Crime - Sacto 911

Citrus Heights police: Too quick to shoot?

Parents of Hunter Todd question police account of their son's fatal shooting

Hunter Todd, 20, once a promising trail runner, was shot to death by a Citrus Heights police officer in 2013. Citrus Heights paid the young man's parents a $2 million settlement. The parents pressed unsuccessfully for the FBI to investigate how To
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Hunter Todd, 20, once a promising trail runner, was shot to death by a Citrus Heights police officer in 2013. Citrus Heights paid the young man's parents a $2 million settlement. The parents pressed unsuccessfully for the FBI to investigate how To

Police officers in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights fatally shoot people at a higher rate than any force in California, a Bee investigation has found.

Officers with the Citrus Heights Police Department have shot eight people dead since 2010. Six of those shootings happened from 2013 through 2016. That number matches the Police Department in Oakland, a city with five times as many residents and a much higher violent crime rate.

The Bee found that no other police force of significant size in the state shot and killed people at a higher per-capita rate from 2013 through 2016 than Citrus Heights. The Southern California city of Indio’s rate is close, but slightly lower, according to The Bee’s analysis of four police shooting databases and official state population estimates.

Only one of 25 residents of the four-county Sacramento region lives in Citrus Heights, which has about 87,000 people and 90 sworn police officers. Yet one of every five people in the region killed by police from 2013 through 2016 died from shots fired by Citrus Heights police. One of those fatal shootings resulted in a $2 million payout to the victim’s family, among the largest such settlements ever in the region.

Two of the six people killed by Citrus Heights police since 2013 were unarmed. One suspect had a gun. Another had a knife. Police won’t confirm whether the other two carried weapons, pointing to ongoing investigations.

Unlike many police departments in California, Citrus Heights doesn’t have a process for public scrutiny of police shootings. No civilian or independent review board exists, and officers do not have cameras in their patrol cars or on their bodies. Police personnel records, including disciplinary actions, are kept confidential by state law.

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The Bee reviewed each of the department’s officer-involved shootings using police reports, Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office investigations, court documents, interviews and information obtained through the California Public Records Act.

Police and city leaders said they are not concerned about the department or its tactics. They said the statistics fail to reflect the force’s overall work and that other measures of the department should be considered, such as the number and type of calls the police receive. They said the department is highly regarded by residents, and its professionalism is responsible for a decline in crime.

“We don’t have a problem,” said Citrus Heights Mayor Jeff Slowey. “I have seen nothing except what I see as positive results from our Police Department. Yes, we’ve had several shootings in a period of time, but I’m not sure that means anything but that the bad guys didn’t look at a calendar and they all fell together in the same period of time.”

Some of those personally affected by the fatalities don’t agree.

“They’re a scary police department,” said Gayla Hernandez, whose ex-husband, Jason Wilson, 42, was fatally shot by Citrus Heights police in May 2014. The Police Department said Wilson assaulted a woman and then fled from responding officers. Hernandez disputes that official account. She said police knew Wilson and may have targeted him.

“Anytime they would approach us for any reason ... we were afraid something bad would transpire,” she said.

The string of shootings by Citrus Heights police comes as law enforcement nationally has faced pressure to provide more accountability over fatal shootings, particularly of African Americans and mentally ill people. None of the people shot by Citrus Heights police was black, but family members said some may have been mentally ill. The shooting of Joseph Mann, black and mentally ill, in North Sacramento last July led to significant policy changes within the Sacramento Police Department, including the release of video in critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings.

Scrutiny of police shootings has also fueled a pro-police movement highlighting the dangers of the job and the complexity of the work. The administration of President Donald Trump recently said it will back off of federal civil rights investigations of local police departments. With that change, police oversight and reform will largely revert to cities and counties.

Family members and experts in police use of force say Citrus Heights officers may be too quick to shoot and kill, and may lack training to handle mentally ill and volatile suspects and to effectively defuse tense situations. At least one of the fatal shootings involved someone with a diagnosed mental illness, and the family of a second victim said he was reported to police as behaving irrationally.

Critics also say that when someone dies from an officer’s shots, police are unwilling to release details.

These critics – including Devra Selenis, whose son, Hunter Todd, was shot and killed by a Citrus Heights officer – say they’re concerned the city does not provide enough direction and oversight to avoid deadly force. The department functions with a limited budget and busy staff that struggles to respond to a large volume of calls, city officials confirmed. A focus on controlling costs may have hampered its hiring, some said.

