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  • José Luis Villegas /

    Cindy and Dennis Dean have raised questions about the fatal shooting of son Dennis, 33, by Sacramento County sheriff's deputies April 12. The District Attorney's Office no longer reviews such shootings.

  • Courtesy of Dean family

    Although he had been involved with methamphetamine and served time in prison, Dennis Dean II had been sober for 10 years before relapsing, his family said. The day he was killed, narcotics officers went to his home to serve a search warrant after developing information that he was dealing drugs.

Questions linger over fatal shooting by Sacramento County deputies

Published: Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A

Eight months have passed since Sacramento County sheriff's deputies fatally shot Dennis Dean during a search of his Orangevale home.

Time has not brought much comfort to Dean's family members, who remain troubled by questions about how he met that violent end.

Why, for example, after 10 proud years of sobriety, had he fallen back into the grip of methamphetamine? Why had he resorted to drug dealing, as police allege, when he had a steady job? And why had he, a felon, bought two guns knowing he wasn't supposed to have them?

What they most want, though, is to know what happened in that bedroom where the 33-year-old man died – and assurance by somebody other than sheriff's investigators that the deputies' actions were justified.

Sheriff's homicide detectives have finished their investigation and their report is under review by senior command staff. But even after the report is approved and filed away, Dean's family is not likely to see it.

The contents of internal affairs investigations by law are not public. And with the District Attorney's Office no longer reviewing such incidents, there won't be a public accounting that details the incident at length.

"All of these things go through your head," said Cindy Dean, Dennis' stepmother of 10 years. "I'm not thinking they intentionally killed him, but something doesn't feel right.

"And we're just going to feel this way forever."

Nearly two years after District Attorney Jan Scully decided to halt routine reviews of officer-involved shootings, Sheriff Scott Jones said he is struggling to find a substitute that would bolster the public's trust in his agency and give some closure to families like Dean's.

Since the last review by Scully's office, Sacramento County deputies have been involved in 15 shootings, 10 of them fatal. Twelve of those shootings occurred in 2012, making for a record year.

Dennis Dean's April 12 shooting marked the seventh of the year. His family has raised questions about his death, their suspicions fueled by a significant change in the department's account of the incident and the fact that officials did not publicize that change until recently asked by reporters.

First, the department reported that Dean fired at deputies, striking one in the hand, before they returned fire. About a week later, detectives told Dean's family that he grabbed a gun but never fired.

Jones said he stands by his deputies' decision to use deadly force that day, based on the circumstances, but that he agrees the process of investigating officer-involved shootings needs additional oversight.

"I am trying. The easy posture for me would be to blame the DA," Jones said. " 'If she doesn't want to do it, why encumber myself with additional responsibility?' I want to, I'm trying to."

"This still weighs on my mind," he continued. "I don't ever want to be accused of withholding information and not being transparent."

Detectives' account

Narcotics officers went to Dean's Kendrick Way home April 12 to serve a search warrant after developing information that he was dealing drugs, homicide detectives told Dean's family in an April 19 meeting.

Steve Vincent, Dean's brother-in-law, recorded the interview with detectives' knowledge, and later provided a copy to The Bee.

When deputies tried to contact Dean, detectives told the family, he fled, accidentally kicking one deputy in the face as he scaled a wall. Once in custody, Dean was compliant, apologetic even, Detective Brian Meux recounted.

With Dean handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, deputies searched his home, where they found a safe in a bedroom closet. Meux said deputies told Dean the safe would have to be broken open, and he volunteered to open it himself.

According to Meux, Dean alerted deputies there was a gun inside.

Deputies adjusted Dean's handcuffs so his hands were in front and brought him inside. They admonished him that if he made any "furtive movements," did anything but open the safe, he would be shot, Meux said.

As Dean knelt to open the safe, which required his fingerprint, he was surrounded by at least five deputies with guns drawn, the sheriff's officials said.

"He pops the safe, and he lunges into the safe, comes out with the handgun and points it at the officer who is standing in the closet," Meux told the family.

At least one deputy yelled "gun" and at least two opened fire, striking Dean, according to the detective's account. More shots were fired as deputies retreated from the room. In all, three deputies fired their weapons. One deputy was injured in the chaos, his hand hit by ricochet from friendly fire.

Knowing Dean to be armed but uncertain of his condition, deputies surrounded the house and tried unsuccessfully to make contact with him. Two hours later, a robot sent inside relayed images of Dean lying unresponsive in the bedroom. SWAT officers brought in a paramedic, who pronounced him dead.

'Real sketchy information'

As reporters gathered at the scene, a sheriff's spokesman said the deputies shot Dean after he fired at them, striking one of them. A news release sent that night conveyed the same message.

