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Bakersfield Police Department fails to identify people in crisis, thwarting reform

Michael Dozer.JPG
Family photo of Michael Dozer, killed in August 2014.

Advocates say the department is "denying clear evidence that there needs to be systemic change" to how it uses force.

Three. 3 percent. Actually, 2.8. That's the percentage of people the Bakersfield police claim were "suffering directly from a mental health crisis" during interactions where serious use of force by police resulted in injury or death since 2016.

But a new investigation from KVPR and the California Reporting Project found a startlingly higher number after reading the department's own reports from 2014 to 2019. We found that 44% of people seriously injured or killed in encounters with Bakersfield police officers displayed signs of a mental health condition, intoxication, or both.

In that same six-year period, evidence from public records suggests 13 of 18 people who died in encounters with the Bakersfield police experienced one or both of these behavioral health conditions at the time of that incident.

In a written comment, a spokesman for the department told us our interpretation of the data appears "inaccurate," saying it "implies something far different than the accurate reality and is highly misleading."

"No way," said Michael Gennaco, an expert on law enforcement reform and accountability who previously acted as the top independent overseer for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office. "I think 3% is not the right number … And I think your percentage is probably closer to reality."

The Bakersfield Police Department didn't sit down for an interview about our findings.

KVPR and the California Reporting Project reviewed records the department provided under SB 1421, a state law that made more use-of-force records public. To capture how often behavioral health is a factor in serious encounters, we counted people described with words like "crazy," "bizarre," or "not all there" by callers to 911 or witnesses who spoke to police; people with a confirmed diagnosis, like schizophrenia; people who displayed signs of disability or erratic behavior on scene, according to officers' own reports and after-action memos; and people who demanded police harm them. We also counted when people displayed signs of being intoxicated or inebriated during a police encounter, because officers train to respond to people based on their behavior.

"We have given policing responsibility for dealing with mental health issues in the United States, essentially by default," said former police officer Seth Stoughton, now a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies how police use force.

In Bakersfield, under the terms of a court-monitored settlement with the California Department of Justice, the police department must now "evaluate and improve its policies with respect to calls involving a person in mental health crisis or suffering from a mental health disability," and measure how effective the policies are.

And in meetings with Bakersfield residents, the police department has often underlined how many of their calls have to do with mental health. The department has asked for and received help for this: Last summer, the City Council approved a one-year pilot project to put a mental health clinician in the county dispatch center.

But when it comes to how officers use force in the field, the department's narrow definition of who is in a mental health crisis hides the breadth of the problem — and the willingness of the department to respond.

"If you're not considering certain individuals to be experiencing mental health crises, these resources that you have to utilize are not being utilized," said Stephanie Padilla, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Activists say this is part of why the solutions offered so far remain insufficient. "I haven't seen meaningful change, and I don't think a lot of the community members have seen meaningful change," said Josth Stenner, a community organizer with the nonprofit Faith in the Valley.

Change was supposed to come after 73-year-old Francisco Serna was killed by police on his own street.

‘Horrible tragedy,' state scrutiny change policing standards

It was nearly one in the morning on Dec. 12, 2016, when an elderly man in a tan jacket gave Serena Frausto a start. Frausto was just off of a long shift at Popeye's and getting out of a coworker's car in front of her home on Silver Birch Avenue. The elderly man wearing large glasses was suddenly right next to her: He wanted to search the car and wanted to know who her mother was. Frausto's co-worker would later say he "wasn't all there." The man was bewildered, and bewildering.

In a call to the police, Frausto's boyfriend said he didn't know whether the man was on drugs or senile. He also told police that the man had a gun.

A Bakersfield dispatcher relayed the message, later released to local media, across police radios: "Brown jacket. Unknown if under the influence. Armed with a revolver." A few minutes later, the dispatcher sent out another message: "Francisco Serna … reported as to having dementia."

The officers who arrived at Silver Birch Avenue denied hearing it.

So when the man in the tan jacket didn't respond to multiple police officers shouting at him to show his hands, patrol officer Reagan Selman – who had encountered Serna on a prior call, but said he didn't remember him – shot seven times. Officers handcuffed Serna as he lay bleeding on the ground. He died just feet from his home.

There was no gun. In his pocket, he clutched a crucifix. In his toxicology screen, the only drugs found besides caffeine were the type prescribed for Alzheimer's-style dementia. He had been diagnosed the year before.

