Marcos Bretón

Just because someone wants a cop to shoot him dead doesn’t mean we have to comply

Chad Irwin was a husband, a father of two young girls and a 40-year-old man who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Two years ago, Irwin showed up to his Citrus Heights home drunk and behaving erratically while his wife and daughters nervously waited inside. He was on anti-depressants and carrying a knife when he essentially asked two Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputies to kill him.

“If I come at you, you are going to shoot me, right?” Irwin said, according to witness statements taken by county investigators after Irwin was killed. Another witness told investigators Irwin said: “It’s over, I’m going to die.”

The more experienced deputy who confronted Irwin on the evening of Aug. 18, 2016 – James Spurgeon – fired 11 rounds at Irwin with his Glock 9 mm handgun.

Spurgeon said in a legal deposition that Irwin was approaching him with a knife and he feared for his life. Spurgeon hit Irwin seven times, according to the coroner’s report. One shot struck Irwin in the abdomen. Five shots struck Irwin at various spots on his back: the nape of his neck, the back of his right shoulder, two to the left side of his back, and one the back of his left arm. One shot struck Irwin in the left buttock. A younger officer whom Spurgeon was training that night did not fire a single shot at Irwin.

Irwin’s killing was ruled lawful by the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office because U.S. Supreme Court rulings have continued to allow officers to use deadly force if they have a reasonable fear for their lives or the lives of others.

Rick Braziel, former Sacramento Police chief who is now Sacramento County’s Inspector General, concurred with the DA’s assessment that Spurgeon was legally justified.


But could Spurgeon have avoided killing Irwin?

Should Spurgeon have used non-lethal means to subdue Irwin instead of killing him? Did Spurgeon have the training to deal with the complexity of confronting a man suffering from depression? One who had spiraled downward into such a bleak state that, Irwin’s family said, he felt hopeless and threatened to hurt himself more than once?

These questions will drive a wrongful death lawsuit pursued by Irwin’s family that is scheduled to go to trial in January and could cost Sacramento County millions in damages, despite law excusing Spurgeon’s actions.

Roger Dreyer, a personal injury lawyer who has won some of the biggest judgments in county history, will litigate the wrongful death case against the county. Because criminal courts give cops so much leeway, civil courts are often the only places families can turn for an answer to the same question haunting so many cases of lethal force used by cops: Did death need to be the final outcome?

Dreyer will not only be trying Spurgeon’s actions on that fateful night. He will be trying the policies of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department relating to crisis intervention training for de-escalating confrontations with the mentally ill. But even then, cops are shielded from scrutiny by the law. Dreyer tried to depose Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones but was blocked by a Sacramento County Superior Court judge.

Case law essentially protects law enforcement leaders from being deposed out of fear that they would constantly have to be on the stand. This is but one example of how state and federal laws often stand in the way of needed reforms within the law enforcement ranks.

Because Jones is elected by county voters, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors have little say in how he runs his department, and no say in how he trains his deputies to deal with the mentally ill. But if a civil jury finds department policies wanting in the Irwin case, it will be the supervisors who must authorize the payment of millions in damages even though they had no say.

The call to action is clear: Law enforcement needs to do better when called to be the first responders to a mental health crisis.

People who live with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with law enforcement than citizens who aren’t coping with mental illness, according to a study by the Arlington, Va.-based Treatment Advocacy Center.

“I’m very hesitant to criticize law enforcement because these can be very difficult situations to cope with,” said Ronald Honberg, senior policy adviser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, also based in Arlington, Va. “But it’s really important that officers get trained in a way that hopefully will deescalate situations.”

Many law enforcement agencies have adopted crisis intervention training, the sheriff’s department is no different. In the eight-hour course, deputies are taught the signs and symptoms of mental illness. They are taught to identify and use resources to help them help sick people. They are taught de-escalation tactics and conflict resolution.

When Dreyer deposed Spurgeon last fall, the deputy told him that he had not yet received his crisis intervention training when he came upon Irwin.

“Have you gone to crisis intervention training?” Dreyer asked Spurgeon.

“No,” Spurgeon said. “I was supposed to that year of the shooting, around the 16th of December, but I didn’t get to it.”

While respecting the dangers and difficulties of the job, and feeling empathy for a deputy who has not returned to work two years after killing Irwin, it is fair to ask how and why Spurgeon could be in a position to train another officer, when he had not received the gold standard training for dealing with mentally ill people?