In an interview with The Bee, Jones said it was an honest mistake, the result of trying to get information to the public when the scene was still evolving and the investigation only just beginning.

"We had real sketchy information – as we do in most dynamic cases," he said. "This obviously was a very dynamic case."

Jones said his department would have been forthright had the media followed up, but acknowledged that interest in the case could have been dampened by the initial report that Dean had shot a deputy.

Contrary to his standard practice, Jones has denied The Bee's request for the names of the officers involved because they sometimes work undercover. They have been identified as having 12, 17 and 19 years of experience.

While he stands by his deputies' actions, Jones said he understands the Dean family's frustration, acknowledging that the final version of events, as determined by sheriff's investigators, might never be made public.

Traditionally, law enforcement agencies have kept details of officer-involved shootings close to the vest, because of liability concerns and special legal protections afforded to peace officers in California.

After such a shooting in Sacramento County and elsewhere, detectives from the agency with jurisdiction in the area investigate. Often they are detectives from the same agency whose officers fired. Their review focuses on criminal liability.

A second review is performed by internal affairs detectives, who determine whether officers violated department policy or procedure.

Some jurisdictions have an auditor who monitors such investigations, such as Sacramento's Office of Public Safety Accountability. But in most California counties, the criminal investigation is passed to the district attorney for an independent review that often involves sending their own investigators to the scene.

The DA's office typically issues a report, known as a "kick letter," describing the incident in detail and, if no criminal liability is found, the legal justification for the officer's actions. The reports are available to the public.

Without the "kick letters," the last, formal account of an officer-involved shooting is often the news release issued that day by law enforcement representatives.

Scully made the decision to stop reviewing such incidents in summer 2011, in response to a $6.9 million budget shortfall for her office.

At the time, a spokeswoman for the office noted that in the previous 10 years the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office had investigated 93 officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths – and that none had resulted in criminal prosecution.

Scully's chief deputy, Cindy Besemer, said at the time that those numbers made the shooting unit a prime target for a budget hit, in lieu of higher priorities, such as prosecuting violent crime.

"It's not like we have rogue law enforcement agencies who go around killing people or there are a lot of suspicious deaths in custody," she told The Bee at the time. "I think our law enforcement agencies have been very responsible here, and as a citizen, I don't know that I would much care about it."

Contacted this week, DA spokeswoman Shelly Orio said Scully stands by her decision and has no plans to reverse it.

Family remains uneasy

According to his family, Dennis Dean's struggles with methamphetamine began in high school and ultimately led him to prison. But upon his release, they said, he sobered up, landed a job as a butcher and settled down. He got married and bought a home. He kept five dogs.

His father and stepmother said he was sober for 10 years before relapsing, possibly after he separated from his wife. They said they didn't know he was using again, but, looking back, see the signs.

Dennis Dean Sr. and his wife, Cindy, said they do not condone the younger Dennis' drug use, or his alleged actions that day. Still, they question deputies' decision to allow him back into the house to open the safe, knowing there was a gun inside and his history with drugs.

They don't necessarily think deputies acted illegally. But they said the secrecy of the process, the failure to tell the public that Dean didn't shoot and the general lack of independent oversight makes them uneasy.

They said they have contacted three lawyers in hopes of getting their hands on the final police report but so far have not had success.

"I just want my son's name cleared, for everybody to know he wasn't shooting at police," said Dennis Dean Sr. "I just would like for (people) to know how suspicious it seems – and that he was a good man. He just had problems. It's an illness, you know."

Since Scully's decision, Jones has floated two alternatives to DA reviews: convening a panel of local police chiefs to review officer-involved shootings, and issuing a "kick letter" of his own. Both have been scuttled by government lawyers concerned the chiefs could be named in future lawsuits or called as witnesses should litigation go to court.

And Jones can't issue his own letter, they said, because he is the deputies' employer.

Recently, county Inspector General Lee Dean and sheriff's officials agreed on new protocols for reviewing officer-involved shootings, which include looking for commonalities in incidents that could lead to better training or equipment. The protocols call for additional internal reports – but like the existing agency reports, they are expected to be confidential.

Lee Dean said he is still discussing the idea with Jones, but that he could end up being the one to issue a sort of "kick letter" that would be available to the public.

At the very least, he said he will be compiling a year-end report about the Sheriff's Department that is likely to address the spate of shootings.

County Supervisor Phil Serna said he trusts the inspector general will give the issue the attention it deserves and that there is no deliberate intent by the sheriff or anyone else to avoid transparency.

"I believe the public has a right to understand what's involved in these incidents," he said. "I think what you're seeing is everybody is working with fewer resources. … That's not an excuse for not being able to present the public (with information). It does mean we're finding a new way to do it."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Kim Minugh

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