Every San Jose Police Shooting in 2017 Has Involved Suspects with a History of Mental Illness

San Jose police fatally shot a man Sunday while responding to a reported disturbance at a downtown apartment. The incident marks the city’s sixth officer-involved shooting this year—four were fatal and all involved mentally ill people.

Last year, the San Jose Police Department counted four officer-involved shootings, two of which were deadly.

Several cops went to Donner Lofts around 12:30am Sunday on reports of a disturbance involving a tenant, authorities said. The building’s security guards called police for help because the tenant and another man in his apartment refused to cooperate.

When officers arrived, the tenant reportedly refused to open his door. Police said the tenant then set a fire inside the apartment to prevent them from getting inside.

“Officers observed flames and smoke coming from underneath the front door,” Chief Eddie Garcia said at a press conference. “Fearing for the lives of the occupants inside the apartment, they forced the door open.”

Officers immediately detained one of the men, Garcia said, but the other was armed with an axe. The mentally ill tenant initially discarded the weapon, but refused to comply with police, authorities said.

Cops used a stun gun, which Garcia said had no effect on the tenant. The tenant then allegedly re-armed himself with an ax and began to threaten the officers.

“It was not until he began to threaten the officers with the ax and began to advance on the officers that the officer was given no other choice than to discharge his firearm in defense of his life and the defense of others’ lives in the immediate area,” Garcia said.

The 35-year-old man was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead a short time later. His name is being withheld until police notify his family. Garcia said the man was involved in several other incidents involving weapons, drugs and violence, and had been previously committed to mental health facilities.

Police declined to disclose the number of times the man was shot, except to say that he was struck at least once. But residents who live near Donner Lofts, a 102-unit subsidized complex for the low-income and formerly homeless, told San Jose Inside that they heard about five to seven shots fired.

The officer who fired his weapon has two years of experience on the force and has undergone crisis intervention training, commonly referred to as CIT, a course designed to prepare officers to de-escalate confrontations with mentally ill people.

“There are hundreds of other times when these skills defuse the situation,” Garcia said, noting that the crisis response training became mandatory just last year. “But it doesn’t always work.”

A joint report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs’ Association found that about half of all police-involved shootings between 1980 and 2008 involved people diagnosed with mental illness. A more recent analysis by the Washington Post of fatal police shootings in 2015 estimated that about a quarter of those incidents involved people with mental health diagnoses.

That 100 percent of people shot by police in San Jose this year had a mental illness is alarming, Garcia acknowledged at the press conference.

“That is concerning to me,” he said.

Shaunn Cartwright, an activist who lives near Donner Lofts and witnessed the police response Sunday morning, said she would like to see a blue-ribbon commission formed to investigate why so many mentally ill people are getting shot.

“A sixth mentally ill person is dead,” Cartwright wrote in an email to local elected officials. “A sixth cop had to kill someone. I think it's time for a Blue Ribbon Commission and I hope you do, too.”

Per protocol, the officer who fired his weapon has been placed on paid leave. Meanwhile, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office is assigned to investigate the incident, as is SJPD’s internal affairs unit and the city’s Independent Police Auditor. Police urge anyone with information about the incident to call Detective Jason Tanner or Sgt. Mike Montonye at 408.277.5283.

“This is tragic for the suspect and for the suspects family, but what often gets lost in these cases is the impact on the officers, who seemingly have the deck stacked against them in these types of incidents,” Garcia said in a prepared statement. “Officers who are tasked to perform the incredibly difficult task of defusing a critical situation with someone already in a mental crisis, and when their attempts to defuse the situation fail, I can assure you they are affected. This officer responded bravely, and almost certainly saved himself and his fellow officers from grave danger, in response to an almost impossible situation.”

According to the online database Killed By Police, officers in the United States have fatally shot 491 people to date in 2017. The Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks the number of law enforcement fatalities, has counted 53 line-of-duty deaths in 2017.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

25 Comments

  1. Theses shootings are nonsense. Big grown healthy males with stun guns, mace, night sticks and TRAINING shouldn’t have to let a person re-arm themselves. There was no fire and the fire department was never called., Exigent circumstances were fabricated and crazy people have an exaggerated sense of danger when you kick down doors and charge. You would think the Department would hire people with courage and not “Charge and Shoot”. I was in fear for my life is getting worn out and if you now did this in LAPD you would be toast. They shoot because bicycle detail Garcia can’t run a department.

