report says.

Perhaps most importantly, field officers did not try to utilize a SWAT team to secure the neighborhood where the boy was first identified, Gliatta says. This, despite the fact that a risk assessment for making the field arrest would have supported using SWAT.

“If SWAT was participating there would have been sufficient personnel to conduct the arrest of the suspect in the parked car while maintaining coverage of the residence for officer safety purposes,” the report says.

Gliatta says one officer he interviewed said “they intentionally did not take action when the suspect was spotted at the search warrant location because the previously calculated score (risk assessment) would have required SWAT.”

The field officers, Gliatta says, “gave up the ability to control the situation when they decided not to conduct the arrest in front of the house because of the risk assessment score.

“Allowing the suspect to drive away creates numerous unknowns in respect to location, amount of traffic, bystanders, and most of all the possibility the suspect does not stop, and a pursuit, which could endanger the public, ensues.”

In this instance, the suspect tried to get away on foot, with a fatal result.

Going forward

Fresno residents want to be safe in their neighborhoods. Anytime someone shoots another person to death, as Murrietta-Golding was accused of doing, it is a crime. It should be noted that his accomplice, his brother, entered a guilty plea after being arrested for the slaying.

But the public also wants police to act with reasonable force. That means working through a series of steps in escalating a response. Not using SWAT to help in this case looks to be a serious error in judgment, as the suspect was able to leave the neighborhood that police had staked out.

Fresno’s new police chief, Andy Hall, must be committed to thorough training of officers on properly escalating their response when situations involve serious crime. Using all the available resources must be a given.

The ultimate tragedy is that Isiah Murrietta-Golding got linked to a murder in the first place. How a 16-year-old fell through the cracks is a shame on the Fresno community at large. His death should cause deep reflection on what more needs to be done to help our community’s young people choose a better path.

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