It’s fair to ask why Spurgeon never turned on the video camera in his car to document his interaction with Irwin?

In 2018, it’s unacceptable when there is no video of a deadly shooting involving peace officers. Without a video, key information – such as the distance between the officers and the person they kill – is less clear.

Why didn’t Spurgeon use his Taser on Irwin? He told Dreyer during his deposition that he had used his Taser four times before.

“Had it been effective,” Dreyer asked?

“Very effective.”

According to legal depositions, Spurgeon was informed by Allison Irwin that her husband had been drinking. She told deputies he was on medication for his depression. She told deputies he said he was going to hurt himself. He had said that before. He had a knife.

Spurgeon said in his deposition that he had time to look up Irwin’s records before he returned to his home and found no serious criminal violations his background.

“I didn’t see anything that caused an alarm,” Spurgeon said in his deposition.

Allison Irwin told deputies that this was not a domestic violence case. She wasn’t afraid of her husband. She was afraid for her husband.

When Spurgeon was deposed in October, he told Dreyer that his encounter with Irwin wasn’t the first time he had squared off with a disturbed man with a knife while on duty. In 2007, while working for the Woodland Police Department, Spurgeon entered a home where a man had a knife and wouldn’t put it down. Spurgeon drew his weapon on the man while standing in the doorway of his room.

Spurgeon said in his deposition that he controlled the situation by hitting the man with his Taser. A major difference between that incident and the confrontation with Irwin was that there were more officers on scene, including Spurgeon’s supervisor.

On Aug. 18, 2016, Spurgeon was in charge and the only other officer present was Deputy David Conger. Conger said in his deposition that he and Spurgeon did not discuss a specific game plan of how to deal with Irwin between the time they finished talking to Allison Irwin and the moment Irwin arrived. In his deposition, Spurgeon estimated that time frame to be roughly 10 minutes.

Spurgeon said in his deposition that Irwin took some quick steps in his direction with the knife when he opened fire. Conger said in his deposition that Irwin never got within 15 feet of Spurgeon. Spurgeon said Irwin was 8 to 10 feet from him when he fired.

Conger was asked by Dreyer if he was shocked when Spurgeon shot at Irwin.

“Absolutely,” he said.

When asked by Dreyer why he didn’t direct Conger to use his Taser, Spurgeon said there wasn’t time. But Dreyer pressed him and pointed out that Irwin had paced back and forth for a time before moving towards the officers.

“When he’s at the end of the car, doing the maneuvers you described – from that point in time that he showed you the knife, your testimony is (Conger) didn’t have time enough to pull his Taser?” said Dreyer.

“We didn’t have any conversation about transitioning,” Spurgeon said. Instead, Spurgeon fired – with six bullets hitting the backside of Irwin’s body.

Because this case could go to trial, Jones would not comment.

The sheriff also feels I’m biased against him and his department. I respect the sheriff and the men and women working under him who do a very difficult job of keeping the peace. And, truthfully, that law enforcement officers are often the first responders in a mental health crisis is a travesty. That’s a societal failure and were all dirtied by it.

Instead of condemnation of the department, what’s needed instead is for Jones and his department to be introspective about this terrible tragedy. The hope is that such introspection will lead to meaningful reforms that will better equip officers the next time they face a Chad Irwin. Spurgeon hadn’t taken the gold standard training for dealing with mentally ill people. He didn’t turn on his dash cam. There was no microphone recording of the incident. He didn’t talk strategy with Conger with much specificity before Irwin arrived, and they didn’t discuss ways to transition to non-lethal use of force with Irwin.

My heart goes to Spurgeon for his suffering since the incident, though it can’t be forgotten that he gets to have his life, be with his children, grow old. Chad Irwin doesn’t.

Irwin wasn’t a bad guy. He was a sad guy. He had an illness.

Allison Irwin is raising the two young daughters in the same house, on the same street where Irwin was gunned down. She must live with the reality that her 911 call, placed after she said her husband threatened to hurt himself, set a tragic sequence of events in motion. She thought she was protecting her husband from himself and protecting their daughters. Allison Irwin said she quickly hung up the phone before conveying information to 911 operators, but deputies were dispatched to her home anyway.

Instead, Allison Irwin and her daughters heard the ghastly booms of repeated gunfire echo into their home.

“I looked out the door and he was laying on the ground with the officers standing over him,” Allison Irwin said. “I started going towards (Irwin) but they told me to go back inside.”

It was the saddest outcome of all for the family of a man who needed help.

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