Frequently Asked Questions: Officer Involved Shootings in Salinas

First posted May 25, 2014. Updated July 10, 2015, 2014, 9:41 PM. (Español)

There were four officer-involved shootings in Salinas in 2014, when the average is one per year. Many people have questions about the shootings, and we'll do our best to answer them here based on what we know so far. Please note that we can't speculate about investigations that are still in progress, but we can offer information based on the evidence we have and based on police policies. The four shootings we discuss here were of Angel Ruiz on March 20 of 2014, Osmar Hernandez (initially reported as "Osman Hernandez") on May 9, Carlos Mejia on May 20 and Frank Alvarado, Jr. on July 10.

We'll be adding and updating questions and answers, so please check back if you don't see what you're looking for yet, or if you have a suggestion, please contact us.

What is the status of the investigations into the shootings?

The police department has completed its Internal Affairs investigations of the Ruiz, Hernandez and Mejia shootings. The investigation of the Alvarado shooting was done by the Monterey County District Attorney, at the request of Police Chief Kelly McMillin, because of police resource constraints. The Monterey County District Attorney has reviewed the Ruiz and Hernandez investigations and has found them to be legally justified, and found through its own investigation that the Alvarado shooting was legally justified. The DA's review of the Mejia shooting investigation is still pending. Please see details below.

For the investigations of the shootings of Osmar Hernandez and Carlos Mejia, Police Chief Kelly McMillin also requested two additional reviews: by the FBI and by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ). That's because he wants to provide extra assurance that the investigations were impartial.

Why did Salinas Police ask the Monterey County District Attorney to handle the investigation of the officer-involved shooting of Frank Alvarado?

To get the best answers as fast as possible. Normally, the police department investigates officer-involved shootings and then the DA’s office reviews the investigation. But the police were occupied with other investigations, and that was the busiest time of the year. So to avoid delay, Chief Kelly McMillin asked the DA to take over this investigation from the start.

Why did the DA find the shooting of Angel Ruiz to be justified?

First, we emphasize that, whether it's legally justified or not, every death is a terrible loss. As Chief McMillin said in response to the DA's review, "I'm satisfied with the results of the DA's finding. It does not take away from the tragedy of the entire event. Our hearts go out to the family members."

Under state law, the key factor in judging an officer involved shooting is threat: whether the officer "reasonably believes the immediate use of deadly force is necessary to defend against an imminent danger of great bodily injury or death" to the officer or to others, as the DA put it.

Here are excerpts from the DA's release:

  • [Angel] Ruiz committed multiple violent armed robberies in the months leading up to March 20, 2014.
  • According to Ruiz's daughter, in the month prior to the shooting Ruiz twice attempted suicide.
  • During two telephone conversations on March 20, 2014, Ruiz told his daughter that he knew he was going to die, said his good-byes and that he was never going back to prison.
  • On March 20, 2014, Ruiz texted his wife saying he was going to jump off a cliff.
  • Ruiz authored a suicide note dated March 20, 2014.
  • On March 20, 2014 at about 6:18 p.m., Ruiz committed a violent robbery at Jack in the Box, including shoving a gun in the victim's mouth.
  • On March 20, 2014, at approximately 9:50 p.m., Ruiz pointed a gun at an employee of the Wingstop restaurant.
  • The Wingstop restaurant was crowded with patrons at the time when police contacted Ruiz to arrest him.
  • Ruiz refused to comply with numerous commands by police officers.
  • Ruiz pulled out a firearm, later determined to be a replica, instead of raising his arms as ordered and was shot.
  • Civilian witnesses corroborated the police officer's statements.
  • Toxicology results show Ruiz had a blood alcohol level of .15 and potentially toxic levels of medications prescribed for psychiatric disorders.

The investigation revealed that the officers acted with a reasonable belief that Angel Ruiz posed an imminent deadly threat when officers shot him in self-defense and defense of others. At close range, he ignored officers' commands and instead pointed what looked like a semi-automatic firearm at them.... The fact that Angel Ruiz had a replica firearm rather than a real one makes no difference, as long as a person asserting self-defense had an actual and reasonable belief the gun was real. All of the officers thought the gun was real and the investigation disclosed no evidence to the contrary. In summary, it appears that Angel Ruiz decided to kill himself that day and chose to use police as the instrument of his death. Unfortunately, his plan succeeded.

