My View: Stanislaus Deputy Shooting of Homeless Man Poster Case for How Not to Handle Such Encounters

By David M. Greenwald

Modesto, CA – Longtime Civil Rights Attorney John Burris held a press conference on Thursday regarding the 2020 shooting of Eloy Gonzalez by two Stanislaus County Sheriff Deputies.  I have since watched the nearly 13-minute body cam footage.  It’s appalling.

There is absolutely no reason that a man should have been killed by sheriff’s deputies in this encounter.  I would argue this is a poster case for having trained mental health responders rather than armed police officers responding, or at least co-responding, to mental health cases.

There is a phrase you hear a lot regarding police shooting—lawful but awful.  It reflects the fact that, in most states, use-of-force laws allow for the use of deadly force if the officer fears for his life.

In the video, the deputy mentions he thinks he sees a knife.  They claim there was a hatchet he was reaching for.  Under California law with stricter standards on when officers can shoot to kill, it is more gray as to whether it was lawful, but it was definitely awful and unnecessary.

Under California SB 1421, police agencies are required to turn over body cam footage of officer-involved shootings.  One thing that stands out, Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse was able to try to frame the issue with an opening introduction rather than just showing the public the raw footage without editorial content.

That might be something the state legislature wants to look at.

The sheriff noted that deputies were responding to a break in call at a business park in unincorporated Stanislaus County just outside of Modesto.  They came across Eloy Gonzalez.

“For more than eight minutes, Mr. Gonzalez refused to comply with lawful orders to surrender,” the sheriff said.  “After repeated attempts to de-escalate the situation, deputies used less lethal rounds and canine in an attempt to detain him.

“Mr. Gonzalez resisted and struggled, it was during this struggle that deputies suddenly saw a hatchet in his hand and he actively swung it at the deputies and the canine,” he said.

I saw things quite a bit different.  Don’t take my word for it—see for yourself in the video above.

As I saw it, watching the video, the deputies come across a homeless person.  They have the light on him, his hands are up, there are no weapons on him.  They order him out and he fails to comply with the order.

The man referred to his father as being a senator.  There is no imminent threat at this point.  The man is simply unwilling or perhaps unable to follow the orders of the deputies.  He makes no moves.  He is calm.  He is seated.  They have lights on him.  They have proper distance at this point.

They repeatedly ask him to come out.  They tell him that they are searching the area and he is impeding in their search.

The situation only escalates when they bring in a canine, threatening to turn the barking dog loose on him and warning that he would get bit.  They then fire a bean bag at him.  At this point they move in and it is only then that they claim he had a hatchet and attempt it on them.  It is then that they shot and killed him.

Given that, a prosecutor is probably not going to pursue criminal charges here.  But this should never have gotten that far to begin with.

The sheriff argues that they attempted to repeatedly de-escalate the situation.  No they did not.  They repeatedly ordered the man to come out.  In fact, they did the opposite—they escalated the situation.  First by bringing the canine, then by using the less lethal shot, and finally when they moved in on him, the kill shot.

At no point did they attempt to use anything anyone would consider to be a de-escalation tactic.  They never attempted to talk to the man and find out what was going on.  They repeatedly gave orders.

At no point did they attempt to assess whether the man was capable of following their orders.  He immediately exhibited signs of mental illness—he called this his home, told them they were on his property, and claimed to be the son of a senator.

That should have been a clue to the deputies that they were dealing with someone suffering from mental illness.

At no point in the first eight minutes or so of this encounter did the man exhibit any sign that he was dangerous.  He sat calmly behind a hedge.  He had his hands up.  He made no moves.

Why were the deputies in such a rush here?  Had they had the option to call out a co-responder or a mental health professional it is probable that this incident would have been resolved without the loss of life here.

That is what really strikes the viewer here—how needless the use of force actually was here.  They had a lot of time and space to work with, and chose instead to escalate.

The sheriff clearly thinks that this is a good shooting, and that’s disturbing.  This is the poster case for how not to deal with a mentally ill person, who actually for most of this encounter was completely under control and posed no threat to the deputies.

The deputies here were not properly trained on de-escalation, not properly trained on handling a mentally ill person who was not cooperative but not physically threatening for most of the encounter, and they were also not equipped with tools such as a mental health therapist who could have been better trained and positioned to handle this situation.

This should not have ended with a shooting.  It did.  The sheriff, instead of covering for his men, needs to think about how he can better avoid the next one.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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.

