Crime - Sacto 911

‘Nobody thought to save this man’s life,’ says brother of mentally ill man killed by police

Damon Flenaugh hadn’t seen his older brother for almost a year when he watched video last week showing the minutes before and after police shot Dazion Flenaugh dead in April.

The last time the two were together was around last February when they bumped into each other on a light-rail train. They hung out that afternoon, but Damon Flenaugh, 38, can’t remember exactly what they did. Maybe had a beer or two.

“If I had known that one moment would have been that significant, I would have cherished it like it was the only thing that was happening on the planet,” he said, describing Dazion as a “stand-up guy” who always spoke his mind.

Instead, the memory Damon Flenaugh can’t shake is the raw video of what transpired the April morning his brother was shot dead by police.

On Friday, the District Attorney’s Office released findings that the three officers acted lawfully out of fear for their safety when Dazion charged after an officer with two knives. But Damon Flenaugh said there is a difference between legal and moral, and he is troubled by the “callous” treatment of his brother in the videos.

“Nobody thought to save this man’s life,” he said. “I had read enough about what my brother did that I was ready to see that, but what I wasn’t ready to ... see was how (police) chose to talk about him and deal with him throughout.”

The Flenaugh family met Tuesday at City Hall with interim Police Chief Brian Louie and the head of the city’s Office of Public Safety Accountability for a presentation that lasted more than an hour. City officials walked step-by-step through six videos and five dispatch audio files that document what led up to Dazion’s death on April 8.

The materials were released to the media after a Public Records Act request filed by The Sacramento Bee, and in the spirit of new police transparency rules passed by the City Council in November.

In one video, Dazion Flenaugh mentally deteriorates from serene to unhinged while locked in the back of a police car. Other videos show snippets of what happened after he escaped and led police on a half-hour chase. In one clip, he swings a pickax three times at a door.

In a later incident not captured on video, Flenaugh broke into a house and sent a resident screaming into the street, according to the DA’s Office. Police believe that’s where he obtained the butcher knife and kitchen knife he had when he was shot by the officers.

Dazion Flenaugh, 40, was bipolar, according to his family. His brother said officers should have recognized that Dazion was having a mental crisis based on his actions that morning. That might have allowed them to de-escalate the situation from the start.

“He flipped and that was obvious. You could see that he was obviously scared for his life,” he said. “Procedure needs to be absolutely changed.”

Damon Flenaugh and community groups – including Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and Law Enforcement Accountability Directive – took particular issue Friday with comments made by an officer identified by the DA’s Office as Paul Fong. The veteran officer was the first to encounter Flenaugh in response to a call that a man was peering into yards and windows.

In one video, Fong is heard calling Flenaugh a “freak.” Later, when a bystander asked what was happening, Fong explained, “There’s some nut, tweak, just freaking out. He’s back there somewhere. If you see him, just hit him with a baseball bat a couple times. ... That’ll mellow him out.”

Sacramento police spokesman Bryce Heinlein said the officer faced an “administrative review” for his comments but did not say what resulted from it, citing confidentiality laws. Heinlein said the words were “unbecoming of an officer.”

“I don’t have disdain for law enforcement,” Damon Flenaugh said. “However, I feel like if you are going to take that job, you have to have the heart of a hero. ... It takes a special kind of person to do that job, and not one of them had the attitude of saving a life.”

Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County Sheriff’s deputy, lawyer and a use-of-force expert recognized by the federal government, said federal courts have criticized similar comments. When training officers, he cautions them to avoid such statements, even in jest, because they have the potential of making situations worse.

“Calling someone ‘freak,’ you don’t know what kind of reaction that is going to generate,” Obayashi said. “Especially dealing with the mentally ill, you don’t want to use language or words that have the potential of escalating the situation.”

The July shooting of another mentally ill African American homeless man, Joseph Mann, prompted transparency changes in police procedures that led to the release of the Flenaugh materials.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg plans to introduce police measures this week that include more training on how to intervene in crisis situations. He likely will propose that most Sacramento police officers receive an additional 40 hours of such education over the next two years.

“All of these situations, however one interprets them factually, they all speak to the same issue, which is that we can always learn and we can always do better and we can save lives in the long run,” Steinberg said.

Damon Flenaugh said Thursday he believes new rules mandating release of video, and especially the provision allowing family to see it first, are good changes for the city.

“This policy that took place is absolutely right,” he said. “It was tearing my family up inside not knowing, nothing. ... It’s the first time so you can’t be overly critical. I mean, they tried. ... The new chief tried to be very respectful of my family.”

But he later questioned why police did not release more audio and video when multiple officers and patrol cars were present.

Heinlein confirmed that some material was withheld, and he said none of the additional footage showed the shooting. He said police spokesmen and the city’s Office of Public Safety Accountability decided what to release.

The withheld video includes witness statements along with “video of responding officers where their video did not capture the incident or officers that were directly involved in the event,” Heinlein said.

Though Damon Flenaugh appreciated the chance to see police footage, he said Saturday that finding out additional video was withheld has left his family with doubts.

“They just keep lying to us,” he said. “They are not trustworthy and we are supposed to trust them with our lives. Fundamentally, how does that work? You are not building any faith in the people.”

Interim City Manager Howard Chan said carrying out the new police video policy is “a work in progress,” and that the city was “seriously, actively reviewing this implementation.”

Part of the decision to withhold some materials was based on staffing and technology, according to Francine Tournour, head of the Office of Public Safety Accountability. The department redacted names and addresses in 911 calls and blurred people’s faces in videos. Tournour said the city lacks software to handle that kind of video editing and did not have enough staff to edit all video in a timely manner.

“We hear you and all we are asking for is a little bit of time,” she said. “The intention and the intent was to try to show anything leading up to the incident and after. … Now hearing back from some of the concerns, moving forward we have to make sure we include anything we legally can under the sun. … There should be no questions at the end of all this.”

Steinberg said it’s reasonable to question why police can use discretion when releasing incident video and that it’s “something we ought to discuss.”

Damon Flenaugh said his family plans on continuing to fight for information and change. In addition to the toxicology report, the family wants to see the police report and obtain Dazion Flenaugh’s personal effects. Police said they were waiting on the DA’s review before releasing those items; it is unclear when they will be available now that the investigation is complete.

In a statement, the Sacramento Police Department on Friday offered thoughts and prayers for the Flenaugh family and said such incidents “weigh heavy on the hearts of our officers and are a constant reminder of the challenges of the profession.”

The family has not filed suit against the police, but “I believe that they were absolute negligent in how they dealt with my brother,” said Damon Flenaugh. Dazion was his “best friend,” he said, holding up his hand with two fingers intertwined to express how close he was to his brother.

“I really don’t know what made him snap like that, but I know his life. There’s a lot of pressure being homeless and always being harassed all the time, so he probably just snapped. And I would really have liked the cops to be cops that day, and seen that my brother needed help, not killing.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

Related stories from Sacramento Bee