The full press release from the DA can be downloaded from here.

Why did the DA find the shooting of Frank Alvarado, Jr. to be justified?

Here are excerpts from the DA's press release, which can be downloaded from here:

  • According to Alvarado 's mother, Alvarado said he was not going back to prison, and that the officers would have to kill him before he would go back in.
  • Alvarado ignited his family's couch and curtains on fire with a torch and physically assaulted a family member just prior to the shooting. Salinas Police Department responded .
  • Alvarado ran from police holding his hand to his waist.  An officer reported to dispatch that he might have a gun.
  • When officers challenged Alvarado to come out with his hands up, Alvarado bobbed up and down behind a vehicle in a furtive manner while keeping his arms and hands in a shooting platform position, consistent with possession of a firearm.
  • Alvarado refused to comply with numerous commands by officers.
  • When officers continued to order Alvarado to surrender with his hands up, Alvarado charged the officers yelling, "Let's do this fuckers" and sprinted at a full run toward officers with his arms outstretched as if aiming a firearm.  Alvarado was able to come within approximately  12 feet of Sergeant Johnson prior to stopping his charge.  All of the officers believed that Alvarado possessed a firearm.  The shooting occurred about 1 hour before sunrise.
  • Toxicology results show Alvarado was under the influence of methamphetamine, amphetamine and Garnrna-Hydroxybutyrate  (Date Rape Drugs) at the time of the offense.

Pursuant to State and Federal law, any person, including a peace officer, is allowed to use deadly force in self-defense or in defense of others if the person reasonably believes the immediate use of deadly force is necessary to defend against an immediate danger of great bodily injury or death. The danger does not need to have actually existed as long as the person reasonably believed the danger existed.  Further, a person acting in self-defense or defense of others is not required to retreat.  The person is entitled to stand his or her ground or even, if reasonable, to pursue an assailant until the danger of death or bodily injury has passed.  This is so even if safety could have been achieved by retreating.

The investigation revealed that the officers reacted with a reasonable belief that Frank Alvarado posed an imminent deadly threat when officers shot him in self-defense and defense of others. He charged the officers and intentionally simulated an assault with a firearm while pointing his outstretched arms at officers yelling, "Let's do this fuckers," in a challenging way. Even before California became a state in 1850, the law of self-defense and defense of others has never required an actual threat. The fact that Frank Alvarado had a cell phone instead of a firearm makes no difference, as long as a person asserting self-defense had an actual and reasonable belief the object was a deadly weapon. The officers unanimously believed the cell phone was a gun. The subsequent investigation disclosed no evidence rendering their belief unreasonable before or at the instant of the shooting. Alvarado's words and actions, made the officers' belief reasonable.  In summary, it appears that Frank Alvarado, as in so many similar situations, while under the influence of methamphetamine and other illegal drugs, committed suicide at the hands of the police which impacted his family as well as the involved officers.  He chose to force the police to kill him instead of returning to prison.

Why did the DA find the shooting of Osmar Hernandez to be justified?

Below are excerpts from the DA's press release, which can be downloaded from here. You can download Chief McMillin's response to the DA's finding from here.

  • Hernandez was heavily intoxicated (blood alcohol level of .25), having consumed enough alcohol so that he was three times the legal limit for driving a motor vehicle.
  • Hernandez was extremely belligerent; he threatened to kill a man at a bar and was brandishing a 9 Y2 inch knife.  The bartender removed the knife, only to later return it.
  • He threatened numerous civilians outside the bar resulting in multiple calls to 911.
  • He was yelling and acting erratically and unpredictably.  He transformed an otherwise normal Friday afternoon of shopping by scores of innocent people into a chaotic, frightening, and life threatening scenario.  A mother and her children fled from Hernandez in fear and hid in a store while Hernandez pursued them.
  • Innocent civilians were in close proximity.  Any one of them could have been harmed if officers did not act promptly and decisively.
  • Hernandez repeatedly refused to comply with police orders.
  • Ignoring commands, Hernandez advanced three steps toward an officer and was tased which resulted in no effect requiring the officer to deploy the taser a second time.
  • An additional officer attempted to use less than lethal force to subdue Hernandez, by tasing Hernandez a third time.  This did not incapacitate Hernandez or cause him to comply with lawful commands.
  • At any time Hernandez could have surrendered and ended the crisis.  Instead, Hernandez emphatically refused and continued to unpredictably escalate the encounter.
  • Hernandez blew a kiss toward a K9 officer, saying in Spanish "Please forgive me"
  • Still refusing to submit to lawful authority, when commanded to roll over on his stomach and place his hands behind his head, Hernandez instead reached for a knife in his waistband.
  • When Hernandez reached for his knife, an officer, who was vulnerable to attack because he held only an empty taser, was standing next to Hernandez within striking distance and was in imminent danger of great bodily injury.
  • The officers who fired made a split second decision because they feared for the safety of their fellow officer and for themselves.  Most estimates placed officers as close as two feet from Hernandez when he reached for his knife.

