Wal­mart killing raises ques­tions on po­lice backup

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Wil­liams

San Le­an­dro po­lice Of­fi­cer Ja­son Fletcher had a choice to make when he ar­rived at the front door of a Wal­mart in April, re­spond­ing to re­ports of a man with a bat act­ing er­rat­i­cally and threat­en­ing peo­ple in­side: Should Fletcher walk in im­me­di­ately or wait for backup?

He went in by him­self. Within 40 sec­onds, Steven Taylor, 33, was dy­ing on the floor from a gun­shot wound to the chest.

Taylor’s fam­ily said he was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a men­tal health cri­sis. The dilemma Fletcher faced — how to con­front some­one who may be in such a cri­sis and en­dan­ger­ing oth­ers — is an in­creas­ingly cru­cial one for po­lice of­fi­cers.

“This is an of­fi­cer who would be con­demned if he failed to act, but who also found him­self in dire straits by act­ing.”

Alameda County pros­e­cu­tors cited Fletcher’s de­ci­sion to walk into the Wal­mart by him­self as one of the rea­sons they charged him last month with vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter for the April 18 killing. He was the first Bay Area law en­force­ment of­fi­cer to be charged in a fa­tal shoot­ing in more than a decade.

An at­tor­ney for Fletcher said he acted law­fully, in de­fense of him­self and oth­ers, in a dif­fi­cult and per­ilous en­counter.

Three ex­perts in po­lice tac­tics, who re­viewed video of the in­ci­dent at The Chron­i­cle’s re­quest, said Taylor’s killing ap­peared to be un­nec­es­sary. But they dif­fered on whether Fletcher should have waited be­fore con­fronting Taylor.

Kal­fani Turè, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of criminal jus­tice at Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity in Con­necti­cut and for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer in Ge­or­gia, said it is an of­fi­cer’s job to in­ter­vene in what may be per­ceived as a threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tion.

In other cases, of­fi­cers have been crit­i­cized for not re­spond­ing quickly enough to calls, Turè said —most notably the school re­source of­fi­cer at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High who in 2018 was fired, crim­i­nally charged and ac­cused of cow­ardice after he waited out­side a build­ing while a gun­man mas­sa­cred 17 peo­ple in­side the Florida school.

“The of­fi­cer goes in be­cause we are trained to pro­tect other peo­ple’s lives,” Turè said. “This is an of­fi­cer who would be con­demned if he failed to act, but who also found him­self in dire straits by act­ing.”

When of­fi­cers can work together at a scene, they have more chances to deesca­late a po­ten­tially volatile sit­u­a­tion, said Ti­mothy T. Wil­liams Jr., a 29year vet­eran and re­tired de­tec­tive from the Los An­ge­les Depart­ment who wrote “A Deep Dive: An Ex­pert Anal­y­sis of Po­lice Pro­ce­dure, Use of Force and Wrong­ful Con­vic­tions.”

“Fletcher should have waited to get a backup unit there,” Wil­liams said. “They should have been there, they should have dis­cussed it prior to go­ing into the store.”

The San Le­an­dro Po­lice Depart­ment’s use-of-force pol­icy ad­dresses the im­por­tance of backup of­fi­cers: “The num­ber of of­fi­cers on scene may in­crease the avail­able force op­tions, a cir­cum­stance which has the po­ten­tial to in­crease the abil­ity of the of­fi­cer(s) to re­duce the over­all force used.”

Fletcher’s at­tor­ney, Michael Rains, said his client did not en­ter the Wal­mart with the in­ten­tion to con­front Taylor alone.

Rains said Fletcher hap­pened to be be­hind the Wal­mart, deal­ing with an un­re­lated is­sue, when the call

Kal­fani Turè, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity

about Taylor came in. Rains said Fletcher was told that Taylor was swing­ing the bat and threat­en­ing peo­ple.

In a 911 call re­leased after the shoot­ing, a store se­cu­rity guard said Taylor had threat­ened to hit peo­ple with the bat, but did not say he was swing­ing it.

Fletcher went to the front of the store’s in­te­rior and ap­proached a se­cu­rity guard, Rains said. The se­cu­rity guard mo­tioned to­ward Taylor, who was feet away in a cor­ral of shop­ping carts, twirling a bat.

“The of­fi­cer is paid to pro­tect peo­ple,” Rains said. “That doesn’t mean turn­ing his back and run­ning out of the store.”

Video re­leased by po­lice showed Fletcher ap­proach and grab Taylor’s right arm, which was hold­ing the bat, be­fore try­ing to grab the bat it­self with his left hand. With his right hand, Fletcher un­hol­stered his ser­vice pis­tol.

After un­suc­cess­fully try­ing to grab the bat, Fletcher un­hol­stered his Taser with his left hand, pointed it at Taylor and shocked him. Taylor stum­bled back, still hold­ing the bat, as Fletcher moved to­ward him.

Taylor ap­peared to take a bat­ter’s stance as on­look­ers and Fletcher— now point­ing both his Taser and his gun at Taylor — told him to put the bat down. Fletcher tried shock­ing Taylor with an­other cy­cle of the Taser.

Taylor took a few steps for­ward, and Fletcher fired his gun once. At that mo­ment, Taylor was hold­ing the bat at about the same height as his knee. Pros­e­cu­tors said Taylor, af­fected by the stun gun, stum­bled for­ward. Rains said Taylor had ap­proached Fletcher in a way that made the of­fi­cer think he was go­ing to use the bat against him.

