ACLU Statement on CA Attorney General’s Review of Vista Officer-Involved Shootings

July 13, 2007

In February 2007, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, in coalition with the Coalition for Justice and El Grupo, requested a review of the administration of justice in San Diego County in the shooting deaths of six deputy-involved shootings in Vista. In each case, the victim was a young, Latino unarmed male. All shooting deputies were Caucasian.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ office reviewed the cases and determined that there was no evidence of criminal conduct by the deputies in five of the six shootings (the sixth review has not been completed).

The California Attorney General agreed to the review. In May 2007, the office released its findings on four of the five cases, also concluding that in each case, the shootings were justified and Dumanis was right in not prosecuting the officers.

Yesterday, the office released its report on the fifth and final case, which involved the fatal shooting of Jorge Ramirez.

The unarmed Jorge Ramirez was shot six times as he lay on the ground, his leg shattered by a previous round of gunshots, by Deputy Mark Ritchie. Ritchie had chased Ramirez down Sopranos’-style firing 22 shots. Ramirez slowed and then fell. Ritchie stood within ten feet of the unarmed suspect when he reloaded and fired the final six shots. Ritchie said he fired those six shots, because he could not see Ramirez’s hand, he thought a vehicle was also coming at him, and Ramirez had two friends somewhere in the vicinity. Other officers’ testimony contradicts Ritchie’s testimony about the vehicle, and the two friends had fled at the beginning of the chase.

The Attorney General’s review concluded that District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis did not abuse her authority in failing to prosecute the deputy, even though it contradicted her office’s reasons for finding the shootings justified. The Attorney General contradicted the District Attorney’s determination that the shooting deputy reasonably believed he had acted in self-defense. The review concluded that the District Attorney nonetheless did not abuse her discretion, because she could have found either (1) that a jury would not have been convinced by the evidence or (2) the shooting was justified on the basis of an untested, out-of-date, overly broad statutory provision that would justify officers killing people for almost any reason. As the report admits, the statutory provision (Pen. Code sec. 196, subd. 2) “purports to authorize peace officers to use deadly force in discharging any legal duty.”

Both rationales are troubling. The first rationale discounts the terribly disturbing facts and contradictory testimony of the deputies involved—if the shooter were not a police officer, the decision not to prosecute would not have been tolerated. The second rationale is sweeping in its implications and should not be relied upon, or even cited, by the State Attorney General or the District Attorney. It would allow lethal force for even the most minor acts of resisting arrest.

The review’s conclusion is troubling in other ways as well. Although the District Attorney could have relied on the points that the State Attorney General did, she did not. The grounds she did cite were unreasonable and therefore her decision should have been found to be an abuse of discretion. If nothing else, this discrepancy exposes the bias in the District Attorney’s review of these officer-involved shootings.

Finally, the Attorney General’s Office seems to accept that the investigation it reviewed is correct—-an investigation conducted by the Sheriff’s Department—-despite the recent audit of the Sheriff’s Department finding glaring inadequacies in how officer-involved shootings are investigated. Significantly, the Sheriff’s Department has rejected one of the auditors’ most important recommendations—-to create some measure of separation of those investigating such incidents from the regular homicide unit staff. Those who control the front-line investigation control every review and determination thereafter.

We appreciate the fact that the California Attorney General’s office agreed to review these cases, and commend the Sheriff and the District Attorney for their cooperation in the review.

California Attorney General Review of Officer-Involved Shooting