Butte death rate high
State statistics put county at top of list for arrest-related deaths
In 2014, three men were shot and killed by law enforcement officers in Butte County. The first was Victor Coleman, a 53-year-old construction worker from Bakersfield who was holed up in his Oroville motel room April 28 when Oroville Police Department officers arrived for a welfare check. They shot him 16 times. The second, a month later, was Cory Lee Bush, 24, of Palermo, whose family called for a welfare check and warned officers he might attempt suicide by cop. After pointing a pellet gun at a Butte County Sheriff’s deputy, he was fatally shot. The third, also a welfare check, occurred on Dec. 29, when 28-year-old Robert Battaglia of Paradise attacked deputies with a knife and was shot and killed.
Those were three of four “arrest-related” deaths that occurred in Butte County that year, according to OpenJustice v1.1, a new data portal from the California Department of Justice. District Attorney Mike Ramsey was unable to find details of the fourth and said he put in a call to the DOJ to determine where that information came from.
“When you get into small numbers—five, six—that one number throws everything off,” he said by phone. “I’m always concerned any time we have a death. But these numbers are so small that they can wildly fluctuate just by one off number.”
Assuming OpenJustice is correct, of all the counties in California, Butte had the highest per capita rate of arrest-related deaths that year—the latest for which data are available. A total of six people reportedly died in custody of Butte County law enforcement; two occurred in jail. Those two were 52-year-old Eli Macias, who died June 8 of a severe brain injury following an apparent seizure; and Rick Vermace, 53, who succumbed to acute methamphetamine poisoning, according to the Butte County Coroner’s Office.
OpenJustice went live Feb. 17, and is part of Attorney General Kamala Harris’ criminal justice transparency initiative, according to a release from her office. The OpenJustice portal publishes new and previously available information at a city, county and state level in a dashboard format with multiple pull-down options for tailoring the data. Topics include crime, arrest and clearance rates; law enforcement deaths and injuries; and deaths in custody.
Regarding the latter category, throughout the state 82 people died as a result of homicide by law enforcement in 2014. Nearly half (49 percent) were Hispanic. Another 28 percent were white, while 18 percent were black. Approximately 5 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander.
Hispanics and blacks were both overrepresented in law-enforcement deaths, compared to their shares of the state population. Hispanics make up 37 percent of Californians, while only 6 percent of state residents are black.
Whites (41 percent of the population) and Asian/Pacific Islander residents (13 percent) were underrepresented in law enforcement homicides, except in Butte County, where OpenJustice reports that four of the six deaths in custody in 2014 were white; one was Asian/Pacific Islander and one was Hispanic.