by George Gold
We live in unprecedented times. Pandemic. Impeachment. Insurrection. Police across the United States killing American citizens, repeatedly.
In Chico, the killings must be properly named: Desmond Phillips, Tyler Rushing, Stephen Vest. According to the United Nations, crimes against humanity are defined as “… certain acts that are purposely committed as part of a widespread or systematic policy, directed against civilians, in times of war or peace.”
These days, with so many opportunities, people often say, I want justice for Desmond, or justice for Tyler, or justice for Stephen, but rather than some sort of homily of sorrow or regret, justice will be served when we have change. The Chico Police Department must change its tactics, its operating procedures, its mindset, its culture, its behavior. Stephen Vest was shot and killed by Chico police eight seconds after they arrived on the scene; he was shot 11 times.
De-escalation: During police interactions with Desmond Phillips, Tyler Rushing, and Stephen Vest, the police never once exercised well-known and tested de-escalation techniques. And this is in contrast to what the Chico police chief has stated again and again, that “all of my officers have attended de-escalation training.”
Police procedure: We must speak directly and fiercely about police process and procedure. Command and control? Doesn’t work. Respond to police commands immediately? Doesn’t work. Never back down? Doesn’t work. Never retreat? Doesn’t work. Military approaches to policing? Doesn’t work. Failure to apply de-escalation techniques? People die.
Our police are willing to shoot and kill people, and they do it with impunity. Allowing the issue of homelessness to creep into a discussion of police violence dilutes the message. The issue is our police shooting and killing people.
In 2019, an 11-year-old girl was assaulted, handcuffed and detained by several Chico police officers performing a welfare check. Fortunately, she survived.
The future: To stop future killings, we need police behavior modification, a fundamental systemic change in police from the top down. We must emphasize failures in police procedures, and then we will actually know how to fix them.
When Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey held his press conference on the Stephen Vest shooting, he spent at least 60% of the time continually using his electronic pointer to circle the park benches and cars that Stephen Vest damaged. That was masterful misdirection.
I work out at one of Chico’s great city parks every day. I love our parks, and I love park benches, but because Stephen Vest vandalized a few park benches and broke a few automobile windshields, he deserves to be shot and killed? Just like the DA tried to obfuscate the truth of the shooting, community groups should not fall into the trap on the other side of the same coin and talk in detail about Stephen Vest’s homelessness instead of highlighting the complete failure of what the Chico police did. He was a human being shot down like an animal.
Humanity: After watching the video of the incident with the 11-year-old girl, and the body cam videos of the killings of Desmond, and Tyler, and Stephen, aside from the revulsion of what you see, what is really missing is a simple dose of humanity.
I want to rid the world of war, of hunger, I want to rid the world of racism, I want to rid the world of homelessness, but I also want to be focused. We must focus on changing our police. That’s not going to happen if we don’t speak truth to power and organize to change our police.
My focus has always been to stop our police from killing people and we will accomplish this by changing police process and procedure, by requiring the employment of de-escalation techniques in the field, and a general (yet massive) change in police culture.
Self Defense: Last week I met with the folks at one of the premier karate dojos in Chico. I spoke to the head trainer and the owner. When I questioned them about taking a small pocket knife (3.5-inch blade) away from someone, we had two very long discussions. This karate master, who trains FBI agents, agents of the federal marshall’s office, and who travels the world providing training, said he would love to teach self-defense techniques to our Chico police. This could be promising. Why aren’t our police participating and using simple and well-worn self-defense and de-escalation techniques to take a 3.5-inch pocket knife away from a suspect?
De-escalation: Must be the humane answer to preclude police violence.
Training: Several times over the years, past and present police chiefs have stated that all Chico police officers have been exposed to de-escalation training. Yet, when I watched the body cam video of the recent Stephen Vest shooting, none of the standard de-escalation techniques could be observed. The same can be said of the Desmond Phillips and Tyler Rushing killings.
Independent investigation: After years of neglect and abuse, it’s time for the appointment of an independent investigation of the Chico Police Department and the Butte County District Attorney’s office led by either the United States attorney general or the California attorney general. Court-ordered and court-monitored Chico police department reform is what we need.
Without focus, without change, Chico police will kill again.
George Gold is a Chico resident and community activist.
Editor’s note: A sentence regarding an incident with an 8-year-old boy, referred to in a comment below, has been deleted. Emily Alma is correct; the Butte County Sheriff’s Office was the lead agency in an incident in 2018 involving the boy.