Experts on police use-of-force policies also said the “off-the-shelf” version in Citrus Heights focuses more on legalities than protecting lives.

Police Chief Ron Lawrence, who took over the force in October from former chief Christopher Boyd, said he has reviewed the shootings in question. In each case, he said, officers acted appropriately and lawfully to protect themselves and the public. “They were either under physical attack, they were confronted by an assailant with a weapon and their lives were threatened, or there was an imminent threat,” he said.

Boyd added that he believes some of the victims, whom he did not identify, intentionally provoked police to kill them, committing “suicide by cop.”

The Citrus Heights force would not have the highest rate of fatal shootings by police if its entire history of more than 10 years was taken into account, Lawrence said, an assertion that is almost certainly true given that the department had no fatal shootings during its first four years.

Police Chief Ron Lawrence, who took over the force in October from former chief Christopher Boyd, said he has reviewed the shootings in question.

Still, some community members and police experts said that the numbers uncovered by The Bee deserve attention.

“This kind of rise in the statistics for a town that small … should give rise to concern and the need to look deeper,” said Stephen Downing, a use-of-force expert and former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department who has been involved in numerous reviews of shootings.

Justin Nix, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville and an expert in policing issues, cautioned against “drawing conclusions” from the data, but he said it “is certainly something to raise an eyebrow ... I would certainly want to take a closer look.”

A new department

Citrus Heights, wedged east of Interstate 80 and west of Highway 50 between Sacramento and Roseville, became a city in 1997 after a tough battle that lasted more than a decade. Sunrise Mall is the most recognizable landmark in the 14.2 square miles of nondescript streets lined with shopping centers, walk-up apartments and modest single-family homes. More than 70 percent of the population is white, and the median income is about $50,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Deputies from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department patrolled the area until 2006, when Citrus Heights formed its own Police Department.

Then-city manager Henry Tingle recruited Boyd from Menlo Park to serve as the community’s first police chief. Boyd rose through the ranks at Menlo Park from patrol officer to chief over a 16-year career, he said. He recently left the police chief job and moved up to be city manager of Citrus Heights, a role that oversees police.

The city formed its own department in part to cut costs, said Slowey. Tingle told the Menlo Park Almanac at the time that he expected the city would save up to $3 million in the “next couple of years” by handling law enforcement on its own rather than contracting with the county.

The new Citrus Heights force drew applicants from law enforcement agencies across the state, according to Citrus Heights Lt. Jason Russo. Just inside the department’s headquarters, a shadowbox displays cloth patches from dozens of agencies from which it recruited its initial force. Russo said many of the officers who joined the fledgling department had substantial experience and training.

In 2016, Citrus Heights patrol officers handled an average of 5,691 calls per month, or about 187 calls daily, Lawrence said. He said officer deployment varies depending on call volume, with up to 21 patrol officers on duty each day. Officers regularly ride without partners and dispatchers sometimes must ask officers to leave less-urgent situations to respond to other calls.

On a recent Saturday night, The Bee rode with officers for more than four hours, during which police responded to a string of incidents that highlighted the pressures and pace of the department.

During one call early in the shift, a 63-year-old-man told dispatchers his girlfriend had hit him. Police found him in front of his trailer, where a gorilla mask on a stick stood sentry in a garden of dead roses. Lacking evidence of assault, the officers persuaded him to spend the night at his mother’s house.

Soon after, a man called to report that unknown enemies had implanted a device in his head. When officers located him, he was calm but said the device was telling him to kill himself. Officers gave him a ride to a hospital.

Later, on the department’s 228th call of the day, officers surrounded a domestic abuse suspect in the parking lot of his apartment complex. One officer pointed his gun at the man while a K-9 dog barked and strained at its leash. The man cooperated as a third officer cuffed him and the encounter ended peacefully.

Despite what Lawrence described as a relatively high number of calls, statistics do not suggest that Citrus Heights officers are dealing with a more violent population than other police departments in the Sacramento region. FBI data show that Citrus Heights police reported 44 violent crimes per 10,000 residents in 2015. Four area cities had higher violent crime rates but lower per capita officer-involved fatalities: Sacramento, West Sacramento, Rancho Cordova and Woodland.

Citrus Heights averages about three homicides a year – a rate far below that of nearby Sacramento. Yet Citrus Heights police shot and killed the same number of people from 2013 through 2016 as Sacramento police officers. Sacramento has six times as many people – and a violent crime rate of nearly 74 per 10,000 residents.

