Devil’s in the details
Father of Desmond Phillips disputes official account of his son’s shooting
Morning light shone through the stained-glass windows of Bethel AME Church and fell on David Phillips, who gripped the lectern tightly as he addressed a small gathering of activists and members of the local media. As part of his prepared statement, Phillips acknowledged the presence of Scott Rushing and James Sharpe—two other fathers grief-stricken over the loss of a child.
“We want all of these families to get justice,” Phillips said.
Phillips is the father of Desmond Phillips, the 25-year-old man with a history of mental illness who was shot and killed by Chico police officers March 17.
During the press conference on Monday (Nov. 27), he was joined by the fathers of Tyler Rushing, who was shot by a private security guard and a police officer downtown on July 23 (see “Under the gun” by Ken Smith, page 18) and Breanne Sharpe, who was shot by police in September 2013.
Phillips used the platform to make a striking allegation about his son’s killing—that more police officers were involved in Desmond’s shooting than originally reported.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey declared the shooting justified on April 13 based on the results of an investigation by the Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team. The report concluded that two Chico police officers—Jeremy Gagnebin and Alex Fliehr—fired at Desmond a combined total of 16 times, hitting him with 10 shots. That was determined by officials with the California Department of Justice, who reportedly counted the number of rounds left in each officer’s pistol magazine as well as the number of empty casings found at the scene.
However, the Phillips family has questioned those and other findings from the beginning.
“We have evidence that shows officers Gagnebin and Fliehr were not the only ones who fired their guns at my son, as the police report claims,” Phillips said. “All officers involved must be held accountable.” He then alleged that officers Jared Cumber, David Martin and Derek Ament—all of whom responded to Phillips’ 911 call, according to the report—also fired their weapons at Desmond.
However, no evidence was presented to back up the allegations, and the Justice for Desmond Phillips campaign declined to answer questions from reporters afterward, citing legal advice.
When asked to respond to the Phillips family’s claims, Ramsey said they “do not comport” with forensic evidence collected at the scene of the shooting. The investigation concluded that Cumber shot Desmond with a Taser but did not shoot his gun, and that Martin and Ament were not in the room during the shooting.
“Martin did not fire his weapon, nor did officers Cumber and Ament,” Ramsey told the CN&R. “You can see that in the original report and that still stands.”
Whether the Phillips family produces contradictory evidence remains to be seen, but Justice for Desmond Phillips is pressing forward on other fronts. As the CN&R previously reported, the group of family members, concerned citizens and members of activist group Showing Up for Racial Justice filed a wrongful death claim against the city, which was rejected by the city in August. They also delivered to state Attorney General Xavier Becerra a petition signed by more than 45,000 people asking for an independent investigation by his office.
According to Phillips, he met with Becerra in San Francisco on Nov. 9 and was assured that Becerra would personally oversee an investigation into Desmond’s shooting “independent of the influence of Butte County law enforcement or District Attorney Ramsey.” A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office declined to confirm Phillips’ account of the meeting or the nature of Becerra’s review “to protect its integrity.”
During the press conference, Phillips often appeared emotionally overcome as he called for capital murder charges against the police officers in question. He also called for departmental reforms such as increased police training on implicit racial bias, de-escalation techniques, nondeadly force and mental health crisis response tactics. The eight hours of critical incident training (CIT) the Chico Police Department currently requires for its officers are not enough, he said.
Phillips was followed by Scott Rushing, who made the drive from his home in Ventura. He and his wife, Paula, are pursuing a private investigation into their son’s shooting, he said. Rushing didn’t share details, but applauded the Phillips family’s parallel efforts.
“We support the efforts of the Justice for Desmond [Phillips] team to insist on meaningful training of police officers dealing with the mentally ill,” he said. “We pray, here in a house of God, that some of these officers are true Christians and they are walking the walk—that they will come forward and help us get justice for these unnecessary deaths.”