The Shooting of Luis Gutierrez: Continued Public Concerns

By Alex Clark –

Cruz_3_with_Gutierrez

Editor’s note: Following the February 14 announcement by Sheriff Ed Prieto, the Vanguard’s Alex Clark undertook a comprehensive review of the shooting of Luis Gutierrez and this is the first of three articles based on that review.

On February 14th, Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto announced that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division had concluded it’s investigation into the 2009 officer-involved shooting death of 26-year-old Woodland resident Luis Gutierrez-Navarro.  The officers involved in the shooting were Yolo County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Dale Johnson, Deputy Hernan Oviedo and Deputy Hector Bautista.  All three were working as members of the Yolo County Gang Task Force.  Only Sergeant Johnson and Deputy Oviedo fired their weapons.

In a letter dated February 4th, 2011, the US DOJ writes, “After careful consideration, we concluded that the evidence does not establish a prosecutable violation of the federal criminal civil rights statutes. Accordingly, we have closed our investigation.”

A press release issued by the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department stated that the DOJ’s conclusion supports the findings of the Woodland Police Department, Yolo County District Attorney’s Office and California Attorney General’s Office.

The California Attorney General, reviewing “all available information,” reviewed the Yolo County DA’s decision not to proceed with criminal charges against the sergeant and two deputies under the abuse of discretion standard.  The AG “concluded that your [Yolo County District Attorney’s Office] decision was not unreasonable and thus did not constitute an abuse of discretion.” 

The abuse of discretion standard is legally defined as a “failure to take into proper consideration the facts and law relating to a particular matter; an arbitrary or unreasonable departure from precedent and settled judicial custom.”  This standard is commonly applied in, but not limited to, appellate cases.

Despite the conclusion of the AG, members of the community and civil rights groups criticized the AG for simply rubber stamping the DA’s own findings.  This is based on the belief that the AG only reviewed the information gathered by the DA’s Office, as well as the WPD’s findings, Yolo County Coroner’s autopsy and reports from the California Attorney General’s Bureau of Forensic Science.  However, the AG did not open and close its own independent investigation, including independently re-interviewing witnesses, as some had hoped.

The US DOJ’s conclusion, according to civil rights attorney Mark Merin, “just means the federal prosecutors don’t believe they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers committed criminal acts,” he told The Bee. “It’s a very low standard. You can have malfeasance without criminal culpability.”

A Vanguard inquiry into the US DOJ led to information regarding the standard under which their examination was conducted.  A woman speaking on the behalf of the DOJ stated that “Under the applicable federal criminal civil rights laws, prosecutors must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a law enforcement officer willfully deprived an individual of a constitutional right. Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed without prosecution.”

The Vanguard also learned that the DOJ’s “investigations involve a review of the available and relevant evidence, which may include witness interviews, review of relevant documents and reports, and forensic examinations, among other relevant investigative steps.”

Beyond what the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department has released to the public and information the Vanguard obtained through its inquiry, the particulars of the DOJ’s investigation into the shooting are by and large unknown to the public.

There is some concern surrounding to what degree each investigation was conducted independently, as well as how thorough subsequent investigations by the AG and US DOJ were due to their presumed reliance on the investigative work and findings of the Yolo County DA’s Office and WPD. 

According to a December 2009 Sacramento Bee article, DA Reisig describes his office’s investigation as being “parallel,” as DA personnel were “independently interviewing witnesses at the same time Woodland police detectives and sheriff’s internal affairs investigators conducted their own probes.”  However, included in the DA’s report are examples of those probes intersecting. 

Despite the conclusions of the WPD, Yolo County DA, AG and US DOJ, there are members of the community who are still not satisfied and feel their questions have not been sufficiently addressed.  This has caused county figureheads, such as Sheriff Prieto and Yolo County Board of Supervisor Matt Rexroad, to express their frustration with skeptics and their continued demands for answers.

In an interview with KCRA Channel 3 News, Sheriff Prieto said, “it’s time for the Woodland community to move on. It is my belief that many individuals and organizations are using this unfortunate incident for their own personal agenda. I’m personally tired of it. I’m tired of defending our officers, law enforcement. We did what we needed to do and we did it appropriately.”

