Looking for answers

Police chief and district attorney discuss police shooting

David Phillips confronts District Attorney Mike Ramsey and Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien with questions about his son Desmond’s death.

David Phillips confronts District Attorney Mike Ramsey and Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien with questions about his son Desmond’s death.

Photo by Ken Smith

On Monday (March 20), just three days after his son Desmond was killed by Chico police, David Phillips sat silently through the first 15 minutes of Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey’s account of the circumstances leading up to the St. Patrick’s Day shooting. But as Ramsey’s narrative neared the point at which his son was shot, the grieving father lost his composure.

“You’re a liar!” Phillips yelled, pointing at Ramsey. “I don’t know where you got your information from, but you’re lying!”

That outburst opened the floodgates, and several of the roughly 60 people gathered at the Southside Oroville Community Center for the meeting—hosted by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—also spoke up.

“Murder! This is murder!” yelled one man. “Are these cops gonna get 90 days, too?” shouted another, referring to the sentence recently served by former Paradise Police Officer Patrick Feaster after an involuntary manslaughter conviction for the 2015 shooting death of a drunken driver.

“I told you guys he had a knife so that this wouldn’t happen!” Phillips continued. “I told you he was mental! You guys kicked my door in, tased my son, and shot him dead!”

An uneasy calm was reached after local NAACP President Irma Jordan threatened to shut down the meeting. Helping subdue the crowd—a racially diverse group of concerned citizens from Chico and Oroville—was a woman who identified herself as a sister of the deceased: “Let them finish lying, and then we’ll address it,” she said.

The shooting of Desmond Phillips, a 25-year-old black man with a history of mental illness, is currently under investigation by the Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team, which is headed by Ramsey and includes personnel from several county, state and federal law enforcement agencies. What’s known to the public thus far comes from a pair of press conferences held by Ramsey and Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien, both of whom provided more details at the NAACP meeting.

Desmond’s family members said he’d suffered a head injury, was prone to episodes of erratic behavior preceding seizures, and had post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a violent encounter with law enforcement in Sacramento, where he’d lived before coming to stay at his father’s Chico apartment on West Fourth Avenue. Ramsey said Monday that Desmond’s condition was known to Chico police, who’d responded to a mental health call and transported him to Enloe Medical Center on Dec. 30. Medical personnel had also been called to the apartment Jan. 18.

According to Ramsey’s account, Phillips called 9-1-1 at about 7:13 p.m. on Friday (March 17) to request medical assistance for his son. First responders said Desmond was aggressive, so they summoned police, who arrived minutes later. He allegedly armed himself with two knives and was threatening his father, who hid in a locked bedroom while two young family members took refuge in another. Ramsey said police broke through the front door after a subsequent 9-1-1 call in which Phillips asked police to “step it up” and said his son had a knife in his hand. The officers tased Desmond after gaining entry.

“He fell near the couch,” Ramsey said. “They attempted to go ‘hands-on’ with Desmond to disarm him of the knives. Desmond then quickly got up and came at the officers with the knives, [waving them] in a downward flailing motion. He closed the gap from about 6 feet to 2 feet and the officers, at that point fearing for their lives and fearing for the life of the other officer in the room, discharged their weapons.”

First responders who’d remained on-site administered life-saving procedures. Desmond, still unresponsive, was handcuffed and transported to Enloe, where he was pronounced dead.

The officers who fired their weapons have been identified as Alex Fliehr and Jeremy Gagnebin, who attended Butte College Law Enforcement Academy and were sworn in in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Ramsey said the officers fired 16 times altogether, and two bullets breached walls into a neighboring apartment. Family members said Desmond was shot in the chest, neck and head, but Ramsey said his exact injuries will be revealed by an autopsy.

Ramsey said a shotgun with non-lethal bean-bag ammunition and a bullet-proof “bat-shield” were also at the scene, but neither was used because of the apartment’s small size.

Phillips and neighbors who heard the incident questioned Ramsey’s narrative, insisting Desmond couldn’t brush off a taser hit, rise to his feet and attack officers in the short time between the taser discharge and gunshots, which one earwitness estimated at two seconds. Some said they believe Desmond was still on the ground when police shot him.

Ramsey said the actual time lapse was just over five seconds. He offered to prove it by playing the 9-1-1 calls. NAACP representatives asked him not to play the recordings, as it could be traumatic for the Phillips family, who hadn’t yet heard them.

Many people noted some details could be easily cleared up if the officers had been wearing body cameras, which the CPD purchased but has yet to deploy. Ramsey said that was because of a technological glitch in transferring the data collected.

The shooting also spurred commentary about mental illness and police violence (a 2015 investigation by The Washington Post revealed mental illness played a role in a quarter of the more than 400 police shootings analyzed). Ramsey said both of the officers had crisis intervention training, but he agreed more needs to be done to limit fatal encounters between police and the mentally ill.

Attendees also voiced criticism of police training that emphasizes use of deadly force rather than shooting to incapacitate, lack of diversity in local departments (CPD has just one black officer) and the overall method in which police shootings are investigated.

“Is it your usual procedure, before you have concluded the investigation, to have crafted a narrative that clears your officers of wrongdoing?” one man asked.

Ramsey countered that his account was based on testimony of officers, first responders and physical evidence, and noted information is still being gathered. The investigation likely will be completed in about two weeks, he said.

“Living in a time of social media, there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “We want to make sure we have as much information out there as possible. You can make your own judgment about whether the officers should or should not have shot, but these are the facts we have at the current time.”