  2. Part two

    If I had shot every nut case or loaded or drunk person who had or picked up a weapon on my calls while standing next to three or four other armed and trained officers I would be writing you from prison. This is a question of signing up for a mean and dangerous job and demanding that you never get your uniform wrinkled or dirty or take a few punches to do your job without a machine gun and tank.

    • The content of your comments makes it clear that you may have some personal insight into “nut cases.” I think it’s been established that you were a bad cop that eventually lost his job in disgrace, isn’t that right?

  3. It’s just give me the money $125,000 a year and don’t make me do anything. Look at the call sheets and you’ll see they gang up for hours on a 19851 cvc.

    Get some guts!

    Jack Slade

  4. An investigation may be warranted, but not limited to SJPD shootings. The DA’s report on the death of officer Michael Johnson is clear: Kaiser MD’s knew Johnson’s killer, Scott Dunham, was dangerous, but negligently failed to report it as required under CA law to have Dunham’s guns seized. So far, no reports on how Willow Glen killer Mirza Tatlic was able to possess a gun despite 2 separate restraining orders that should have prevented gun purchase and seizure. SJPD reported Tatlic’s gun was *not* reported stolen. The CA State Auditor reports tens of thousands of such cases: law enforcement fails to seize guns from mentally ill even when reported. The last report projects about 6,000 such persons in San Jose.

    About 75% of chronic homeless are deemed mentally ill, yet tenants report County funded Donner Lofts authorities fail to enforce conduct requirements to protect others.

    Whining about PD shootings is pointless until we demand accountability at the root cause level.

  5. Perhaps it’s time we took a new approach to the mentally ill in regards to officer safety. We need to introduce a bill that demands persons of mental illness must wear shock training collars. This way if a peace officer comes across a suspect, all they need to do is press a button on their mobile device to send 50,000 volts through the subjects neck, incapacitating them for a short time.

    **Note** That was sarcasm.

    In all seriousness though it does seem as though people still haven’t learned. Cops are scared of dying, and who can blame them? When you’re in that moment, does an officer really have time to wait and see if that gun is real or fake? I think most officers err on the side of caution.

    The last thing we want to tell a surviving family is, “Well our policy made them wait to figure that out, and that’s why they’re dead” The only *true* fix for this issue is to have better mental health services for these folks.

  6. I seem to recall about a week ago pointing out to Rich Robinson that closing down the nut house and turning the patents loose wasn’t a good idea. Perhaps if we equipped the mentally ill that are running around loose with Kevlar strait jackets and handles on the backs, at least they wouldn’t die so much when police are called and have to deal with them. We could also supply them with pussy hats so authority could easily identify them as being insane!

  7. This person with an Unspecified mental illness Also had a criminal mind. He had prior criminal offenses, he uses street drugs and alcohol along with the tenant that lived there. There are others living at the property with the same conduct as the resident and his guest. Neighbors witness the traffic and suffer hearing their unruly behavior. There is about 7 residents throughout the apartment floors that are deemed reckless violators of the property rules. They and their guests fuss about signing in with California ID or an actual ID card towards the desk manager or security officer on duty. Some former homeless tenants are always bringing in traffic; and gather to get high or drink without discreet respect; Trash the hallways and elevators. Management and its upper departments will finish lease contracts with these defiant occupants
    and will not favor to renew their lease.

  8. Wondering about the necessity of shooting and killing a mental case when he/she doesn’t have a gun. Axes, kitchen knives, etc. don’t pose the same threat as a loaded gun. Why wouldn’t the police officer fire at the individual’s legs? Is the mantra now “fire a warning shot into his head”?

    • I’m interested in hearing your expertise and whatever tips you might have on the way to properly get hit with an axe without being hurt. Your insight might potentially revolutionize law enforcement.

    • Oh wow Im not going to go near this comment. It astounds me, the ignorance after ready so many studies on knives and sharp end objects and how quickly one can be killed. I vote that the police do not respond to any of these calls. It should be broadcast as information only. It is a no win especially with an ignorant public understanding of assaults on cops. Next time I see a nut swinging a machete in public ill call Greg.

        • > Okay, all of you dunderheads, I didn’t say retreat… rather, I said aim for the legs!

          In the cowboy movies, Hopalong Cassidy always shot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand.

          No one was hurt. It just stung a little big.

