California Sheriff and D.A. disagree on a sheriff deputy’s decision to shoot
After he shot Stan Severi last December in Tehachapi, California, Sheriff’s Deputy Gabriel Romo admitted to making a near-fatal mistake. Severi was unarmed, but Romo believed he was reaching for a gun and fired a single shot at Severi’s abdomen. The deputy realized shortly after taking the shot that Severi didn’t have a weapon. Nevertheless, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green announced last Friday that Romo’s use of force was justified.
Details of the shooting seem all too familiar: an officer fired his weapon at an unarmed person, an investigation was launched, and the shooting was dubbed “objectively reasonable” by a district attorney. But in the case of Romo and Severi, there’s been an unexpected twist to a national pattern that’s played out over and over and over again. While Green says Romo’s decision to pull the trigger was appropriate, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) disagrees.
On the night of December 11, 2016, Romo was instructed to follow up on a domestic dispute at Severi’s home. According to a media advisory released by Green’s office last week, Severi disregarded Romo’s orders to “come here” — pushing the deputy’s hand and pulling his own hand away. Romo then handcuffed Severi’s wrist and explained that he was being detained, but not arrested, for his noncompliance. Moments later, Severi “made a sudden move with his right hand towards his waist.” Romo was unable to see if Severi was armed, but he “thought Mr. Severi was reaching for a gun.” Responding to what he perceived as a threat, Romo pulled out his own gun and fired a single shot, after which he realized Severi was unarmed.
Severi survived, but his spleen was removed and his ribs were fractured. His wife later wrote on Facebook that “the only way Stan fought back is by pulling his arm back to his hip.”
Despite Romo’s serious error, Green’s office argued last week that his actions were reasonable. “Deputy Romo believed Mr. Severi was going to use a firearm because he saw him take a stance consistent, in his experience and training, with a shooting stance,” Friday’s advisory says. “Additionally, he saw Mr. Severi make a movement with his hand as if he were reaching towards his waistband for a gun.” But Green’s conclusion differs from the conclusion drawn by Romo’s own colleagues. After conducting its own investigation, the KCSO argued that the Romo had violated department protocol. (The KCSO has yet to clarify which policy was broken.)
For a prosecutor to decide use of force was reasonable is par for the course. For a sheriff’s office to publicly acknowledge wrongdoing is unusual. Just as police chiefs and unions justify violence committed by officers nationwide, sheriffs go to great lengths to defend their deputies’ violent behavior or other forms of misconduct. Such a disagreement between KCSO and Green’s office is especially shocking because Kern County is notorious for police brutality and misconduct, as well as a glaring failure to anyone in law enforcement accountable.
In 2015, the Guardian discovered that Kern County has the most police and deputy-involved shootings per capita than any other county. According to the news organization’s five-part investigation, no officer involved shooting by the KCSO’s deputies or police officers in the county’s largest city, Bakersfield, has been found unjustified. The KCSO and the Bakersfield Police Department are currently under investigation by the Department of Justice, due to allegations “of excessive force and other serious misconduct.” Given this context, it is noteworthy that the KCSO recognizes that a shooting was out of line.
Green’s conclusion is much less surprising. Even when her office concedes that officers engaged in illegal activity, she refuses to charge them. In January, she admitted that two black college students were wrongfully stopped, detained, and arrested for walking in the street by the BPD. Despite these violations, she gave the officers the benefit of the doubt and declined to press charges. “Sometimes officers can make good faith mistakes and there’s exceptions built into the law that allows them to conduct a search. In this case there’s no exception that allows them to,” the district attorney said. “They didn’t have any reason to contact them.”
The district attorney also declined to prosecute two detectives who were discovered to have “falsified reports, lied to supervisors, stole drugs, misappropriated money, helped drug dealers and drank on duty.” She merely informed defense attorneys that cases were possibly “tainted” and said her office would re-litigate cases involving any defendants who sought retrials.
KCSO’s findings of misconduct have yet to be revealed in full. But the Romo case is further proof that Green has no interest in holding cops accountable.