Stanislaus County deputy faces manslaughter charge after shooting into vehicle, killing driver
Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Wall will make his first court appearance Monday on charges of voluntary manslaughter for fatally shooting a woman who led deputies on a pursuit in 2017.
Wall shot Evin Olsen Yadegar as she began to drive around a patrol vehicle after briefly stopping in a Ripon neighborhood.
Wall is far from the first law enforcement officer, including a handful in Stanislaus County in the past decade, to fire upon a suspect in a moving vehicle. But many experts agree shooting at or into a vehicle is dangerous and ineffective.
In fact, it is the policy of the Sheriff’s Department and other local law enforcement that officers should move away from the vehicle instead of firing at its occupants.
Police departments in many major cities have largely banned shooting into or at vehicles.
Exceptions include situations in which the driver has a deadly weapon other than the vehicle or in a terrorist situation in which the driver is using the vehicle to run people over.
“That is completely different than some schizophrenic or teenager in a car trying to get away,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent research organization that focuses on critical issues in policing. “It is all about proportionality; the sanctity of human life should always trump anything else.”
Several police departments, including those in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C. and San Francisco, have adopted policies prohibiting shooting at moving vehicles.
The New York Police Department was the first to implement the policy in 1972, when the city had 994 police shootings. Just two years later, that number was cut in half and police shootings have continued to decline over the years with just 67 shootings in 2015, according to the department’s annual firearms discharge report.
“This policy would not still be in place (more than) 40 years later if officers were getting hurt” as a result, Wexler said. “The policy is meant to save civilian lives and keep cops out of trouble.”
The move rather than shoot policy is uniform throughout the county because every law enforcement agency here uses policies developed by Lexipol, an Irvine-based company that writes state-specific law enforcement policy manuals.
The use of force section in the Lexipol manual regarding firing at moving vehicles call it “rarely effective.”
Lexipol did not return calls for comment on how this policy was derived but a blog post by Lexipol program manager Mike Ranalli explains why the company doesn’t agree with in all-out ban.
“Policy language that definitively prohibits an action will inevitably result in a situation where an officer violates the policy under reasonable circumstances, which in turn can create issues that must be dealt with if litigation results,” it reads.
He said the policy preference is to get out of the way and only use force when the officer reasonably believes it is necessary but uses the word “should” instead of mandatory language like “never,” “shall/shall not” or “must.”
Wexler says officers need clear guidance, “of what to do in this situation ... they need to have training, they need to know what is expected of them; if the policy is at all ambiguous you can have a terrible result.”
The Stanislaus Sworn Deputies Association, in a letter posted on its Facebook page earlier this month, defended Wall’s actions, saying Yadegar’s vehicle became a deadly weapon when she made “an intentional attempt to strike two Officers with her vehicle within a second or two prior to any shot being discharged.”
Three officers are near the rear and to the side of Yadegar’s vehicle as she is seen in the video backing up slightly; all of the officers step away from the vehicle. Wall is seen taking a step toward, rather than away from, Yadegar’s car as she maneuvers around a patrol vehicle. He then fires four shots into the vehicle.
“A deputy should only discharge a firearm at a moving vehicle or its occupants when the deputy reasonably believes there are no other reasonable means available to avert the threat of the vehicle, or if deadly force other than the vehicle is directed at the deputy or others,” the Lexipol policy reads.
This portion of the policy, Sheriff Adam Christianson said, is relevant to Wall’s shooting.
“Deputy Wall reasonably believed there was an immediate threat to his safety and the safety of those law enforcement officers on scene,” he said.
He said the sheriff’s department has not discussed or considered a ban on shooting at vehicles.
“Restrictive policy never works in a dangerous world where criminals have no regard for life and are intent on harming others,” he said. “The facts and circumstances are never the same so restrictive policies are ineffective.”
There are multiple other instances of officers in Stanislaus County using deadly force when a vehicle becomes a threat.
“That is why the policy says ‘should’ not instead of ‘shall’ not; because nine times out of 10 it is something you shouldn’t do, but every once in a while there is a situation where” deadly force is appropriate, said Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll. “Every situation is dynamic and a little bit different. If it deviates from that ‘should’ then you better have a very good explanation of why.”
Carroll also doesn’t plan to change the policy because “it is impossible to create a policy for each situation.”
“It Is also why the job of a police officer is so difficult because the public, attorneys, the media and other various interest groups have the time and ability to sit back and dissect a situation for hours, days and weeks, playing it in slow motion, coming up with a reason for the suspect’s movements, putting what they believe the suspect was thinking or doing into the equation, while the officer at the scene makes a split-second decision based on the facts or perceived facts at that moment,” he said.