Locally, only the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department shot and killed more people from 2013 through 2016 than Citrus Heights police. Deputies killed eight people during that period. The sheriff's jurisdiction covers eight times as many residents as live in Citrus Heights and had a violent crime rate of 54 per 10,000 in the period examined by The Bee.

First fatal shooting

The Citrus Heights department’s first fatal shooting occurred in March 2010. Officer Jeremy Hatchell killed Barys Radchuck, 35, after his wife called 911 to report that he was drunk, abusive and had passed out in bushes.

According to a 2011 lawsuit filed against the city by Marina Radchuck, Officers Hatchell and Nancy Wiegel found Barys Radchuck “unbalanced and staggering about,” and used a Taser to disable him. As Radchuck “was being electrified, he began to flail,” according to the complaint. Moments later, Hatchell shot Radchuck, striking him in the chest.

Marina Radchuck was about 10 feet away from her husband when the shooting occurred, according to the lawsuit. Trained as a nurse, she attempted to aid her spouse, but officers blocked her from intervening, her complaint says. Barys Radchuck later died at a hospital.

The suit alleged that officers violated the couple’s civil rights by, among other things, using excessive force and preventing Marina Radchuck from providing medical care. A federal court dismissed the allegations against the officers, concluding that Hatchell’s use of his firearm was legally justified and that Radchuck received adequate care after the shooting because police called for an ambulance.

The department’s most recent fatal officer-involved shooting was Michael McClurg, 56. Police said McClurg lit his ex-wife’s car on fire in the nearby town of Rancho Cordova before leading officers on a chase back to the Citrus Heights home he shared with his twin brother. There, the Police Department said, McClurg “brandished a gun,” forcing Officers Daniel Boehle, Nicholas Oldwin and Kyle Shoberg to shoot. His daughter, Samantha McClurg, said that no gun was found.

Lawrence, citing an ongoing investigation, wouldn’t comment on the existence of a weapon.

McClurg’s family has filed a notice with the city of Citrus Heights, a required precursor to a civil lawsuit.

One of the difficulties in evaluating police shootings in Citrus Heights is a lack of independent information. With no civilian oversight board for the department other than the City Council and no official video footage of events, police largely control what the public knows about critical incidents.

Lawrence said that the Police Department does not have car or body cameras because both technologies cost too much and raise issues of privacy. Officers do have audio recorders, but there is no department policy mandating officers use them when responding to calls.

Slowey said city officials have talked about getting cameras but “our department thinks we don’t necessarily need (them) right now.”

“We don’t have a trust (issue), or we don’t have an issue where people are saying, ‘Hey, the police did this or the police are doing that,’ ” Slowey said. “If we believed there was an issue of public trust, we’d be on it in a heartbeat.”

 

All of the fatal shootings by Citrus Heights officers have been reviewed internally by the department, Lawrence said. But disciplinary and personnel records for law enforcement are private by California law, leaving the public in the dark about findings. Slowey said that the City Council receives reports from police about officer involved shootings, but that he doesn’t consider it his purview to critique specific police actions if the command staff doesn’t find fault.

“I am a banker by trade, a politician by night, so I don’t try to second-guess our Police Department,” said Slowey.

Lawrence said he was uncertain whether violations of policy were found in any of the internal investigations or if any officers were disciplined in any of the shootings. The chief said he would not comment on any specific cases beyond what is contained in the public record. All but three of the 14 officers involved in fatal shootings since 2010 remain on the force, The Bee confirmed through a public records request.

The District Attorney’s Office has investigated four of the eight shootings and found officers to be within the law. Two cases – those of McClurg and Jaime Ide in May 2016 – are still pending results, said DA spokeswoman Shelly Orio. The DA’s probes focus only on whether officers committed crimes during shootings, not whether their actions fall within department policies covering use of force.

Two other fatal shootings – of Jeffrey James Gonzales, 51, in March 2012 and Todd, 20, in January 2013 – occurred during a period when the District Attorney’s Office was not investigating use of force by police because of budget cuts.

Downing, the former deputy chief in L.A., said the lack of outside review in those two shootings is “unbelievable.”

“There has to be some oversight,” he said.

$2 million payout

Selenis, whose son Hunter Todd was shot and killed by Citrus Heights police, said her experience with the department was frustrating and difficult. She said Citrus Heights withheld critical information about her son’s case.

