Family, experts criticize Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office handling of fatal shooting

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“You can see the deputy lost his footing. That is a dangerous situation for officers. If you’re slow to respond, it could have terrible consequences. Everything about this situation is extraordinarily difficult.”

More importantly, it would be rash to make a determination based solely on bodycam footage, Adams said. He wants to see, hear and read more about this shooting.

“I think it’s too early to offer opinions,” he said. “We don’t know which resources were or weren’t on the way. You have to be especially careful when applying urban policing lessons to rural settings. I was a city officer. My backup was always 30 seconds to a minute away. In these settings, you’re gonna have to handle it on your own.”

Robert Weisberg, law professor and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, also empathizes with the deputies as they pursue Pelaez-Chavez in the video.

But it’s questionable whether this qualifies as a justifiable shooting under a law passed in California in 2019, Weisberg said. The new statute, which replaced the old “fleeing felon law,” states that officers must have a reasonable fear that a suspect is threatening deadly force against them or others.

“There certainly is no visual evidence (Pelaez-Chavez) had a gun,” Weisberg said. “Dietrick is really pretty close. I don’t know if it’s 12 feet or 20 feet. But even in this video, which the sheriffs released, I don’t see a lot of base for thinking he had a gun. Indeed, the action that precipitates the shooting is clearly picking up a rock.

“Then the issue becomes, if there’s no reason to think it was a gun, is it reasonable to believe the throwing of the rock could pose a fatal threat. And that’s a hard one.”

The deputies’ pursuit of Pelaez-Chavez was clearly handled properly, at least from what is evident in the video, Weisberg said. But he wonders if they could have done more to de-escalate.

“There’s a point where the police are doing something nonfatal and clearly legal,” Weisberg said. “If at that point they realize continuing this perfectly legal action could put them in a situation where they have no choice but to shoot, maybe they should forbear taking that action. At least then you don’t kill the guy.”

Roger Clark, a retired 27-year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, who in more recent years has offered expert testimony in dozens of court cases, was even more empathic.

“I don’t see a credible threat to life based on what’s presented,” Clark said. “He’s barefoot. They’ve gone over a mile. It has to be dry, hot. And it’s not pleasant for them to chase him through the woods. But that’s what we do.”

Pelaez underscored that his brother looked tired and afraid following the foot pursuit, in which Dietrick had pointed his firearm at Pelaez-Chavez.

“They were following him and who isn’t going to be afraid with a gun (pointed at them)?” Pelaez said. “Wouldn’t you be afraid if they pointed a gun at you?”

It’s unclear whether Pelaez-Chavez’s shouted fears during the pursuit would have landed with the officers, whose Spanish in the video is limited to yelling single words and phrases that in one case were not grammatically correct.

At one point, Powers calls up a slope to Pelaez-Chavez with the word “abajo,” which means “down.” From Powers’ gestures, it appears he may have been directing the suspect to drop his weapons. But that might have been confusing to Pelaez-Chavez, said Renee Saucedo, director of the Graton Day Labor Center.

“The point of the video where the sheriff kept saying ‘abajo, abajo,’ it’s important that he said this word while at the bottom of a hill. and Mr. Pelaez is at the top of the hill,” Saucedo said.

She has spent parts of her childhood in both the United States and Mexico, and has done translation work in the community for more than 30 years.

“To a Spanish speaker, that could have meant ‘come down, come down.’ And (Pelaez-Chavez) immediately responded, ‘No, because you’re gonna kill me.’ He was afraid.”

Other directions given in haphazard Spanish, like “aqui” (“here”) and “no mas” (“no more”), also may have contributed to the chaos, rather than cutting through it, Saucedo said. With no other verbiage to explain Powers’ intent, they would have been meaningless.

Pelaez said that in the moment leading up to the gunfire, the video showed that his brother was crouched down and was most likely unable to fight back two deputies.

“There, the deputy had a chance to get on top of him,” Pelaez said. “But, no, he said, ‘It’s easier to shoot him and that’s that.’”

Pelaez said neither he nor his siblings were warned that the Sheriff’s Office would release footage of his brother’s death Sunday.

The Sheriff’s Office did not inform the family and does not have a policy about contacting next of kin before releasing such videos, Wood said.

Seconds before he is shot, Pelaez-Chavez looked up at the sky and waved his hands in an apparent attempt to get the attention of Henry 1, the Sheriff’s Office helicopter hovering nearby. He again yelled that officers wanted to kill him, as Dietrick’s body-worn camera shows him pointing his firearm at Pelaez-Chavez.

A caption in the Sheriff’s Office video states that Powers fired his Taser at Pelaez-Chavez, “which seemed ineffective.” Officials have previously said the fatal shots followed the use of the taser.

In the agency’s first news release about the incident, officials wrote that “after a standoff with multiple commands to drop the weapon, one deputy deployed his Taser, but it appeared ineffective; the second deputy shot the man.”

The footage released to date is far less clear. Though the footage is shaky as the deputies move around, Powers’ use of his stun gun and Dietrick’s pistol shots appear to happen nearly simultaneously.

This was at least the second time Michael Dietrick had fatally shot a suspect in the line of service. In 2016, while working as a Clearlake Police Department officer, he killed a 46-year-old man who attacked him with a flashlight. That shooting was ruled justifiable because Dietrick feared for his life.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or [email protected]. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

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