        • While it is not impossible to disable an armed person by shooting them in the legs it is by no means a guaranteed tactic. Even assuming the shot hit its target, someone armed with a knife, hatchet, or other dangerous object would, more than likely, still be able to throw or otherwise use the weapon against the officer, who is neither expected nor authorized to unnecessarily risk serious or fatal injury in such circumstances.

          Were I or a loved one living in an adjacent apartment, I would much prefer the officer aim at the largest part of the lunatic’s body and give himself the best chance of hitting his target and ending the danger, as well as the least chance of sending one or more highly-energized rounds into an unintended recipient.

          I understand it is fashionable to pretend that every life is precious, but let’s not pretend that a life spent being scary crazy makes one deserving of anything beyond a toe tag and a blazing furnace.

  9. Had the man shot Sunday had no history of mental problems one of the first questions asked would’ve been, “What set him off?” In other words, an absence of the troubled history expected would, given his crazed behavior and disregard for his life, lead us to suspect temporary insanity and look for evidence of an immediate crisis. This expectation, coupled with the huge numbers of mentally ill in San Jose (a reasonable estimate would be 30,000 bi-polar or schizophrenic residents) should cause us to understand the use-of-force disproportion, not broadly question the actions of our police department or call for another assembly of blowhards.

    The outrage and criticism that follows such shootings (without regard to the circumstances) ignores that the mentally ill often challenge authorities in ways that are beyond peaceful resolution. It seems that for every defense-of-life decision made by a cop pushed to desperation there are dozens of experts and activists who know better, yet, an examination of the history of crisis intervention by experts (in controlled environments, no less) reveals such non-Blue Ribbon methods as shock treatment, rubber rooms, lobotomies, and deadening drugs — methods unavailable to the cop on the beat.

  10. Would the critics be happier if SJPD shot a few sane people to even things out? Would that suddenly mean that SJPD is okay in dealing with the mentally ill?

  11. I’m confused, maybe Wadsworth can Tell me the answer in her next opinion piece… do police officers wake up every day itching to kill the mentally ill, black men or simply anyone they can?

    Thanks for the insight SHI and congrats on your journalism awards.

    • Jate,
      I think you have hit on something, let’s have the staff of SJI go through the firearms training class next time at the PD academy or even private training at a place like Gunsite. It’s a real eye opener when you have been attacked by Joe blow in a simulation. When you come up against a real martial arts expert with a knife or axe/tomahawk it easy to forget that a useful handgun has only been around for a little over a hundred years and that edged weapons have been used in wars for thousands. Add to that some nut on PCP that didn’t feel the pain of a 9mm going through his thigh or even his gut and you have the reason stupid people get killed messing with cops.

      Take a Class Jenifer, It’s an eye opener I guarantee, don’t forget the lecture from the city attorney office that follows!

  12. Are these mentally ill people receiving treatment ? –Cognitive therapy ? –Medication treatment ? Social services for their needs ? Are they complying to course of action (sticking with it)? Do they take their medication or street drugs ? If they faced 20 years of hardship and living on the streets and then become housed, do they continue improving or relapse ?
    I live here, and some of the previously homeless tenants living here @ Donner Lofts DON’T better their lives. The guy on the 3rd floor always roamed and brought in other vagabonds. He is a person with mental health issues but he understood the SJ police orders to lie down on the floor ready to be detained for surrender & search, his buddy that must sign in at the lobby desk as a guest refused, and was shot and killed during the scuffle. Both were using alcohol or narcotics (I’m not sure which, but I’m certain, since this is always the behavior pattern here) and when ONE IS UNDER THE INFLUENCE, an individual is either violent and dangerous combined with their own mental health issue.

  13. How many SJ police officers have been mentally evaluated to assure “they”are not mentally ill? Are tests to assure their mental abilities tested by licensed professionals and submitted to city officials for review annually? A case of a SJPD officer shooting and killing an unarmed suspect for flicking a cigarette in the direction of a police officer at a strip mall coffee shop on S. Winchester comes to mind. Good luck San Jose residents! Hope your not next!

  14. The sad thing here is this the disconnect by society with mental illness. There were special places like Agnew where they were cared for and had a home. Yes there are organizations around that help fill the gap and my hats off to them. But the underlying problem is there are many on the street and many left to their own demise. If you are close to these special people, then there is no need to explain and I’m not sure how much the police are trained to handle them. I wish I had the answers and there may never be one, but I will protect the two I have until I die

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