Furthermore, following the Vanguard’s initial article upon the release of the DOJ’s conclusion, Supervisor Rexroad addressed David Greenwald on the article’s comment section:

“You and everyone else asked for investigation after investigation. You got them. Now that you have them you are complaining about the result.”

David Greenwald and others critical of the investigations recognize that these investigations took place and drew their respective conclusions, which were all favorable to the sergeant and two deputies.  However, they argue that the mere occurrence of an investigation by authorities outside of Yolo County is insufficient.  What they call for is a completely independent investigation from beginning to end, including re-interviewing all involved parties, by an impartial investigative agency outside of Yolo County that will not rely exclusively on the investigative work previously produced by other law enforcement agencies.  It’s believed that the investigations by the AG and US DOJ have not done this.

Beyond whether or not the actions taken by the sergeant and two deputies that afternoon were criminally prosecutable, there are community members whose concerns are focused elsewhere.  Such concerns relayed to us include the policies the Yolo County Gang Task Force operates under, the acceptable standard of dress by plain clothes Gang Task Force officers, means of identification as law enforcement by plainclothes Gang Task Force officers and the manner in which Gang Task Force officers approach individuals when executing “consensual contacts” with citizens in the “field.”

One statement in the DA’s report had community members particularly bothered.  In reference to the decision to stop and speak with Gutierrez, Yolo County Gang Task Force Sergeant Dale Johnson’s statement reads:

“Navarro was wearing a white baggy shirt and dark pants or shorts. Sgt. Johnson stated that he is aware that Hispanic gang members will often not openly wear their gang colors. Instead, the gang member will wear generic colors to disguise their particular affiliation.”

The concern was with the thought process behind the Gang Task Force’s decision-making when attempting “to seek out and identify individuals associated with criminal street gangs in Yolo County.”  Some found the statement to logically conclude that any Hispanic male could then be considered a potential gang member and consequently be contacted by the Gang Task Force.

Many concede that the sergeant and deputy may have had no other choice but to use lethal force when Gutierrez brandished a knife and motioned to slash or stab the sergeant, as indicated in the DA’s official account of the incident.  There is doubt among the community as to whether or not Gutierrez understood that any of the men riding in the unmarked law enforcement vehicle who either approached, chased or attempted to physically grab him were indeed law enforcement officers.

Others have pointed to the fact that Gutierrez had a level of methamphetamine in his system consistent with violent or irrational behavior and his implied gang affiliation, both of which are mentioned in the DA’s report, as possible reasons for his actions that afternoon.  Moreover, it’s argued by some that Gutierrez not knowing sergeant and deputies were indeed law enforcement is irrelevant.

When the sergeant and deputy drew their weapons and fired six times while in a residential area of Woodland, one bullet was recovered from a residential mobile home.  The sergeant and deputy too could have been hurt if Gutierrez had attempted to stab or slash them and succeeded. 

This issue of public safety and the Yolo County Gang Task Force is important to members of the community.  They have communicated an interest in understanding how the Gang Task Force operates so as to resolve any concerns they have.  It’s also questioned whether or not the law enforcement officers operating in the Gang Task Force should be dressed in plainclothes with their badges and guns covered by their shirts.  If they are coming in contact with individuals whose ability to understand English is poor, it could cause confusion on the part of the contacted individuals as to the actual identity of the law enforcement officers. 

There are those in the community who would like to know if there’s anything the Gang Task Force can do differently to better avoid the escalation of a consensual contact into situations in which the contacted individual, law enforcement and the community are unnecessarily put at risk of harm.

Regarding a history of past activity by the Gang Task Force when contacting individuals, the DA’s report states that of a list of 44 recent Field Interview Report contacts provided to them (WPD),

“WPD contacted 17 of the recent consensual contacts conducted by the involved officers. None of the contacted individuals had an adverse reaction to being contacted. Several of the individuals described the identification of the officers as lifting their shirts to display badges and guns.”

The DA’s report attributed the low success rate to “a variety of factors, primarily related to the types of individuals being contacted.”