She and her former husband, Terry Todd, ultimately learned that Citrus Heights Officer Ryan Smith had only served on the force for 13 months when he fired the shots that killed Todd. In that case, detailed in a lawsuit filed by Todd’s parents, Smith said he shot Todd, suspected of committing a car burglary, in the back because he feared he was reaching for a gun as he lunged into his pickup in the darkness of early morning. No gun was found, and an autopsy would later show the bullets entered Todd’s chest, neck and arm from the front.

Todd’s parents settled with the city for $2 million, one of the region’s largest settlements for a wrongful-death claim against a police officer, according to records reviewed by The Bee. Citrus Heights admitted no liability for Todd’s death, but said it was in the city’s and the Police Department’s best interests to put the shooting behind them. The agreement refers to the settlement as a “good faith compromise of a disputed claim.”

The Todds said they filed the lawsuit to obtain information that the department refused to release, including the name of the officer involved, the number of shots fired and the location of the bullets.

“They kept every single thing from us that they could,” Terry Todd said.

Smith remains on the Citrus Heights police force, the department confirmed in response to a Public Records Act request filed by The Bee.

Samantha McClurg said her family is also having difficulty obtaining information about her father’s shooting in August 2016.

“They’re not the most forthcoming with anything,” said McClurg. “I just want to know why such lethal force? ... Why just show up and shoot?”

Lawrence said the department is transparent. “We release information we are legally allowed to release and encourage family members to contact our Professional Standards Unit” with questions, he said.

Citrus Heights does not routinely release the names of officers involved in fatalities without a request, though it is public information by law. Another piece of information only available by asking is Policy 300, the department’s rulebook for using force.

Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force expert recognized by the federal government, said the “off-the-shelf” policy on force used by Citrus Heights, while legally sound, doesn’t reflect specific community values or expectations for behavior. Obayashi said that many small departments purchase policy in ready-made manuals, instead of crafting their own, as a cost-saving measure.

Boyd said the policy was purchased from Lexipol, a major publisher of policy manuals for law enforcement and emergency service providers nationwide, as a way to ensure that policies were current.

The Lexipol policy follows established legal guidelines that give officers wide discretion based on the threat an officer perceives in the moment. Deadly force may be justifiably used, according to the Citrus Heights policy, to protect an officer “from what he or she reasonably believes would be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.”

Obayashi cautioned that such one-size-fits-all policies don’t address the culture of an agency or community values.

Downing described some of its rules as “antiquated” and “thin.”

The Citrus Heights policy, Downing pointed out, mentions the value of human life but doesn’t place a priority on preserving it. Recently, Sacramento’s City Council passed a resolution affirming that, “the sanctity of life is inviolable,” and instructing its police to craft a policy that allows deadly force only when there is an imminent threat to life and such force is “strictly unavoidable.”

“They are way behind the times,” Downing said of Citrus Heights.

Slowey said he was confident that if “anything needed to be tweaked” in the policy, former chief Boyd and Lawrence would do it.

Police salaries low

Some family members of those killed by the Citrus Heights police question whether the same financial constraints that pushed the city to buy a policy manual also influence its hiring, preventing it from landing the most sought-after recruits. The department’s salaries are among the lowest in the region.

In Sacramento County, according to The Bee’s review, only Galt pays its officers less than the $91,600 average annual pay that Citrus Heights officers received in 2015.

“Our police have never earned the most money in the region,” acknowledged Sue Frost, a former Citrus Heights City Council member and current Sacramento County supervisor. “We’ve always been behind the curve on how much the pay has been.”

Money has been a constant concern for the department and the city. For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the police budget was just under $19 million, said Slowey. Under a deal Citrus Heights struck with the county during its incorporation, the city essentially gave up its right to collect property taxes for 25 years, said Slowey. It has about five years left on that deal before property tax revenue returns to city coffers in 2023. Until then, Citrus Heights relies on sales taxes to fund city government.

But Lawrence said salaries alone do not reflect the quality of officers employed by Citrus Heights.

He said Citrus Heights officers receive perks other than pay that make the job attractive. For example, Citrus Heights offers a sabbatical program in which patrol officers take four consecutive weeks off each year in lieu of holiday pay, in addition to accrued vacation time off. The city also provides police uniforms and equipment, as well as dry cleaning of uniforms, rather than offering a lump “uniform allowance,” he said. Herman said the department also gives officers a paid hour each day to exercise.

Those benefits, as well as others, “assist in our recruitment and retention efforts,” Lawrence said. “We are fortunate to hire and retain highly talented and experienced professionals.”

Selenis, Todd’s mother, disagrees with Lawrence’s assessment of his force.

“They have a hiring problem, and a training problem,” said Selenis.

