by Dave Waddell and Leslie Layton
Chico police reform advocates are questioning the independence of the investigation underway into the killing of Stephen Vest, who was shot Oct. 14 by an officer and his sergeant after Vest’s behavior frightened motorists and passersby.
Reform advocates want a state investigation into the killing outside the local Petco store. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey insists his system for investigating police shootings ensures impartiality and falls within the purview of his position.
Vest, 30, a Camp Fire survivor who grew up in Paradise, was described by friends as a sweet man who struggled with mental illness and by Ramsey as someone in need of drug rehabilitation. Vest was shot dead while advancing on several Chico officers with a knife in the Petco parking lot on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.
Ramsey said officer Will Page tasered Vest but Vest only flinched, officer Tyler Johnson fired his revolver “eight or nine times” within “2.03 seconds,” and Sgt. Nick Bauer shot twice at Vest. Ramsey said Vest was brandishing a folding knife with a 4-inch blade.
Ramsey estimated Vest was about 10 feet from police when they fired, noting that he has seen body camera footage from officers Johnson and Page. Sgt. Bauer did not turn on his camera until after the shooting. No police or bystanders were hurt in the chaos Vest caused leading up to his death.
“He screamed out for help and slipped through the cracks,” said Lisa Currier, who knew Vest from her work with Safe Space, a winter sheltering program for the homeless. In a letter to Chico and Butte County officials, Currier said, “I would like for you all to support a independent investigation into the use of force with Stephen Vest.”
Investigations fail to satisfy reformists
Police killings locally have long been investigated by a collection of officers with a name that is frequently misspoken and miswritten: Their proper name is the Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team. After Vest’s shooting, Chico Police Chief Matt Madden “invoked” the protocol, meaning that he turned over the criminal investigation – as well as the handling of news media — to Ramsey.
As with most officer-involved shootings in Butte County, Ramsey showed up at the site of Vest’s killing and then provided the news media with Chico PD’s account of what took place.
The Butte County protocol team has been around for a quarter of a century and has investigated at least 34 previous law enforcement homicides, of which no fewer than 18 involved a victim in mental crisis, based on one tally. The team is composed of veteran officers from most law enforcement agencies in the county. In all 34 killings, the protocol team’s report found that the shooting officer or officers should face no criminal charges.
In one case, however, Ramsey, who directs the team’s investigation and authors its reports, was forced by public outrage to reverse himself and prosecute Paradise police officer Patrick Feaster for the unprovoked, caught-on-camera killing of unarmed drunken driver Andrew Thomas in 2015. Ramsey’s report exonerating Feaster argued that the shooting was not a crime, but rather an accident.
Just days after that first report, Ramsey released a second report that further explained and defended his contention that Feaster had committed no crime. Under withering public pressure, however, Ramsey later charged Feaster with involuntary manslaughter. Feaster was convicted and sentenced to 180 days in jail, serving half that number.
In all 34 killings since 1997, the team’s report found the officers should face no criminal charges.
Ramsey’s officer-involved shooting report on the Vest killing will be his first following a Jan. 1 change in state law. Assembly Bill 392 altered the definition of the circumstance under which deadly force by police is legally justifiable from “reasonable” to “necessary.” Ramsey estimates the Vest report will take four to six weeks to complete.
The independence of the protocol team has been questioned since Vest’s death. Concerned Citizens for Justice (CC4J), a police reform group, has called on City Manager Mark Orme and the City Council to compel Madden to turn the investigation over to the state attorney general’s office.
CC4J member Jill Bailey said Ramsey’s protocol team, being “composed of law enforcement officers from Butte County agencies,” amounts to “police investigating their coworkers in a use-of-force killing” and is not impartial. Ramsey argues that these investigators are impartial; they do not work for the specific agency involved in the shooting, thereby avoiding, he says, a conflict of interest.
Bailey noted that the killing of Vest occurred “in the midst” of increasingly contentious meetings of the city’s Policing Review Ad Hoc Committee formed by Mayor Ann Schwab. The committee has been discussing, among other things, whether to revise Chico PD’s use-of-force policies. During its meetings, officer and police union president Jim Parrott, one of three committee members from Chico PD, has defended the department’s current policies, training and performance.