"All you could hear were the police gunshots, and that's when we knew my father was injured and that he wasn't at home," Laura Serna, his daughter, told Radio Bilingue in 2017, in Spanish. "It was a horrible tragedy. It was awful, because it was a death at the hands of the police. Someone you think is there to protect you. And back then, we had no idea who to call or what happened."

Serna's 2016 shooting prompted federal and state civil rights investigations. It also sparked a national outcry about how the Bakersfield Police Department handles people with behavioral problems in the field.

Lyle Martin was the incoming police chief in Bakersfield when he defended his officers in the days that followed. "They're having to make a call in 20–30 seconds without any direct information regarding Mr. Serna and his condition," he said at one of his earliest press conferences. "[T]hey're being told he had a firearm, and that's him. It's kind of tough to address that in 20 seconds."

Still, Martin says that as he took the helm, he decided to operate the department differently, on more of a "customer service model." Kern County's Behavioral Health and Recovery Services department already had a mobile evaluation team, meant to help divert people in crisis to services before they get sucked into the criminal justice system; Martin sent one officer to work with the behavioral health team full time.

At the same time, oversight for these issues had just increased in California. The Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training doubled the length of academy training about how to handle disability and behavioral problems in the field. It added a three-hour module for supervisors and patrol officers.

2016 was also the first full year that law enforcement agencies had to document and report how they used force, including against people who have mental illnesses, to a state-run database.

Now the Bakersfield Police Department points to that data to argue that its serious use of force on people in mental health crises is rare. During the six-year period we analyzed, the department reported to the state just one person who fit that description: Francisco Serna.

But that way of thinking leaves a lot of people out.

"I do think it's underinclusive at least by the data that we looked at," said Stephanie Padilla, the ACLU attorney. "It is underinclusive of the data that Bakersfield itself reported to the state department of justice. And it's underinclusive of what members of the community have shared with us."

As a result, says Padilla, officers may not be taking steps to de-escalate, or calling behavioral health experts to the scene, which are ways of avoiding "unnecessary force."

Worse, "BPD is denying clear evidence that there needs to be systemic change of how the department responds to incidents where mental health or behavioral health crisis is a factor," she says.

Identifying people in crisis is a first step to reducing harm

Bakersfield's analysis leaves out a woman lying on blankets on the sidewalk, in front of the Greyhound bus station in downtown Bakersfield, in March of 2017. According to patrol officer Edgar Galdamez, she was talking to herself. He told the woman to move, but she was growing agitated, and cursing. So Galdamez and his partner pulled her up as she tried to lunge free. They broke her arm. According to the police report, the 57-year-old woman had with her a red rolling suitcase, a tote bag and one nickel.

An internal report describes Galdamez's use of force as necessary, and describes the woman as "mentally unstable." But Bakersfield characterized her in the state-run use-of-force incident database simply as "erratic," a word whose meaning the state leaves to local agencies and a category that is seemingly omitted from the numbers Bakersfield Police Department gave us.

Bakersfield's count of who is – and is not – in a mental health crisis also excludes more complicated cases, including a man who left a suicide note before attempting to rob a bank, then shot himself at the same moment an officer shot at him.

The department also excludes the 2019 death of Anthony Gonzalez. Esmerelda Gonzalez told a 911 dispatcher that Anthony had kicked in the door to the house where she lived with their 13- and 11-year-old children. She said he had an anger problem when he was drunk. She called him "crazy"; she had let a restraining order against him lapse, in part, she said, because police didn't always respond when she called.

Confronted by two officers on a July night, Anthony said "you're going to have to kill me" as he raised and lowered a shotgun pointed at himself. Both officers shot at him. A critical review board exonerated them both. According to a toxicology report, Anthony Gonzalez's blood alcohol content was .15 at the time of his death.

In the state's database, this case was deemed "erratic," too.

Oversight consultant Mike Gennaco says that taking a more inclusive approach by counting all of these cases together is helpful because mental health issues and substance abuse issues can often coexist, with neither one the clear root of the other, and because officers train to recognize the similar signs of both circumstances in the field.

"From the officer's perspective and with the idea of trying to figure out ways to reduce deadly force incidents, the way in which the officer approaches somebody who's mentally ill or somebody who's going through a mental health crisis or somebody who's intoxicated is kind of the same," he said.

A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that statewide, 40% of people treated at a hospital for nonfatal gunshot wounds from a police encounter were diagnosed with a mental health condition, a substance-related disorder, or both.

These findings in California and our findings in Bakersfield are similar to other, limited studies elsewhere in the country. Law professor Seth Stoughton thinks that it's not just police departments that need to go to the root of the problem when addressing behavioral health in public spaces.

