by Dave Waddell
The Chico Police Department sergeant who shot Stephen Vest last month is a member of a designated team of officers that investigates officer-involved shootings in Butte County.
Sgt. Nick Bauer has been part of District Attorney Mike Ramsey’s Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team, which Ramsey has described as made up of “seasoned” law enforcement officers from agencies throughout the county.
In killing Vest on Oct. 14, Bauer fired his revolver twice, while officer Tyler Johnson shot eight or nine times in two seconds, Ramsey said. Vest was armed with a folding knife with a roughly 4-inch blade. Other than Vest, no one was hurt in the incident.
Even before learning of Bauer’s involvement with the protocol team, Chico’s Concerned Citizens for Justice (CC4J), a police reform group, was questioning the independence of the team’s investigation into Vest’s death. CC4J wants the state attorney general’s office, not Ramsey, to investigate Vest’s killing. Ramsey has said no conflict of interest exists because, by design, there are no Chico PD personnel on the Vest shooting protocol team.
Emily Alma, CC4J’s coordinator, said if officers that Bauer has worked with in the past on shooting investigations are now investigating Bauer’s shooting, a conflict of interest seems unavoidable.
“We can’t accuse (Bauer’s investigators) of being biased, but, on the other hand, how can they not be biased?” Alma wondered.
Ramsey did not respond to a phone message and emailed questions about how long Bauer has belonged to the protocol team, how many OIS’s he’s investigated, and whether he’s previously worked with any team members currently investigating his own shooting case.
Seth Stoughton, a former officer and investigator and one of the nation’s leading experts on use-of-force issues, told ChicoSol that Bauer’s connection to the team could jeopardize the accuracy or legitimacy of the investigation. Stoughton, an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina, co-authored the book “Evaluating Police Uses of Force.”
“If the point of the Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team is to make sure that officers aren’t being investigated by people that they know and work with, that interest obviously isn’t being advanced when the team investigates a shooting involving one of its own members,” wrote Stoughton in an email reply to questions from ChicoSol.
“Even if the investigation has the best possible methodology and comes to the most accurate answer, it won’t mean much if the investigation isn’t also legitimate,” Stoughton said. “‘Legitimate’ means generally accepted and trusted by the relevant communities. Even if the investigation is accurate, if no one trusts that is the case, there’s going to be a problem.”
Stoughton said an “external investigation” can help ensure both accuracy and legitimacy.
“Investigators are human, which means they are affected by a range of unconscious bias that can affect the accuracy of the investigation,” Stoughton wrote. “Confirmation bias, for example, may lead them to view the available information in a way that favors a friend or coworker, and interviewer bias may lead the investigator to ask certain questions or to ask questions in certain ways that can skew the results of the investigation. Getting someone who doesn’t work with the shooting officer can help with that. It can also help with legitimacy; the public may perceive that an external investigation does not have the same potentially self-serving incentives that an internal investigation might have.”
For the outcome of an investigation to be accurate, Stoughton said, it is essential that investigators ask the right questions.
“An officer’s use of force can be ‘lawful but awful,’ as police experts call it, where the officer didn’t commit a crime but the shooting could have and should have been avoided,” Stoughton said.
Public records obtained previously by ChicoSol show Bauer has worked at least two protocol team investigations, both involving fatal shootings by Butte County sheriff’s deputies.
Following the 2017 sniper killing of Mark Jensen by deputy Matt Calkins near Durham, Bauer wrote a report after interviewing sheriff’s personnel. Protocol team members in the Jensen shooting included seven investigators from the DA’s office, four from the county Probation Department, three including Bauer from Chico PD, two from Paradise PD, and one each from the California Highway Patrol and Gridley-Biggs PD.
The drunken, gun-wielding Jensen was killed with a single shot to the chest from Calkins’ rifle from about 130 yards away after Calkins said Jensen pointed a pistol at him.
After the 2018 shooting in the back of Myra Micalizio by deputy Charles Lair near Palermo, Bauer canvassed residents of the neighborhoods where Micalizio lived and was killed, writing up his findings. Micalizo, shot as she was backing her vehicle toward Lair, was in mental crisis when killed.
Team members in the Micalizio shooting included three investigators from Probation, two including Bauer from Chico PD, and one each from the DA’s office, Oroville PD, Gridley-Biggs PD, and the state Department of Parks and Recreation. The other team member from Chico PD in the Micalizio case was Mark Bass, who has been involved in two fatal shootings.
Dave Waddell is a contributor to ChicoSol.