To our knowledge, no public dialog addressing the concerns listed above has taken place with concerned members of the community and either the Yolo County DA’s Office, Sheriff’s Department or its Yolo County Gang Task Force.  A private conversation did take place between Independent Civil Rights Commission Chair and Former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, which is said to have centered primarily on the Commission’s objectives.

On January 14th, 2010, stemming from the Gutierrez shooting and DA report’s findings, the Yolo County Justice Coalition organized and hosted a community forum called “Protecting Our Children’s Safety.” Their intent was to have their concerns heard by local law enforcement and public officials, in an attempt to educate one another and improve police-community relations.   The community forum was held in Woodland and the Vanguard estimated the gathering of people at 150.

Of the thirteen invitees, only former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, Woodland’s then Mayor Marlan “Skip” Davies and WPD Lt. Don Beal were present.  Among those the forum coordinators say they invited were Sheriff Prieto, DA Reisig and Supervisor Rexroad.

Neither DA Reisig nor Sheriff Prieto participated in the forum and neither sent a representative in their absence.  Both have overseen and been directly involved with the Yolo County Gang Task Force.  At the time of the Gutierrez shooting and the subsequent investigation, the WPD had no direct involvement with the Yolo County Gang Task Force that we’re aware of.  Therefore, the WPD representative, Lt. Beal, could not provide specific information as to how the task force operates within the community or any other questions pertaining to the Gang Task Force and the Gutierrez shooting. 

According to Woodland blogger and Yolo County Justice Coalition member, Eric Alfaro, members of the Coalition, Daily Democrat reporter James Noonan, WPD Chief of Police Carry Sullivan and Captain Dan Bellini met back in May of 2010. Among the issues they discussed were the WPD and DA reports relating to the Gutierrez shooting, Gutierrez’s gang profile, combating gang activity through community outreach and the importance of community cooperation in combating crime.

The meeting received no coverage by the Daily Democrat and only a blurb on Alfaro’s own blog.  At the time, Associate Editor to the Woodland Daily Democrat, Jake Dorsey, commented on the blog that, “there wasn’t much to report: A lot of what was said was either things we’d reported on several times before, or were responses (from Sullivan) that could be summed up as either ‘I don’t know’ or ‘That wasn’t my department’s responsibility’.”

Public perception of and trust in law enforcement can vary across the social strata, as well as among racial and ethnic groups.  Whether it’s a result of personal encounters with law enforcement culminating in a sweeping distrust of all law enforcement, the perception of improper law enforcement conduct within ones community or a sentiment passed down from previous generations, rightly deserved or entirely unfounded, it can adversely impact police-community relations.

It cannot be determined by the Vanguard whether or not this is a contributing factor in the persistence of the community members demanding answers and calling for an independent investigation that meets their criteria.  However, negative perceptions and distrust of law enforcement do exist within the fabric of American society. 

While some public and law enforcement officials characterize these skeptics as a small agenda-driven group of locals, their efforts are lauded by others as they rail against what they believe is an overzealous police culture whose anti-gang tactics unjustly target young Latino men and boys.  To the likes of some, this group inexplicably will not accept the findings of the four investigative bodies, but everyone brings with them a different set of life experiences and perspectives.  For whatever the reasons, not all have complete faith in the criminal justice system.

It’s important to note that the public has only that which the involved investigative bodies have released to them as they draw their individual conclusions and opinions regarding the official account of the Gutierrez shooting.  Authorities, due to the ongoing and now concluded DOJ investigation, have reportedly limited the information available to the public.

On September 9th, 2009, Yolo County District Attorney’s Office released its official 37-page report on the shooting of Luis Gutierrez by the sergeant and two deputies.  The titles and names listed on page one of the report are Supervising Deputy District Attorney Nelson Pohl and Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven. To date, this remains the only official and conclusive report into this matter that has been made available to the public.  The report is often mentioned by the public as a basis for their opinions and conclusions of the Gutierrez shooting.

Concerns pertaining to the Yolo County District Attorney’s impartiality and the appropriateness of their involvement as an investigative body have been mentioned by some as well.  What’s more, due to the fact that the subsequent investigations of the AG and DOJ are based on reviews of the available information, of which the DA’s report and findings are among, members of the community question their credibility and determinations.

