Re-evaluating policies

Chico police deploy body cameras as investigation of Desmond Phillips’ shooting continues

A memorial service for Desmond Phillips was held at Bethel A.M.E. Church on Wednesday (March 29) and followed by a “Justice for Desmond” rally in the Chico City Plaza. Phillips was buried Saturday (April 1) in his hometown of Sacramento.

A memorial service for Desmond Phillips was held at Bethel A.M.E. Church on Wednesday (March 29) and followed by a “Justice for Desmond” rally in the Chico City Plaza. Phillips was buried Saturday (April 1) in his hometown of Sacramento.

Photo by Ken Smith

Body cameras purchased by the Chico Police Department months ago were deployed for the first time Saturday (April 1), roughly two weeks too late to collect footage that could have helped answer lingering questions about the shooting death of Desmond Phillips—the 25-year-old black man with a history of mental illness shot and killed by police officers March 17.

CPD Chief Mike O’Brien announced the deployment of the cameras Monday (April 3) at the Chico Peace and Justice Center, where he and Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey were on hand to address concerns about the shooting and present the latest information gathered in an ongoing investigation by the Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team. About 50 people attended the meeting, including Phillips’ father, David, and several other family members.

According to a section of the CPD’s policy manual, the purpose of the cameras is “to enhance the mission of the department by accurately capturing contacts between members of the department and the public.” Problems in transferring data to the District Attorney’s Office held up implementation of the devices.

O’Brien said Monday that the cameras will be worn whenever officers are on duty. CPD policy orders that the cameras be activated during all dispatched and self-initiated enforcement calls, probation and parole searches, when search or arrest warrants are issued, during vehicle pursuits, whenever K-9s are deployed, and in any other situation in which a contact becomes adversarial. Footage of “evidentiary value” must be stored for at least one year, and routine situations maintained for at least 180 days.

Meanwhile, Phillips’ family and community members continue to question law enforcement’s early narrative of events, including officers’ claims that he stood up and charged them—armed with two kitchen knives—after being shot by a Taser.

There was a fair amount of argument over that and other details Monday as Ramsey again recited his official account of the fatal encounter. Ramsey also released new forensic findings, including the fact that 10 of the 16 shots fired at Phillips hit him, and that only one of the Taser’s two prongs punctured Phillips’ skin, limiting the weapon’s efficacy.

Much of the discussion, which ran over two hours, revolved around bigger-picture questions, such as racism in Chico and implicit bias—or subconscious racism—in law enforcement.

Several people asked why officers didn’t attempt to tackle and restrain Phillips rather than use deadly force, as family members said he was tall (at 6-foot-1) but lightly built (about 160 pounds). They further questioned why officers shoot to kill rather than wound.

“[We’re often asked], ‘Why so many shots?’ or ‘Why can’t you just shoot someone in the leg or the arm?’” Ramsey said. “A lot of that comes from [what people see in] movies. In reality, you can shoot someone in the foot and they can still come forward and stab and kill you … officers are trained not to try that because they will lose their lives or the lives of people they’re there to protect.”

That response drew groans from the crowd, with one woman exclaiming, “C’mon Ramsey, we’re not stupid.”

Other concerns included a lack of citizen oversight or input in fatal shooting investigations. Several people said law enforcement personnel—regardless of what agency they belong to—tend to protect one another.

Regarding the cameras, CPJC board member Emily Alma asked to what extent future body camera recordings will be available to the public, to which O’Brien answered that it will depend on the individual case.

Chico mental health advocate Lisa Currier asserted that—despite receiving basic deescalation training as cadets and additional crisis intervention training required by the state of California—law enforcement officers remain ill-equipped to deal with people experiencing mental health crises. O’Brien emphatically agreed.

“A broader issue that needs to be addressed, in every community, is that we have to do a better job in helping our mentally ill,” O’Brien said. “When someone is at this level of crisis, it’s too late.

“It’s critically important that we look at this issue comprehensively,” he continued. “I see it every single day as the chief of police … we are dealing with this issue on a daily basis. [As a society], we’ve got to look at the entire system and find a better way to deal with those who are suffering.”

O’Brien said his department is making mental health as it pertains to law enforcement a priority, and that he will be speaking more about those efforts publicly in the near future. It will also be the topic of a May 17 Police Community Advisory Board meeting.

As for Phillips’ death, Ramsey said he expects the investigation and his final report to be done some time next week, at which time he’ll schedule a press conference to present the results.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is independently looking into the shooting, according to the group’s president, Irma Jordan.

“We were at the family residence two days after the killing, when we interviewed the father and scrutinized the premises,” Jordan wrote in an email to the CN&R. “We are also in contact with both the D.A., as well as the Chico chief. At the conclusion of all investigations, we should be better equipped to move forward, as well as further collaborate with our state, regional and national headquarters.”