Under California law, the officers were under no obligation to retreat. To the contrary, they were permitted to stand their ground. They had a duty to protect themselves , their partners, and the general public.
Hernandez was close enough to slash or stab an officer with his knife.  In light of all the facts, including that Hernandez reached for his knife while disobeying commands, was intransigent and reckless, and acted unpredictably and irrationally.  He was armed, dangerous, in close proximity to officers, and reached for a knife.  The law requires an assessment from a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than from 20/20 hindsight.

Again, the purpose of this review is not to advise concerning best practices for police in the field, but to determine whether proof beyond a reasonable doubt supports a conviction. On these facts, it does not.

The investigation revealed that the officers reacted with a reasonable belief that Osmar Hernandez posed an imminent deadly threat when officers shot him in self-defense and defense of others.
Hernandez's words and actions, made the officers' belief reasonable.

All of the people shot by police were Latinos. Were the police targeting Latinos?

Absolutely not. But we understand and acknowledge the emotions behind that question.

The Salinas Police Department has long followed strict policies against any form of social injustice. But as a community, Salinas, like much of America, has a painful history of discrimination against minorities. In our case it has often been Latinos who have suffered.

As a community we are still healing from that history – the process is not over.

But it is a fundamental principle for the Salinas Police Department that everyone, no matter what their background, must be treated with fairness and respect. Any police officer who violates this principle faces the strictest sanctions. If you're wondering why you should believe that, please see "Why should I believe you?" below.

Why were so many people shot by police?

The four shootings by police officers last year were very unusual – in recent years the average for Salinas is one officer-involved shooting per year -- out of thousands of arrests and tens of thousands of contacts.

All the shootings are being very thoroughly investigated. When things happen in a cluster like this, it often looks like they must be connected – as in, "suddenly the police are shooting more people." But random clusters of events are common, and there is no evidence these shootings are connected.

If the shootings aren't connected, why did they all involve Latinos?

In Salinas, 77% of the population is Latino. That means that, all other things being equal, nearly 8 out of 10 of the small number of people who commit violent crimes would probably be Latino -- just because nearly 8 out of 10 people who do everything in Salinas are Latino. That includes all the good things, which are far more common.

In reality, more than 9 out 10 of the small number of people who commit violent crimes are Latino -- but not because they're Latino, of course. Mountains of research show that violent crime is more likely in underserved neighborhoods, meaning neighborhoods that suffer from poverty, lack of services and lack of opportunity. In Salinas, those neighborhoods are much more likely to be Latino. In other areas, it's other groups who live in underserved neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods also have higher crime rates.

In short, what we see in Salinas is that when police have contact with a violent person, that person is likely to be Latino, but that's because (a) everyone is likely to be Latino, and (b) violent crime is more common in underserved neighborhoods.

I read a story that says the Salinas police are guilty of "murders of innocent people" who were unarmed - what do you say to that?

A widely-shared story from AntiMedia.org radically re-interprets a responsibly reported story from ktvu.org. We hope you'll read our corrections, and compare the AntiMedia story to the ktvu.org story they re-interpreted. And if you've shared the AntiMedia story, we hope you'll share the corrections.

Why did the police shoot Carlos Mejia (the man with the shears seen in a cell phone video) when he was walking away from them?

They didn't. When you slow down and zoom in on the cell phone video, you see that the officers did not shoot Mr. Mejia when he was walking away, they shot him when he turned and attacked them with the shears. More context is added by a surveillance camera video as well as by a 911 call from a woman who said Mr. Mejia was trying to break into her house and assault her.