Attorney Ellen Dove said she is concerned that “some of the officers there are worse because of inexperience and because of poor management. The rogues there are more rogue because the tightness with which some supervisors hold the reins is not there from all supervisors. They do not have a consistent policy, which is a bad thing.”

Dove filed a lawsuit against the department in 2012 for excessive force, one of six excessive force lawsuits reviewed by The Bee. It alleges that in three separate instances with three different suspects, Citrus Heights police let a police dog named Bruno continue to bite people after they were subdued. The city hired a notable defense lawyer, Bruce Praet, and claimed the officers acted lawfully and that the defendants failed to provide enough details, including medical records. Dove said she dropped the suit because she doubted she could win it because of the criminal history of her clients, but that she stands by the filing’s claims.

Mary Beesley said she has similar questions about the training and tactics that led to the shooting of her granddaughter, Gabriella Nevarez, 22, in March 2014.

Beesley said her granddaughter was mentally ill and disliked taking her medications. Nevarez died from a barrage of 17 shots fired by Citrus Heights police Sgt. Jason Baldwin and Officer Alexi Fanopoulos after officers said she rammed a patrol car with her vehicle and drove toward them. At least one witness said Nevarez was in the driver’s seat of her car, with her hands up, when she was shot, according to the district attorney’s review of the case. Officers disputed that account. They said they feared for their lives.

Many updated use-of-force policies ban officers from shooting at moving vehicles precisely because of what occurred with Nevarez: Officers wounded her with initial shots, causing her to lose control of the car, according to the district attorney’s investigation. Departments including Sacramento instruct officers to move out of harm’s way when faced with a moving vehicle when possible.

Beesley, who called police after Nevarez took her car that morning, said she wonders whether Citrus Heights officers know how to handle situations involving mentally ill suspects.

“Gabriella was bipolar,” said Beesley, who is raising her granddaughter’s son Vincent, 6. “Maybe she was scared, and trying to escape the police. But why did they have to shoot her? Why couldn’t they have used a Taser or something? I just don’t understand it.”

Lawrence maintains that his officers are highly trained, with an average of 12 years’ experience in law enforcement. Officers take special training in techniques for defusing volatile situations, including those involving mentally ill people, without using deadly force, he said. The city also has a grant to work with a local provider on better interventions and understanding for domestic abuse calls.

The chief said his officers receive crisis intervention training in-house “multiple times” each year and also attend sessions on how to use words, “defensive tactics” and tools other than firearms to defuse potentially deadly encounters.

Boyd said that the department has earned multiple awards for community policing, and crime has dropped 28 percent during his tenure. The department is taking part in a regional pilot program that allows a mental health technician to work in the field with officers, Lawrence said.

Fatal shootings, Lawrence said, represent a tiny fraction of the number of incidents and arrests that Citrus Heights officers handle. “While unfortunate, compared to the volume of police incidents we handled, our use of deadly force represents a very small percentage of our work.”

But Frank Straub, former police chief in Spokane, Wash., and current director of strategic studies for the national Police Foundation, said small numbers can matter.

“There is an intangible damage to the community when an officer-involved shooting occurs, because no one is shot in isolation,” he said. “The person has brothers, sisters, mothers and friends. So there is this ripple effect … that maybe to some degree is undermining the trust and confidence that a segment of the community has in its police.”

Hernandez, who lost her ex-husband, feels that distrust. “I have bad things to say about them,” she said of her interactions with Citrus Heights police.

“I don’t care for the way they do things,” Hernandez said. “They are not there to serve and protect.”

Reporter Anita Chabria’s work on this story was assisted by her participation in the 2016 John Jay/Quattrone Reporting Fellowship on Criminal Justice. Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

Where the numbers came from

There is no official, comprehensive list of police shootings in California for 2013 through 2016.

To create its own list, The Bee relied on four sources: A database of 2015 and 2016 police shootings based on media reports and created by The Washington Post; a database covering the same years and also based on media reports created by the Guardian newspaper; a database covering police shootings from 2013 through 2016 based on media reports that is maintained at fatalencounters.org, and an incomplete database covering multiple years maintained by the California Department of Justice.

The Bee checked each of the databases from 2015 and 2016 against each other. It independently verified the media reports for all of the 2013 and 2014 shootings in the fatalencounters.org database.

Fatal shooting rates were calculated using population estimates for cities from 2013 through 2016 compiled by the California Department of Finance. The Bee excluded from its analysis departments serving fewer than 30,000 residents.

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