Walmart killing raises questions on police backup
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.”
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.
Officer Jason Fletcher cuffs Steven Taylor after shooting him in a San Leandro Walmart in screenshot from body camera.