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12 Comments

      1. JJ McKissick

        You mean after the cops messed the whole thing up and sicced a dog on him, fired bean bags at him, and after he sat for ten minutes with his hands up, no weapons??? After they created the whole crises, he may have wielded a weapon???  Is that what you’re claiming???

        1. Keith Olsen

          I’m claiming if you don’t follow police orders, which they asked him multiple times to comply, and then wield an axe you might get shot.

  1. Ron Oertel

    Modesto, CA – Longtime Civil Rights Attorney John Burris held a press conference on Thursday regarding the 2020 shooting of Eloy Gonzalez by two Stanislaus County Sheriff Deputies.

    Hey – it’s Mr. Burris, again.

  2. Bill Marshall

    JJ McKissick and Keith O have flawed arguments…

    Keith O:

    He did wield an axe as was shown in the video.
    if you don’t follow police orders, which they asked him multiple times to comply, and then wield an axe you might get shot.

    A) wasn’t an axe… hatchet… first seen (although the video is fuzzy at that point) only in the final moments… probably intended as a tool to enter the building, but only displayed after ‘de-escalation’ turned to ‘escalation’… might well have been a ‘self-defense response’… we’ll never know… a potential burglar suffered the ‘death sentence’, by others [was the rookie cop the one who fired?  Not evident

    B) no sane person would bring a hatchet (or a knife) to a gunfight… no sign on the video that the dead guy brandished a knife…

    C) failure to comply is a ‘capital offense’?  I opine, “NOT”… there was no threat to the officers prior to the ‘take down’… after the police re-escalated it… time would well have well resolved the situation… maybe it was close to ‘break time’ or shift change, and a couple of bullets would resolve that “inconvenience”…

    JJ:

    This is murder.  Flat out. 

    No!… perhaps only at an involuntary manslaughter level… that said, it was an unnecessary stupid, and the officer who fired the shots (sounded like a ‘double tap’) should be banned from police work… permanently… but criminal charges?  I think not.  Civil charges may well be appropriate…

    And if he couldn’t (comply) due to his mental illness??? 

    Well, I guess that gets to can anyone do anything (including mass murder) under the ‘shield’ of mental illness… very low on the scale, to be sure…

    Summary, in my opinion… more time should have been allowed for resolution… here is a good argument for having trained MH folk being in a ‘second responder’… not on the front line, but available when the situation is under immediate control and there is a “standoff”… note that there was no evidence of a burglary, maybe ‘intent’… only ‘real crime’ shared at this point, was “setting off a burglar alarm”… not subject to the “death penalty”…

    People on opposite sides of the political spectrum will see this as a ‘heinous crime by police’… or, completely justified ‘apprehension which ended in death’… I’ll go ahead and p!$$ off both ends… it was neither… there were multiple ‘stupids’ and probably the officer(s) who pulled triggers also need to seriously seek MH counselling… or leave the force…

    1. David Greenwald

      You may be surprised to know I probably mostly agree with your assessment. I may go further and say that I think your analysis was pretty good. As I said in my commentary, I think this falls into the lawful but awful category and it shouldn’t have happened for the very reasons you describe. There was no reason to escalate. But even in California, once you get a weapon in the vicinity, it’s almost impossible to criminally prosecute.

      1. Ron Oertel

        But even in California, once you get a weapon in the vicinity, it’s almost impossible to criminally prosecute.

        Hence, the involvement of Mr. Burris I suspect.  A probable civil pursuit, now.

        I wouldn’t award him (or his client?) a dime, based upon that video.

      2. Bill Marshall

        Je suis agréablement surpisé…

        But even in California, once you get a weapon in the vicinity, it’s almost impossible to criminally prosecute.

        Je d’accord… been so for a very long time… some police carry weapons that they “find” to show a confrontation/shooting was justified… in Trenton, NJ, 1970’s that was ‘common practice’… told to me by a relative, a Police Captain in Trenton, who was disgusted by the reality, but had not the authority or tools to stop the ubiquitous ‘practice’… same logic… if you can’t find justification, manufacture it…

        Today, I think that is de minimus, but I have no doubt it still happens… in this case, note the officer retrieving the hatchet in the far background… the photos in the video showing it in the ‘suspect’s hand’ are very grainy, and open to interpretation… in this case, I believe the suspect DID possess it, likely for the purpose of the intended break-in…

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