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