The Yolo County DA’s report contains accounts of the incident that are in conflict with one another and do not receive explanations as to why.  The point has been made that when individuals are involved in an adrenaline-filled and potentially life-threatening chase, it’s not uncommon for those involved to be unsure about certain details and recall moments of the incident differently.  It’s understandable that the sergeant and two deputies would recall moments of the incident differently, which could be reflected in the DA’s report. 

The point of issue is that several of the conflicting accounts do not take place between the sergeant and deputies’ statements, rather they are between the information found in their statements and elsewhere in the report.  An example of this would be the DA report documenting a specific action of Deputy Bautista under the section referred to as “Statement of Deputy Hector Bautista,” while another portion of the report labeled “Detailed Chronology” describes the same action differently.

In response to David Greenwald steadfastly questioning the circumstances and investigative conclusions of the shooting, Matt Rexroad commented, “It seems that you will not accept a decision where you do not have all the answers to every question that might come up.” 

To Supervisor Rexroad, it may seem unreasonable to ask questions and demand answers based on what appears to some to be incomplete and conflicting information provided by the Yolo County DA’s Office in their official report.  That is his opinion and one that is shared by many.

In light of the comments made by community leaders critical of those expressing their doubt in law enforcement’s four conclusive investigations, we felt it would be worth examining this incident and the DA’s report closer.  The Vanguard is interested in discovering why people still have little faith in the investigations and findings of the WPD, Yolo County DA, California AG and US DOJ.  

Prompted to look into this further, we reviewed the report once again.  Numerous articles relating to the officer-involved shooting of Luis Gutierrez-Navarro, discussions with credible sources, analysis of information presented to us and research into the structure and operations of the Yolo County DA’s Office and Sheriff’s Department were also reviewed.

Two installments will follow this article reviewing the Luis Gutierrez Navarro shooting involving the Yolo County Gang Task Force and the investigative report of the DA’s Office.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts

9 Comments

  1. E Roberts Musser

    AC: “This issue of public safety and the Yolo County Gang Task Force is important to members of the community. They have communicated an interest in understanding how the Gang Task Force operates so as to resolve any concerns they have. It’s also questioned whether or not the law enforcement officers operating in the Gang Task Force should be dressed in plainclothes with their badges and guns covered by their shirts. If they are coming in contact with individuals whose ability to understand English is poor, it could cause confusion on the part of the contacted individuals as to the actual identity of the law enforcement officers.

    There are those in the community who would like to know if there’s anything the Gang Task Force can do differently to better avoid the escalation of a consensual contact into situations in which the contacted individual, law enforcement and the community are unnecessarily put at risk of harm.”

    This has always been my sticking point…

  2. Roger Rabbit

    A clear example of either a refusal to share or an attempt to hide is was the Officers involved given a blood test and were they clear of any and all controlled substances. They has been talk of, was alcohol and or steroids possibly being used by any of the officers?

    Of course no one knows for sure it may be just talk, but if this is not true why would this information not be made available? It is standard procedure to take blood from officers after a shooting and that is NORMALLY the highlight of the information released to ensure confidence in the officers decisions and the investigation.

    Were the Officers tested?
    If not why not?
    What were the results?
    Why isn’t this information included in any report?

    This appears to be just a small thing that would go to credibility of the investigation and officers. Why didn’t any of the other so called investigations find or disclose this?

    Of course there is the information on who was interviewed and what they said? This would go to who was NOT interviewed and why not? Again critical information that proves the legitimacy and completeness of the investigation.

    It is not like this information is Top Secret. If someone other than a cop was being charged with a crime all this information would come out in court or be given to the Defense attorney, so why the secrecy?

    If not secrecy why wouldn’t the community leaders be asking for this to help inform the people to assist in closure and to build faith in the system. The more the DA and Sheriff tell the public to “shut up and mind your own business” only promotes the distrust and shows the arrogance and lack of respect these elected officials have for the people that elected them.