Police Chief Kelly McMillin took reporters through the videos and audio at a press conference on May 22, 2014.

  • See KSBW-TV's analysis of the cell phone video here.

Why didn't the police Tase Mr. Mejia?

They tried to, twice. The first officer fired his Taser, but it malfunctioned. Then the second officer fired his, but one of its contacts struck a telephone pole, which prevented it from having any effect.

Why didn't they shoot him in the arm or leg?

Although you see that happen on TV and in the movies, that's not what police are trained to do. When an armed person attacks, their first priority is to stop the threat to public safety as fast as possible. There are many cases of civilians and police being seriously injured or killed by armed, violent people who have been wounded. So police are trained to use enough force to stop the threat immediately.

Why did they shoot him more than once?

Once someone attacks, police are trained to stop the threat, both to themselves and members of the public. We can't at this point know exactly what the officers' judgment was, but it's common for police to shoot multiple times to stop a threat.

Why did they get close enough for him to attack them?

To stop a violent person with a weapon, police have to gain physical control of him, typically by putting him in handcuffs. They start by ordering the person to drop the weapon and surrender, and then need to get control of the person as soon as possible so they can prevent harm to members of the public.

Why did the police leave Mr. Mejia's body uncovered?

Police never cover a body before investigators arrive, because doing that would contaminate evidence. Instead, out of respect for the dead and in consideratiion of onlookers, they put up a visual barrier. That's what the police did in this case.

What is the police department's policy on use of force?

Please click here for a PDF of our use of force policy document.

Why did the police put up security cameras near the scene of the Mejia shooting?

Witnesses of the incident have reported they've been threatened and intimidated. The cameras are there temporarily to help with the investigation of the threats and intimidation and to help protect the witnesses.

Why have the cameras been taken down?

Two of them had stopped working (this is not uncommon -- we only have a few, and they're quite old), and the third was needed elsewhere.

Why should I believe you?

We expect to be held accountable by our actions, not just our words. Here are some of our actions:

After the recent shootings

  • We know that some people don't trust "cops investigating cops." We think if they could see how strict, thorough and impartial the internal investigations are, they'd change their minds. But because of the level of concern right now, Chief McMillin has asked for a total of three independent reviews of the police department's investigations. In addition to the standard review by the Monterey County District Attorney, Chief McMillin has asked for an additional review by the FBI and a third one by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice.

Other actions

  • The Salinas Police and the City of Salinas are recognized nationally as leaders in reducing crime through a community-based strategy of prevention, intervention and re-entry services, working to reduce the need for enforcement. Salinas was invited to be a founding member of the President's National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, which is focused on community-based solutions to crime and on the recognition that "you can't arrest your way out of the problem."
  • Salinas is the leading agency in the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, (CASP) which brings together community groups, social services, the faith community, local governments and law enforcement around the Prevention-Intervention-Enforcement-Re-entry (PIER) strategy. Even though Salinas is facing severe budget shortages, it dedicates a full-time staff member to serve as the manager of CASP and give it every possible support. The Police Department is also facing shortages, and is seriously under-staffed, but it has assigned two full-time "CASP officers" to the Hebbron Heights neighborhood of the Alisal. These officers, who have been recognized nationally for their work, make very few arrests, devoting almost all of their time to assisting members of the community and building connections among families, neighborhoods, community groups and service providers.
  • Chief McMillin has committed the police department to the legitimacy and procedural justice model of policing, which holds that true authority comes not from the use or fear of force but from the trust of the community. According to a recent KSBW-TV story: "The method recognizes that people want to feel heard, feel respected and want to know their police are neutral and trustworthy." The Salinas Police Department is the first on the West Coast to train all officers in legitimacy and procedural justice.
  • The Salinas Police Department is among the pioneers in using the Operation Ceasefire strategy, which has led to dramatic reductions in violence in cities across the country while improving relationships between police and the communities they serve. Operation Ceasefire's originator, David Kennedy, mentions the Salinas Police in his ground-breaking book Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.
  • Chief McMillin was recognized by the White House in 2012 as a Champion of Change. The recognition was for his work to prevent youth violence within the community through Operation Ceasefire and the CASP strategy.

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