"I think it's difficult to try and treat policing as if it is something separate from society. It's not. It reflects all of the norms and stigmas that we have floating around in society," Stoughton said.

No Silver Bullet

Bakersfield isn't alone in facing questions about behavioral health in criminal justice, or in taking steps to address them. Two-thirds of California counties now run some sort of mobile crisis service.

But in Kern County those questions feel especially urgent. "It has increased exponentially, year by year. I can tell you the more staff I have, the more calls we're taking," said Emily Lyles, who supervises the mobile unit for Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.

Much of what the Bakersfield Police Department will do now to address mental health in policing is guided by the stipulated judgment it entered into with the state last August. The department has agreed that training will include recognizing signs that someone is in crisis, and will emphasize that a disability doesn't make someone more dangerous.

The department was supposed to name a crisis intervention coordinator within six months of the agreement's signing, which would have been in February. Bakersfield's monitor has confirmed that hasn't happened.

The judgment, with about four and a half years remaining, promotes de-escalation. According to the department, just over 40% of sworn officers have now completed crisis intervention training. Under one provision, all Bakersfield Police Department dispatchers and their supervisors will receive crisis intervention training to help better respond to crisis-related calls for service.

Experts stress that no one policy is a magic bullet. Law professor Seth Stoughton points out that recent studies suggest that when officers are "volun-told" to go through crisis training, it's less effective than when officers are genuinely interested in learning new techniques.

"When somebody's in a mental health crisis, just raising your voice just a little bit can actually make it worse, when you're thinking that you're bringing control to the situation, lowering your voice, changing, repositioning, backing off a little bit, where historically, you move forward," former chief Lyle Martin said. "Ten years ago, we just didn't think of it that way."

Michael Dozer
A close-up photo of Michael Dozer shown at his family's Bakersfield, California, home on September 21, 2021. Dozer, 26, was shot and killed after a confrontation with a Bakersfield police officer on August 6, 2014. (Soreath Hok/KVPR)

Thinking differently might have changed how dispatchers and officers responded to Michael Dozer, a 26-year-old Black man killed by a Bakersfield police officer in 2014.

As noted in police files, Dozer had schizophrenia; his family says he was diagnosed when he was just out of his teens. Over six years, his sister Kelly James had seen him withdraw, and deteriorate. He heard voices.

"I remember him looking up at me one day and he was crying his heart out," James said. "He was asking me, 'What is wrong with me? What's going on?'"

Leslie Crawford, their mother, saw him last, sleeping in the bushes outside her house. Records show that on that August day in 2014, multiple 911 calls came in from the gas station. One reported a guy "going all crazy." A woman told the police a man was trying to "lite stuff up" and splashed gas on her. A third caller described a man who was "mentally upset" and scaring customers.

Within minutes, patrol officer Aaron Stringer arrived on the scene. He called for backup, and speculated that Dozer was on drugs. Stringer reported that Dozer paced around, saying, "Let's do this," over and over.

Then, witnesses say Dozer approached fast, with a bike lock over his head.

Stringer shot. A single bullet hit Dozer in the abdomen. Paramedics would cut his smoldering pants from his body.

Bakersfield police would not comment on the Dozer case, which they do not identify as involving a mental health crisis. However, a spokesman did object to what he called "the idea … that anything about the use of force can be judged posthumously to include some kind of mental health exemption for deadly force."

Crawford filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the department, in part arguing that officers on scene should have known he was sick. Last year, Bakersfield settled the suit for $250,000 without admitting wrongdoing.

Michael Dozer grandmother
Mary Crawford, Michael Dozer's grandmother, holds up a photo of his grave on September 21, 2021, in Bakersfield, California. A Bakersfield police officer killed Dozer, a 26-year-old man with diagnosed schizophrenia, in 2014 after he acted erratically at a gas station. (Soreath Hok/KVPR)

Kelly James still thinks of her brother every day. And she wants the Bakersfield Police Department to develop a protocol so another mistake isn't made, and so that officers don't immediately use guns on people who have mental illnesses.

"Most of it is basically common sense," she says. "These people need help."

Carlos Cabrera-Lomeli, Ross Ewald and Lezla Gooden contributed to this report.

This story was produced by the California Reporting Project, a coalition of 40 news organizations across the state, including Stanford Journalism's Watchdog Reporting Class and Big Local News, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism's Investigative Reporting Program and KVPR. The project was formed in 2018 to request and report on previously secret records of police misconduct and use of force in California.

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