Chico’s latest tragedy

Community must demand answers to the tough questions surrounding Desmond Phillips’ death

The community is reeling this week from news that a young black man with mental health issues was shot and killed by Chico police officers. It’s an incident that places the North State in the databases established during the past couple of years to track the number of deadly police responses in the face of increasing reports of such encounters.

Already, though an investigation into Desmond Phillips’ death is ongoing, the Butte County District Attorney’s Office is sending signals that the killing was justified. In our recollection, that’s the stance DA Mike Ramsey has taken in nearly every incident resulting in lethal force by local officers. The exception is the shooting death of a drunken driver at the hands of a former Paradise police officer. That cop, though convicted of involuntary manslaughter, spent just 90 days in jail. Additionally, it’s only because of dash-camera footage that we know he acted inappropriately.

In Phillips’ case, no such video exists. Though the Chico Police Department has enough cameras to outfit each of its officers with such technology, the devices haven’t yet been deployed. What that means, essentially, is that Ramsey expects the public to take the officers at their word. That’s hard to do when many questions remain unanswered and Phillips’ family is contesting the officers’ accounts (see Ken Smith’s report on page 8).

In this situation, we cannot help but recall the death of Breanne Sharpe, a teenager who was shot and killed by Chico police after stealing a car and attempting to evade authorities. As CN&R said following her death in 2013, we believe Ramsey’s close relationship with law enforcement presents at least the perception of a conflict of interest in his leading investigations into police killings.

In Phillips’ case, an outside review would go a long way toward mollifying his family, friends and the community at large. His case is particularly tragic because his father had initially summoned medical personnel. Given Chico police had interacted with Phillips recently and his father had made clear he was in crisis, we also question why the department dispatched officers who have been on the force for only a short time—one of them just a few months past his 12-month probationary period.

There are a lot of questions surrounding this incident. We know that nothing can bring back Desmond Phillips, but the community must do right by him and demand answers.