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Alameda County DA promised to hold police accountable. Why are reopened shooting cases languishing?

Alameda County DA promised to hold police accountable. Why are reopened shooting cases languishing?

OAKLAND — When Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price became the county’s top law enforcement official in January, she vowed to hold police accountable for misconduct.

She quickly announced that her office would review six fatal police shootings and two in-custody deaths to determine whether any of the officers involved should face criminal charges.

So far, however, the DA’s Office has not publicly announced any charging decisions in any of the police shooting cases, which had previously been reviewed and cleared by former longtime District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, who retired at the end of her term last year. Price said the goals she originally set for these cases were ambitious — and the process of re-examining them has taken longer than she would have liked.

“Our goal is to be far more timely than the office — my predecessor’s administration — was,” Price said in a recent interview. “So we started off with our own internal goal of trying to move forward as much as we could within 120 days. That was the internal benchmark that I set. We’re beyond that in most of the cases because they require more investigation.”

The fatal police shooting cases under review range from as far back as 2007 to as recent as 2022. They include the controversial killings of Mack “Jody” Woodfox in 2008 and Andrew Moppin-Buckskin in 2007 by Oakland police officer Hector Jimenez. Also under review is the 2022 killing of San Jose resident Cody Chavez by Pleasanton police officers Brian Jewell and Mario Guillermo.

In the Pleasanton case, the officers fatally shot Chavez after he emerged from an apartment building carrying a kitchen knife. Officers said he lunged toward them. A report by O’Malley’s office found insufficient evidence to charge the officers, saying they justifiably believed Chavez posed a lethal threat. A wrongful-death lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Chavez’s family.

Price said the city’s police chief asked why her office was revisiting the case, and she explained the circumstances of the standoff and subsequent shooting raised concerns.

“My predecessor’s handling of it raised red flags,” Price said. “Certainly as a resident of Alameda County, anytime police officers are deployed and the manner in which they were deployed in that incident raises red flags. We don’t want tanks and BearCats in the streets of any neighborhood. These are not terrorist threats. And it does concern me — the impact on public safety — when there’s such a display of force as was demonstrated in that case.”

Price said she has “more than a suspicion” that officers may have violated criminal law in the cases her office has reopened for review. Still, the DA suggested she would issue declination memos — statements describing the office’s decisions — in the cases where criminal charges are not pursued.

“Under those eight cases where my predecessor had closed them, the decision to review them was not made lightly,” she said. “We understood first and foremost that we were at risk of retraumatizing the victims who had lost loved ones. That it would trigger them.”

On the other side, she needed to weigh “subjecting the officers to what they would certainly believe is unfair and undue scrutiny because they had been led to believe that they had been cleared,” she said. “And so it was certainly not very comfortable for them to feel like maybe they weren’t in the clear.”

Price’s reopening of police shooting cases mirrors similar actions taken by progressive district attorneys across the country following widespread demonstrations protesting police brutality and racism. And they are facing many of the same challenges, said Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who is considered a national authority in collecting data on prosecutions of police officers.

Police in the United States fatally shoot more than 1,000 people per year on average, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. From 2005 through the beginning of August 2023, Stinson found there have been 184 nonfederal sworn law enforcement officers who have been arrested on suspicion of murder or manslaughter stemming from an on-duty shooting throughout the United States.

But there are multiple reasons why more officers don’t face criminal charges in on-duty shootings, and why more aren’t convicted, Stinson said. One is that grand juries want to see prosecutors meet a high bar of probable cause before returning an indictment, or “true bill,” against an officer. Similarly, trial juries are reluctant to second-guess the split-second decisions officers make in a violent or potentially violent encounter, he said. Prosecutors also are reluctant to bring cases where they don’t think they will win, or where winning a conviction may be difficult.

Another reason is that investigators who probe fatal police shootings often start with the assumption that the killing was legally justified, affecting the quality of evidence gathered in the course of an investigation, Stinson said.

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“They don’t necessarily canvass the neighborhood and talk to witnesses the same way they would normally do, so they don’t often preserve evidence in the same way,” said Stinson, a former police officer. “There’s just all kinds of gaps in the file, and that leads to problems with the prosecutors’ offices. So reopening these old cases is really a difficult task, because they tend to run into pushback from the local law enforcement agencies on what they’re asking for, when in fact what they’re asking for is nothing that they wouldn’t normally see if this were not a police-involved shooting.”

Price’s office filed charges in May against two Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, Sheri Baughman and Amanda Bracamontes, in one of the in-custody death cases that was under review. The deputies are accused of falsifying records in connection with the death of 32-year-old Vinetta Martin at the Santa Rita Jail.

Martin used a bedsheet to hang herself in April 2021, three weeks after telling jail employees she planned to die by suicide, prosecutors said. The deputies doctored logbooks to make it appear they were following procedure when video evidence showed they “repeatedly failed to check on Ms. Martin for extended periods,” according to prosecutors.

Baughman and Bracamontes have pleaded not guilty.

While police officers and family members of the dead wait for Price’s office to come to decisions in their cases, at least one family says they are hopeful justice will be done.

“I want to thank the DA for reopening the case,” said Anthony Chavez, Cody Chavez’s brother. “Because the second worst day of my life in the past two years was when I got the information that the DA who retired declared the murder of my brother a ‘good shoot.’”

Staff writer Jason Green contributed to this report.