by Dave Waddell
Just 21 minutes elapsed between the time medical aid was first summoned to help Desmond Phillips and the moment when he was gunned down in a hail of Chico police bullets.
Authorities disclosed details this week about the shooting of Phillips, a 25-year-old mentally disturbed black man, who was killed by police in his father’s living room.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey told an April 3 meeting of the Human Relations Network of Butte County (HRN) that two young officers, fearing for their safety, fired 16 rounds at Phillips, hitting him 10 times. Phillips died shortly after being rushed to Enloe Medical Center, he said.
Ramsey is overseeing an investigation by the Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team to determine whether a crime occurred in the killing of Phillips, who was shot March 17 in an apartment on the 700 block of West Fourth Avenue. In addition, the Chico Police Department is conducting its own internal affairs probe of the shooting.
Ramsey said a state Department of Justice crime lab is still sifting through forensic evidence in the case, but he expects the team’s investigative report to be finished next week. Several speakers at the HRN meeting, held at the Chico Peace and Justice Center, called for an agency from outside Butte County to investigate the shooting.
Erica Traverso, a Butte College English instructor, questioned whether it was possible for Ramsey to conduct an objective inquiry when he is “still besties” with Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien, who attended the HRN meeting with the DA. “You all work together, you’re all on the same side, etc.,” Traverso said.
Another speaker, Justin Lin, said many in the community are hurting after the shooting and questioned whether it will be properly investigated.
“Can we bring in that outside person to help gain that trust back?” Lin asked.
Ramsey has been at the forefront of the Phillips case from the beginning, appearing with O’Brien at a press conference to disclose the killing in the early hours of March 18. A couple days later, O’Brien announced that the district attorney would field all questions about the case, and it has been Ramsey who has henceforth explained and generally defended the Police Department’s actions that night.
Ramsey indicated that the only provision in law for turning over a case to an outside agency would be in the event of a conflict of interest, and he does not believe he has one in the Phillips investigation.
“At this point, we feel comfortable with it,” Ramsey said.
As first reported by ChicoSol, O’Brien surprised many at the HRN meeting by announcing that uniformed Chico police officers began wearing body cameras April 1, just two weeks after the shooting. The department had been criticized for not having cameras on its officers in the Phillips case and in previous incidents. The cameras used by Chico PD are worn on the officer’s chest and are supposed to be turned on in any enforcement action.
The chief also announced that the Chico Police Community Advisory Board will start “an uncomfortable” conversation about what he said should be a more systematic community approach to the treatment of the mentally ill. That discussion is on the agenda for the advisory board’s next meeting, May 17 beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the Old Municipal Building, 441 Main St.
Police had been called twice previously to the Phillips residence in recent months, and Phillips’ father, Dave, indicated that on one of those calls a female police officer was able to calm his son, leading him to getting medicated. On March 17, during the first of his three 9-1-1 calls, Dave Phillips told the dispatcher that only medical personnel were needed at that point.
When firefighters arrived, Desmond Phillips was not communicative, became hostile when touched, and basically chased them out of the residence, Ramsey said. By the time police got there, Phillips was holding kitchen knives and pacing in the living room.
“When someone is at that level of crisis, that is too late,” O’Brien said of Phillips’ mental state. “Not every situation can be de-escalated.”
Paul O’Rourke-Babb, a local nurse-practitioner who has worked in psychiatric care, said at the HRN meeting that the Phillips killing should not have happened and should never happen again to a person in a mental health crisis.
“If 17 minutes is not long enough to de-escalate a situation, then take 34,” O’Rourke-Babb advised.
Lisa Currier of Crisis Care Advocacy and Triage in Chico spoke in support of O’Brien’s call for a community conversation about mental illness.
Currier said the mentally ill she works with all have different “triggers” – these could include a man in uniform, loud noises or “barging in” – that a professional can help avoid.
Some speakers at the HRN meeting accused Chico PD officers of being rude and racist.
“They’re more aggressive when it comes to black people,” pastor Vince Haynie said.
With he and his grandchildren locked in separate bedrooms the night of March 17, Phillips’s father said there “was no immediate threat” that justified the police siege on his apartment.
“My son loved everyone,” he said, “and it should not have gone down like this.”
Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol. Read his story on the fatal shooting of Desmond Phillips here.