Modesto Police officers have been involved in multiple shootings over the past eight years in which the officers fired into vehicles.
Prosecutors said Modesto police Sgt. Alex Bettis and Officer Joseph Lamantia acted in self-defense or in the defense of others in June 2016, when they fired their guns into a car in a Turlock parking lot. Omar Villagomez, 21, was shot to death, and his passenger Juan Sostenes Bulgara was injured by flying debris.
Undercover investigators from the Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency had set up a sting operation in the parking lot, and the officers were there to help arrest the suspects. Prosecutors said Villagomez rammed one unmarked police vehicle and drove toward another when the officers shot him to prevent his escape.
Bulgara was convicted of drug charges in federal court on April 9 and is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 17.
Prosecutors said Modesto police officers Robert Laxton, Matt McMahon, Eric Schuller and Felton Payne acted in self-defense and the defense of others in December 2010, when they fired their guns into a pickup that rammed two police vehicles after a high-speed chase.
Authorities have said Jesse Eugene Watson, 36, was driving the pickup that sped away from a suspected burglary in west Modesto. Watson was shot to death, and his girlfriend, Tara Ferguson, was seriously injured.
Prosecutors said investigators found in the pickup shell casings, a .22-caliber handgun on the floorboard and a magazine for the gun in Watson’s pants.
In 2012, officers shot a man who’d stabbed a 17-year-old boy before driving a Chevrolet Tahoe into a neighbor’s home, pinning a pregnant woman under the front door.
In an interview with The Modesto Bee three years after the shooting, one of the officers involved, Sgt. Bobby Meredith said, “I made a conscious decision that if he gets loose again he’s going to drive over more people and I didn’t know who was underneath the car. I knew my partner, John Moss, was generally behind the vehicle.”
Those three shootings all were determined to be justified by the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, but prosecutors in San Joaquin County saw something different in Wall’s shooting.
A news release from the DA said the definition of voluntary manslaughter relevant to Wall’s shooting is the “specific intent to kill a person under an honest but unreasonable belief in self-defense also known as an imperfect self-defense.”
Timothy Williams, an expert on officer-involved shootings and formerly a 29-year-member of the Los Angeles Police Department, said there was no imminent threat to the sheriff’s officials or the police officers when Wall fired his gun at Yadegar. The shooting shows the tactical approach was wrong, he said after watching the police dashboard camera video.
“There was no need to have shots fired,” Williams said. “You don’t shoot at moving vehicles. If you disable the driver, then that vehicle becomes a missile. And that’s how the car crashed into the house.”
Williams retired from LAPD as a senior detective supervisor, and in 2003, he opened a Los Angeles-based private investigations firm working on criminal and civil cases.
His expertise includes police procedure and use of force. As a private investigator, he has provided his insight after reviewing about 40 officer-involved shooting cases; about 90 percent of them were cases in California. Williams has testified in court in about half of those police shooting cases.
In the Ripon shooting, Williams said, Wall shoots at Yadegar as she’s driving away; not moments earlier when she backed up in the direction of some of other deputies and officers. Williams said Yadegar was turning into a cul de sac, and there was nowhere for her to escape.
“You could’ve cordoned-off the area, you could’ve called for an air unit (helicopter),” Williams said about the options available for the deputies and officers. “Time was on your side.”
He said Wall will have to articulate in his legal defense why he fired his gun, especially since none of the other deputies and officers fired their weapons.
Parking a sheriff’s patrol vehicle in front of Yadegar’s car also was a bad tactical approach, since that could have put the deputy in a dangerous crossfire if those behind Yadegar fired at her, Williams said. Adding a sheriff’s canine into the mix could have resulted in bites to the other officers and deputies, Williams said, and it could have made Yadegar more apprehensive during the confrontation.
These are all issues that will be questioned in court as Wall defends himself against the voluntary manslaughter charge.
“While this case involves a tragic loss of life and we’ve acknowledged that, it will now be up to the court and perhaps a jury to decide whether or not Deputy Wall’s actions were objectively reasonable,” Christianson said.
He added, “Finally, it’s time to stop blaming law enforcement for society’s problems. It’s time to stop demonizing and villainizing law enforcement officers who, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, place themselves in harm’s way, risking their own lives to protect others they don’t even know. It’s time to start placing the blame where the blame belongs, on those who choose to defy authority and fail to comply. The suspects, criminals and those who themselves create situations that lead to a law enforcement encounter, are solely responsible for the outcome.”
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