  3. Fight Against Injustice

    I for one would be very interested to hear a more complete story involving the investigations at the state and federal levels. Was there any independent investigation done by the feds or AG, or was it all just looking at the DA’s investigation and saying that there is not enough to prosecute.

    For the past(almost)two years, people have been asking for an independent investigation – something independent of the DA’s investigation, yet it looks like that still hasn’t happened.

    I am looking forward to reading what you have uncovered in the next couple of articles.

  4. David M. Greenwald

    FAI: To answer your question, depends on what you mean by an independent investigation. I would figure that an independent investigation would interview the witnesses again and seek out potentially new ones as the commission has done, but according to several witnesses and a few sources, that has not happened.

    As the next installment that Alex has written will show, the initial report written by the DA’s office was not exactly independent of the task force who was previously houses in the DA’s office – indeed a few months prior to the shooting.

  5. Alex Clark

    Thank you for your comments.

    Fight Against Injustice,

    [quote]I for one would be very interested to hear a more complete story involving the investigations at the state and federal levels. Was there any independent investigation done by the feds or AG, or was it all just looking at the DA’s investigation and saying that there is not enough to prosecute.[/quote]

    We don’t know the fullest extent of what the AG and DOJ’s investigations included. As reported here, both have stated that their investigations included reviews of all available information relating to the Gutierres shooting. This includes, but is not limited to, the DA’s report. We know the WPD, Sheriff Coroner and California AG BFS have produced information pertaining to the Gutierrez shooting.

    On the state and federal level, the investigations or reviews into this matter are considered independent. What it is that’s independent about each is what many have questioned. What I can say is that each investigative body (AG and DOJ) is independent of the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department, who at the time of the Gutierrez shooting and thereafter is who the Yolo County Gang Task Force officially reported to.

    The DA’s Office has described their investigation as being independent as well. However, as David alludes to, we’ve come across some information that has some wondering how independent their investigation can be considering their involvement with the Gang Task Force. It could be that the DA’s investigation was in fact “independent,” but whether it was an impartial one is a question some have posed.

    As to the criminal prosecution question, the DOJ’s investigation found “that the evidence does not establish a prosecutable violation of the federal criminal civil rights statutes.”

    The AG seems to have reviewed all available information and concluded that the DA’s decision not to pursue criminal charges was not unreasonable and “thus did not constitute an abuse of discretion.”

  6. Alex Clark

    Roger Rabbit,

    The issue of information being “left out” was something we looked at in our examination of the report and will likely be covered later in the week.

    Of course we don’t know if the information even exists. But this has led to further speculation by the public and caused some to question the report’s findings, as you point out.

  7. Double Bogey

    I doubt that drug tests for any officer involved shooting in california would be public information…the officers are employees of the county…employees with a very strong union. If the county was to release personnel information on them I would imagine that the County would be opening itself up to a pretty big liability. I think the answer to the question is “between the lines”…The Yolo Sheriff’s Department released a statement shortly after the shooting….something to the affect that the deputies were found to have acted within the departments guidelines and were put but to work…My assumption is that the “guidelines” mentioned would include the results of the drug tests…I would also assume that the drug test results and handling would be some of the information that would have been reviewed by the AG and the DOJ.

  8. Alex Clark

    Double Bogey,

    You may be correct, but I don’t know the answer. If they tested positive for an illegal substance or alcohol would that be kept confidential too?

    Bear in mind, law enforcement, attorneys and others who might have knowledge pertaining to internal and independent investigation into officer-involved shootings amounts to a small portion of the population.

    With that in mind, as well as the focus here being on the reasons why the public still has questions and doubts, the “reading between the lines” approach to public relations can be problematic. As you indicate, one is left making assumptions. This is one area, of several, in which the public is left relying on their assumptions when attempting to understand what occurred and the information given to them by authorities.

    Regarding the presumably omitted information Roger Rabbit and I were discussing, that was in reference to the DA’s report on the Gutierrez shooting. There was no mention in the report as to if the sergeant and deputies were tested for drugs and alcohol. If it is a confidential personnel issue, the DA’s Office could explain why they could not state the specific tests the three law enforcement officers were subjected to or the results. That’s one option, anyway.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for