Questions arise over shootings by Modesto area law enforcement

Everett School in Modesto after an MPD officer fatally shot a female who was apparently "hurting herself" in the playground with a knife according to the school principal Mike Brady. 
December 15, 2009
BART AH YOU/ Everett School in Modesto after an MPD officer fatally shot a female who was apparently "hurting herself" in the playground with a knife according to the school principal Mike Brady. December 15, 2009 Modesto Bee

The language is simple in most policies that dictate when law enforcement officers have the authority to fire their guns.

The real-world situations they encounter, however, are much more complex, and they must consider a laundry list of factors before using a weapon that can take a life.

"You take a life to save a life," said Ceres police Chief Art de Werk, "when a deadly threat is perceived."

A series of officer-involved shootings in the Modesto area has raised the issue of when and how deadly force is used, causing some residents to question the quality of firearms training by law enforcement agencies in Stanislaus County.

Samuel White, 57, of Modesto gathered with a few dozen people last week to protest what they called "police brutality."

"We have had too many deaths by law enforcement officials killing (their) own citizens," White said. "They need to re-evaluate their training. I think this is an indication something is wrong."

There have been seven shootings since December involving an officer in the Modesto area. Three people have died.

In the most recent shooting, off-duty sheriff's Detective Kari Abbey shot and killed Rita Elias, 31, of Modesto. Elias reportedly brandished a BB gun -- a replica of a semiautomatic pistol -- during an argument with Abbey on Sept. 24 in west Modesto.

"Right now, I'm more afraid of the cops than I am of thieves," said Elias' father, Luis Elias, in Spanish. "The thieves will just rob you; they won't kill you."

Sheriff Adam Christianson said the preliminary investigation indicated the detective acted in "self- defense" when Elias brandished what appeared to be a handgun. The district attorney's office will make the final determination.

The policies governing the use of deadly force for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, the Mo- desto Police Department, the Ceres Police Department and the California Highway Patrol are virtually the same:

• Officers or deputies are authorized to use deadly force as self-defense when there is reasonable cause to believe there is imminent threat of death or great bodily injury to themselves or others nearby.

• Deadly force is also authorized to apprehend a known felon who is attempting to escape and might create an imminent threat of death or great bodily injury to others.

• The threat has to be perceived by the officer or deputy at the scene based on the information available at the time of the encounter.

Other law enforcement agencies throughout the state have similar policies, said Richard Lichten, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's lieutenant who testifies as a court expert on the use of force.

He said most use-of-force policies are peppered with the word "reasonable" -- meaning a typical officer in a similar situation would respond in the same manner.

These broad legal requirements are based on California case law. There is no specific language that dictates the use of force because every situation has limitless variables, Lichten said. Nevertheless, there is a long list of factors authorities have to consider before they fire a gun.

"Trust me, no cop wants to hurt anybody," Lichten said. "They go to great lengths to avoid that."

Officers in Stanislaus County and throughout the state must consider:

• The distance between them and the suspect.

• Their size compared to the suspect's size.

• The type of weapon the suspect is holding or has nearby.

• Whether the suspect is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

• Whether the suspect is mentally ill.

• Whether a bystander near the suspect could be struck by gunfire.

• The suspect's response to verbal commands.

While many other factors could come into play, Lichten said, the key element is whether officers can prove they had a "reasonable fear" of death or injury.

Lichten said he once encountered a mentally ill man wielding a roofing hatchet saying "shoot me." Lichten pointed his gun at the man, who later lowered the hatchet, sat down and cried.

Lichten lowered his gun and began to approach the man. He was about 16 feet away when the man jumped up and attempted to throw the hatchet at Lichten, who fired his gun, hitting the man in the chest. The man survived.

"All of sudden, the circumstances can change rapidly," Lichten said.

Officials say there are a lot of other close calls, where authorities choose not to use deadly force.

Ceres police Detective Keith Griebel once wrestled with a man trying to shoot himself with a shotgun. Griebel considered using his gun, but ultimately subdued the man without it.

"The entire time he was trying to kill himself," Griebel said of the struggle for the shotgun. "It was the longest six minutes of my life."

Law enforcement officials say it's challenging and stressful to make split-second decisions that can produce life-altering results.

"We're sworn to protect others," said Modesto police spokesman Sgt. Rick Armendariz. "We're trained to stop a threat. We don't train to kill."

Law enforcement agencies in the county say their firearm training exceeds state standards. They also say their officers go through rigorous and regular training designed to prepare them for dangerous encounters.

For instance, the state's Peace Officer Standards and Training requires new recruits to receive at least 72 hours of firearms training at police academies throughout the state.

The Stanislaus County Sheriff's Regional Training Center requires new recruits get at least 137 hours of firearms training, said sheriff's Sgt. Tom Law- rence. The center also requires 16 hours of use-of-force training, four hours more than the state standard.

In November, the center suspended its police academy courses because of declining revenue and lack of hiring by law enforcement agencies. The center continues offering post-graduate training for area agencies, including firearm training.

"What we teach tailors their response to what they see or hear at the time of the incident," Lawrence said.

Officers have to pass firearms training throughout the year, testing for speed, accuracy and reflex. They also must undergo scenario-based training, where officers learn when and when not to shoot.

Some agencies use video-screens to test these scenarios, while others use live role players and paintball guns as weapons. The Modesto Police Department trains officers to use verbal techniques to try to diffuse tense situations.

"The training's purpose is to have officers think on their feet," Armendariz said.

Once an officer-involved shooting occurs, other agencies, such as the district attorney's office, are brought in to conduct parallel investigations and ensure that use of force policies are being met, said officer Eric Parsons, a spokesman for the Modesto-area CHP.

"Each officer takes the trust we get from the public seriously," Parsons said. "I know each officer I work with will not discharge their weapon lightly or haphazardly."

Luis Elias believes the detective who shot his daughter was too aggressive with her response. Sheriff's officials have said the detective fired multiple shots, but declined to say how many.

"Why didn't they just shoot her in the leg?" Elias asked. "Even with one or two shots, she still would've been able to survive."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.

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