Marek Warszawski

Fresno police gunned down an unarmed teenager from behind. Are we OK with this?

Are you OK with Fresno police officers shooting unarmed teenage boys in the back of the head?

It’s a simple question: Are you OK with that? Yes or no.

I suspect some of you are perfectly OK with it. You’ve seen the recently surfaced video of 16-year-old Isiah Murrietta-Golding being gunned down by Fresno police Sgt. Ray Villalvazo, and it doesn’t faze you.

“That’s what happens when you run from the police,” you tell yourself. “Don’t you know about the fleeing felon rule? The kid got what was coming to him.”

I’m guessing those who feel that way have a similar reaction each and every time a Fresno police officer shoots someone, or beats them senseless, in the line of duty. The cops are never wrong and their actions almost always justified, regardless of how many millions of taxpayer dollars get forked over every year in legal claims against the department.

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“Bleeding heart juries,” you mutter under your breath.

On the other hand, I suspect a growing number of you are not OK with this. You’re sick and tired of seeing Fresno police officers get exonerated for their brutal behavior. And each time Jerry Dyer or some independent review board claims the officer’s actions fall within department policy, you become more and more incredulous.

“Murder by cop,” you write on Twitter. “Police violence is gun violence.”

A city divided

This conflict of thought embodies the divided city we live in. Those who are in lockstep with every action taken by Fresno police versus those who have come to believe the department has devolved into little more than thugs with badges.

It’s going to take a lot more than a few public forums or a catchy campaign slogan to bridge that gap. How can we ever be “One Fresno” when the issue of officer-involved shootings separates us in such fundamental ways?

Hint: We can’t, and we won’t. Not without an honest and unmitigated community-wide dialogue about the police department and its use of force. Not without some real accountability.

Sorry, but I don’t see that happening. Fresno has long been a city divided — by wealth, skin color and viewpoint — and so it will remain. And incidents such as what took place on April 15, 2017, only widen those differences.

Let’s return to my original question: Are you OK with police officers shooting unarmed teenagers in the back of the head?

Speaking for myself, I am not. I’ve watched the Murrietta-Golding video several times, and with each repeat viewing I get angrier and angrier.

In what world is this a justified shooting?

Justifications don’t hold up

I understand that Fresno police considered Murrietta-Golding and his 17-year-old brother as prime suspects in the shooting death of 19-year-old Eugenio Ybarra that occurred a day earlier. But instead of obtaining an arrest warrant or a search warrant, officers elected to make a “high-risk” traffic stop, according to a 2018 federal civil rights lawsuit.

Murrietta-Golding’s older brother surrendered to police. (Because he’s a minor, we can’t be certain whether he was tried and/or convicted for Ybarra’s murder.) But the 16-year-old opted to flee, a decision that cost him his life.

In rationalizing the shooting, Dyer said Villalvazo feared for his safety, citing that Murrietta-Golding “reached into his waistband several times” including moments before the fatal shot.

When I view the surveillance video and body cam footage, I sure don’t see that. I see a kid grabbing his waistband in an attempt to keep his pants from falling down as he runs away.

Nor do I hear any attempt by Villalvazo to issue a warning before firing his weapon, an action recommended by the Supreme Court in the landmark Tennessee vs. Garner case of 1985.

Instead, I hear a fellow officer say “Good shot” after Villalvazo fired the fatal bullet that pierced Murrietta-Golding’s occipital lobe.

What a chilling thing to say in such a moment. As if gunning down 16-year-olds from behind is a feat worthy of congratulations.

Due process ignored

At the time of the shooting, Dyer said Murrietta-Golding and his brother were associated with the Calwa Bulldogs gang. By contrast, Christina Pauline Lopez, Murrietta-Golding’s mother, said in court documents that her son was a good student who liked playing sports and video games and wasn’t affiliated with any gangs.

Who to believe? Again, that likely depends on your personal biases. But I will point out that Dyer at the time said police had video of the chase but not the actual shooting — and that sure didn’t turn out to be true.

Even if Murrietta-Golding was a gang member, even if he was a legitimate suspect in a murder, that still doesn’t give police officers the right to gun him down from behind. Department policies be damned.

In this country, there’s such a thing as due process. Cops don’t get to be judge, jury and executioner.

Except, it seems, in California’s fifth-largest city. Where some of you will read this, scoff and scratch out a check to Dyer’s mayoral campaign.

One Fresno? Not hardly.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.
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