Fresno

Fresno Police auditor’s report underscores unique challenges ahead

John Gliatta, Fresno’s police auditor, has released his 2019 Third Quarter report. The report deals in part with the imperatives and challenges of funding police infrastructure in a world where technology and public expectations are constantly changing.

Two items in the report come together to help make this point.

The first item deals with Gliatta’s review of an Internal Affairs investigation of an officer-involved-shooting on Jan. 5, 2019. Gliatta devotes the better part of four pages to his review. He tells a riveting story.

Officers responded to a 911 call from an apartment on North Ninth Street in Northeast Fresno. A man had locked himself into the apartment’s bathroom. The apartment belonged to family members. The family tolerated this behavior for several hours during the night. As the sun rose, family members had to use the bathroom. The family’s patience was exhausted.

The man, according to his sister, “had caused problems in the past,” Gliatta writes.

Police began arriving on the scene at 5:45 a.m. Officers learned that the suspect was armed with an ax. Officers were also told that the suspect had “what appeared to be an electronic control device (ECD), similar to a Taser,” Gliatta writes. Officers were told that the “suspect is a known drug user and appeared to be under the influence at the time.”

Officers soon asked the family – four adults and three small children – to leave the apartment. What followed was a long and patient effort by police to convince the suspect to leave the apartment, as well. The suspect refused.

“For the next five hours,” Gliatta writes, “numerous attempts to have the suspect exit the apartment were made by way of a public address system, which included playing a recorded message from the family over the system.”

Officers also learned that the suspect had an outstanding felony warrant issued by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

By early afternoon, officers had secured a warrant signed by a judge to allow them to enter the apartment and arrest the suspect. Officers searched the apartment room by room. No suspect. A locked bedroom was the final room. Officers forced their way into it, using a one-man ram.

“Upon entering the bedroom,” Gliatta writes, “the officers spotted the suspect sitting in the immediate left corner of the room. The suspect was holding the ax in his right hand and facing the officers. Commands of ‘drop it, drop it’ were immediately given to him.”

One of the officers was armed with a six-round 40 mm projectile launcher. Gliatta says this is a “less lethal” device that fires large rubber balls. Another officer was armed with an M-4 tactical rifle.

When the suspect failed to respond to commands of “drop it,” Gliatta writes, an officer fired two rounds from the projectile launcher. This had little effect on the suspect. The remaining four rounds from the projectile launcher were fired. Again, the suspect failed to heed commands to drop the ax.

“At this point,” Gliatta writes, “it appeared as if the suspect was moving to approach the officer as he was raising the ax with his right hand. Fearing for the safety of the three officers already in the room, the third officer fired four rounds from his M-4 rifle, striking the suspect.”

A sergeant removed the ax from the suspect’s right hand. The suspect was handcuffed. Officers and EMS personnel immediately began administering first aid.

“The suspect was then transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead,” Gliatta writes.

Gliatta says 10 separate factors were considered when determining whether the shooting was within policy. These factors included the 911 call placed by the suspect’s mother, the suspect being armed with an ax, the suspect’s refusal to drop the ax when commanded by officers, and the suspect raising the ax “while initiating a movement as if he was trying to get up and advance on the officers,” Gliatta writes.

Gliatta writes in conclusion: “In summary, the suspect was given numerous chances to end the incident in a peaceful manner. However, after repeated requests from the FPD officers, and his own family, he refused all requests to exit the apartment unarmed. Therefore, his actions left the FPD officers no choice but to use deadly force in order to protect all involved – officers and family members.”

This officer-involved-shooting, as is so often the case, was a complex event. It’s not unfair to any of the parties to suggest that the event is open to different interpretations. After all, that’s why we have a police auditor – to give such events a fair and independent analysis by an expert third party.

And it’s why I saved one part of Gliatta’s narrative for last. Recall, if you will, that Gliatta wrote that officers made “numerous attempts” over the course of five hours to persuade the suspect to exit the apartment peacefully and unarmed.

Gliatta writes: “In addition to using the public address system, 77 attempts to establish contact with the suspect were made via cell phone. Sixty-five calls and 12 text messages were directed to the suspect’s cell phone. The FPD even utilized a family member’s cell phone in attempt(ing) to establish communication with the suspect.”

Seventy-seven attempts via cell phone over the course of five hours – that’s an average of one attempt every four minutes. To do this, Fresno police officers needed the requisite operational infrastructure. That would be cell phones of their own.

All of which brings us to the second point of interest in Gliatta’s 2019 Third Quarter report. This comes in the section titled “FPD Responses to Recommendations.”

Gliatta in his 2019 Second Quarter report made several recommendations for improving the department’s operations. In the Third Quarter report, he summarizes the department’s responses to these earlier recommendations.

It is worth noting, in their entirety, Gliatta’s first recommendation and his summary of the department’s response.

“OIR Recommendation #1: Time permitting, when an officer on scene initiates contact of a victim or individual who is providing crucial information which may be testimonial after the fact, efforts should be made to implement technology which would allow the call to be recorded. This will allow the call to be memorialized in the event the facts relayed by the FPD are questioned after the OIS or critical incident. Since this would be for a criminal investigation the officer is not required to obtain permission to record the conversation.”

“FPD Response: The Department recognizes the importance of recording and memorializing phone conversations that take place between officers and victims/reporting parties/witnesses on a potential critical incident. Patrol officers are currently not issued cell phones. Doing so would require the purchase and issuance of cell phones to approximately 315 patrol officers, an expense that is not budgeted. Many officers do elect to use their personal cell phones for making phone contact with victims/reporting parties/witnesses. Provided that officers are able to legally record a phone conversation, policy will be revised to encourage officers, when time and circumstances permit, to activate their body worn camera, place their cell phone on speaker mode, and record/memorialize their phone conversations with victims/reporting parties/witnesses, when the call is one which may potentially result in a critical incident.”

The italicized emphasis is from me, not Gliatta. If officers can “elect” to use their own cell phones in critical situations, then it’s only reasonable to assume officers can “elect” not to use their own cell phones in critical situations.

Perhaps City Hall needs to officially debate the role of cell phones in the performance of officers. That debate would include who pays for what.

Perhaps City Hall needs to do more than debate this issue. Perhaps City Hall also needs to reach a firm decision.

The idea of a public safety sales tax initiative is still alive within the Brand Administration. Police Auditor Gliatta in his 2019 Third Quarter report provides another reason why such an initiative could prove so important to the future of public safety in Fresno.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.