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.