Michael Oliv­era, pres­i­dent of the San Le­an­dro Po­lice Of­fi­cers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, said the in­ci­dent rep­re­sented a “tragic ex­am­ple of deesca­la­tion tech­niques failing to be ef­fec­tive.”

“We would like to have seen a peace­ful out­come but in gen­eral terms, when an of­fi­cer per­ceives he is in im­mi­nent dan­ger of great bod­ily in­jury or death, that is not the time to con­tinue us­ing deesca­la­tion tech­niques,” Oliv­era told The Chron­i­cle in an email. “Let’s re­mem­ber it’s not al­ways im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent when some­one is hav­ing a men­tal health cri­sis.”

Adam Ber­covici, a re­tired Los An­ge­les Po­lice lieu­tenant with nearly 40 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in law en­force­ment, said it ap­peared Fletcher could have tried a more “hand­son” ap­proach.

“There was a per­fect ex­am­ple where he could have con­trolled (Taylor), he could have pushed him on the ground, he could have taken the base­ball bat away from him, he could have done all kinds of things,” Ber­covici said. “But in­stead it was es­ca­lated to deadly force, which is un­nec­es­sary.”

Wil­liams said that if Fletcher had walked in with an­other po­lice of­fi­cer, they could have used force dif­fer­ently. One of­fi­cer could have pulled out his firearm, the other his Taser. “Deadly force is the last re­sort,” Wil­liams said. “It wasn’t nec­es­sary to use deadly force, and it wasn’t the last re­sort. You had op­tions, and those op­tions weren’t uti­lized.”

Asked whether Fletcher re­ceived enough train­ing in deesca­la­tion tac­tics and in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing men­tal health crises, Rains said, “By my stan­dards, no, be­cause no of­fi­cer gets enough train­ing.” He added, “I don’t think po­lice of­fi­cers ever get enough train­ing in the most im­por­tant things they have to do as a po­lice of­fi­cer.”

Lt. Ted Hen­der­son, a spokesman for the San Le­an­dro Po­lice Depart­ment, said the depart­ment is look­ing to in­crease train­ing in deesca­la­tion tac­tics and in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple in cri­sis.

Fletcher was the sec­ond law en­force­ment of­fi­cer charged in a fa­tal shoot­ing un­der a new, more re­stric­tive Cal­i­for­nia law gov­ern­ing when of­fi­cers can use deadly force. AB392, signed into law by Gov. Gavin New­som last year, re­quires of­fi­cers to “use deadly force only when nec­es­sary in de­fense of hu­man life,” whereas pre­vi­ous law con­sid­ered whether a “rea­son­able” of­fi­cer in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances would have acted the same way.

Steven Clark, a criminal de­fense at­tor­ney and for­mer prose­cu­tor in Santa Clara County, said a jury con­sid­er­ing a man­slaugh­ter charge is more likely to ex­am­ine whether Fletcher al­lowed enough time for the Taser to af­fect Taylor be­fore shoot­ing him than whether Fletcher should have waited for backup. Fletcher can make the case that he acted cor­rectly by walk­ing into the Wal­mart with the in­for­ma­tion he was given, Clark said.

“I don’t know that the is­sue of wait­ing for backup is go­ing to be a prob­lem for this of­fi­cer” at trial, Clark said.

The ex­perts in­ter­viewed by The Chron­i­cle also ques­tioned the ac­tions of the backup po­lice of­fi­cer who ar­rived, walk­ing into the Wal­mart just as Fletcher fired the fa­tal shot.

Video shows the sec­ond of­fi­cer pulling out his Taser and shock­ing Taylor again, after he had been shot, had dropped the bat and had turned away from the of­fi­cers. The shock ap­peared to cause Taylor to fall face­first to the floor.

Turè said he found this Taser use “gra­tu­itous and un­nec­es­sary.” He and Ber­covici spec­u­lated that the sec­ond of­fi­cer might have had “tun­nel vi­sion,” and didn’t re­al­ize Taylor had been shot and wounded.

The of­fice of Alameda County District At­tor­ney Nancy O’mal­ley did not re­spond to in­quiries about whether the sec­ond of­fi­cer could face charges.

The San Le­an­dro Po­lice Depart­ment said it will hire an out­side in­ves­ti­ga­tor to han­dle the agency’s ad­min­is­tra­tive re­view, which could lead to dis­ci­pline for the of­fi­cers. Fletcher is on paid leave, Hen­der­son said, while the sec­ond of­fi­cer has re­turned to street duty.

Rains said his client is “go­ing to take it day by day and par­tic­i­pate in the process that will lead him and me to the court­house steps one day, and a jury trial.”

Brit­tany Hosea-small / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Ad­die Kitchen of Vallejo shows pic­tures that in­clude her grand­son, Steven Taylor, who iwas fa­tally shot in April by an of­fi­cer after wav­ing a bat at cus­tomers in a San Le­an­dro Wal­mart.

San Le­an­dro Po­lice Depart­ment

Of­fi­cer Ja­son Fletcher cuffs Steven Taylor after shoot­ing him in a San Le­an­dro Wal­mart in screenshot from body cam­era.

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