‘Not backing down’

Phillips family still fighting for justice three years after the police killing of Desmond

David Phillips says he will continue to fight for the Chico police officers involved in the fatal shooting of his son, Desmond, to be fired and criminally charged.

David Phillips says he will continue to fight for the Chico police officers involved in the fatal shooting of his son, Desmond, to be fired and criminally charged.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Every Sunday after church, David Phillips visits the City Plaza and distributes water bottles and cheeseburgers to local homeless people. It’s a tradition he started with his son, Desmond, who was shot and killed by Chico police officers during a mental health crisis in 2017.

Phillips told the CN&R he has continued the tradition in Desmond’s honor, because “it was very dear to him.” It’s been one way to try to keep his son’s memory and loving, generous spirit alive, he said.

Until recently, Phillips and his family had been pursuing a wrongful death claim against the city of Chico. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals effectively ended that pursuit in January by dismissing an appeal by the family after they fired their attorney. However, Phillips said the family is exploring other legal options and will continue to fight not only for the officers involved in Desmond’s killing to be fired and criminally charged, but also for an overall change in the culture of the Chico Police Department.

“Desmond suffered from PTSD. That shouldn’t have cost him his life. What cost him his life was the color of his skin, period,” Phillips said. “We’re not backing down. We’re going to fight this until justice is served.”

The family’s next move comes Tuesday (March 17), exactly three years from the date Desmond was killed. That evening, the Phillipses and members of the citizens group Justice For Desmond will host a candlelight vigil outside City Hall at 5 p.m. Then, they’ll go inside to address the City Council during its regularly scheduled meeting, where fellow advocates Concerned Citizens for Justice also will make their voices heard.

The groups are looking ahead to the retirement of Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien, whose last day on the job is June 5 (see “Long goodbye,” Newslines, Jan. 23), and are hoping the changing of the guard also results in institutional reform.

Since Desmond’s death, the family has called on policymakers for more police training in de-escalation, implicit bias and crisis intervention. They’ve organized events and marches not just for Desmond but also for others slain during encounters with local law enforcement. This includes Tyler Rushing, who was shot and killed by a security guard and a Chico police officer in July 2017 (his family is suing the city in civil court).

In addition to asking for additional police training, the Phillipses and other groups are advocating for a civilian board that oversees the department’s policies and community complaints.

Reached this week by phone for comment, O’Brien told the CN&R that he agrees that police departments should have civilian oversight. The city of Chico already has that, he argued, through the city manager and City Council. It’s in the “very fabric of how our systems are set up,” he said.

In terms of training, he noted that his department has completed a cumulative 4,146 hours in areas including bias, racial profiling, crisis intervention, cultural diversity and awareness, and tactical communication, which includes de-escalation techniques. A total of 96 officers will have received such instruction as of March 26, with an average of 37.18 hours per officer, he said.

O’Brien noted that this includes additional crisis intervention training the department is wrapping up this month.

“Generally speaking,” he said, “most if not almost all of our police officers have this training [across the board]. … To suggest that our officers are not some of the best trained in the country I think is inaccurate.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, the nonpartisan group Concerned Citizens for Justice will call on the City Council for cultural changes within Chico PD. The group formed in 2017 in response to Phillips’ killing, as well as concerns about the department’s use-of-force protocols.

The group believes the city’s Police Community Advisory Board is inadequate and should offer independent oversight of the department. The board, whose members are appointed by the chief, has been inactive since the Camp Fire. Last month, Concerned Citizens for Justice co-founder Diane Suzuki told the council the advisory board isn’t serving its purpose “to facilitate and enhance communication between the police department and the community,” as the board’s policy states.

Recruitment for the next chief ends on April 10, according to City Manager Mark Orme. He added that a recruiter sat down with various community organizations to “understand all the dynamics here.”

Concerned Citizens for Justice co-founder Margaret Swick said she appreciated Orme including her organization, which is “a wonderful sign.” The group has been pleased to work with O’Brien, she added, and looks forward to working with the next chief.

“We’re encouraging the city to hire a chief that will work with the community on improving police culture,” she said. “That means all of our officers are proficient in de-escalating very difficult situations; that the police are well-trained to deal with human biases in dealing with difficult people, whether they’re mentally ill or they’re homeless or they’re living in poverty.”

Phillips told the CN&R he has been unable to grieve his son’s death. He still lives in the apartment where Desmond was killed.

He does have hope that a new chief—one from outside Butte County—could make positive changes in police culture and help prevent the deaths of more people.

“[Things could change] if they get somebody that forgets the bias,” he said, “that really wants to do their job, really work for the people and be fair.”