Noting Chico police leaders’ satisfaction with the status quo, Bailey wondered about the discrepancy in the number of shots fired at Vest by the two officers. Bailey said she’s been told that officers are trained “to eliminate the threat” to themselves or others. In the Vest killing, officer Johnson fired 4 or 4 1/2 times as many shots as Sgt. Bauer to eliminate the same threat.
Asked about the wide discrepancy, Ramsey said Vest was closer in proximity to Johnson than Bauer.
Police killings of citizens armed only with knives are particularly contentious, as was shown in Philadelphia, a city rocked by unrest after the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. While police officers in the United States frequently shoot and kill people brandishing knives, it is rare for a police officer to be stabbed to death.
Researcher Franklin Zimring (“When Police Kill”) studied the 292 U.S. police deaths classified as a “felonious killing” from 2008 through 2013 and found only two — a microscopic 0.6 percent — were by knife or another cutting instrument. An officer was more likely to be beaten to death than stabbed to death.
“Attackers who brandish knives and rush at police … never caused a death of an officer in six years,” wrote Zimring, who argues that police departments should consider a no-shooting policy when it comes to knife wielders.
2020: For Vest, decline and then tragedy
By all indications, 2020 was a year of serious decline for Stephen William Vest. On March 2, he changed his Facebook profile picture to one of him looking anxious and unhappy, his eyes with dark circles cast downward and to the side. In a disjointed post accompanying that photo, Vest wrote: “So stressed out right now can barely take it … To the point of almost metal colapse. Laugh at me cause I’m different laugh at them for there all the same.. Breathe…holy shit.”
Within a week of that post, Vest became a criminal, apparently for the first time in his life. He was charged with biting two law enforcement officers on the leg in separate incidents. In one case, Vest bit an officer after being tackled to the ground by Chico police responding to a call in the area of East 20th Street. The following day, in the Butte County Jail, Vest bit an officer on the leg during a scuffle, Ramsey said.
In each case, Vest was charged with two felony counts: battery on a peace officer and obstruction of an officer. Butte County Superior Court’s online records indicate Vest was found mentally competent to stand trial after examination by a forensic psychologist. Vest eventually pleaded no contest and was placed on felony probation.
Vest was later charged with probation violations, and in one case was found in possession of methamphetamine, Ramsey said.
Court records show that Vest was never charged with a drug offense, but Ramsey said part of the “probation deal” was that Vest undergo drug rehabilitation. Ramsey said probation’s efforts to help Vest with housing and rehab were not well received.
The Oct. 14 shooting followed both morning and evening calls to police dispatch about a man who was described as “confused” and seems to fit the description of Vest – a slender white man in a dark hooded sweatshirt — on East 20th Street running in front of cars. (See what the police log shows here.)
That evening, Ramsey says a park security guard saw a man who “appeared to be bloody” near 20th Street Community Park. The guard addressed the man, who turned out to be Vest.
Ramsey said Vest “came through” the guard’s patrol car window with a knife, jumped on the hood of the car and rolled back toward the passenger window. The guard tasered Vest, to no visible effect.
The events that led to the fatal shooting then unfolded rapidly. Vest darted into the intersection of East 20th and Martin Luther King Parkway, jumping on the back of someone’s motorcycle and on the hoods of cars. After breaking a windshield and stabbing a tire, he fled toward Petco and, says Ramsey, chased a delivery driver and store employee with the knife, shouting “Shoot me.”
Representing Vest was criminal defense attorney E. Ryan Lamb, a public defender who declined comment on the case but said he was “super sad” to learn of Vest’s death. Lamb said he has no knowledge of what services were offered by probation, but somewhere in Vest’s long journey he didn’t get the help he needed.
“Clearly, where this ended was tragic, and implicitly something was missing somewhere,” Lamb said. “In general, we have far too few resources to help people rehabilitate, whether it’s mental illness or drugs, so a lot of people slip through the cracks.”
Dave Waddell is a contributor to ChicoSol. Leslie Layton is editor.