Friday, December 4, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 40

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on March 13th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 18 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 16, Issue 18

Forced to fire: Local law enforcement agencies work to ensure transparency, training, and support for staff following officer-involved shootings


Twilight coated the valley as Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD) officers responded to a 9:36 p.m. call reporting a possible domestic violence situation at a home on the 300 Block of West Williams Street on June 5. The caller reported that the suspect may have stabbed a victim inside the home.

Upon arrival at the lamplit scene, SMPD officers made contact with the suspect—later identified as Jesus Quezada Gomez—who bellowed from the home, warning police that he was armed with several firearms and would shoot anyone who approached. According to SMPD Chief Ralph Martin, after a 20-minute standoff, Gomez appeared in the doorway with a handgun tucked in his waistband, carrying a rifle, which he aimed at officers.

Santa Maria Police Department officers are equipped with not-as-lethal weapons and standard issue firearms, as well as state-of-the-art vehicles and technology that aids in policing, including investigating and responding to violent crimes.

“A lot of officer-involved shootings involve domestic violence issues where people have lost control,” Martin said. “He came out of the house, and the only word you can use is berserk; they go berserk.”

Within a matter of seconds SMPD officers responded to the threat, Martin said. One officer actually deployed a non-lethal projectile first, which hit Gomez in his side and groin area but failed to immobilize him, Martin said.

It’s when Gomez came forward again, raising his rifle, that the aforementioned officer drew his firearm along with one other officer, both of which fired, delivering fatal wounds to the 50-year-old Santa Marian. Once inside the home, officers found the body of Teresa Meza, who was dead, apparently from multiple stab wounds. 

“There were two officers there who independently but simultaneously witnessed the threat to everybody there, and it was over in seconds,” Martin said. “It’s a very tragic situation: The family has lost a great deal. These kids have lost their parents. There’s a neighborhood that’s traumatized, and we’ve got officers who’ve never been involved in anything like that before.”

A number of entities within the SMPD and other local law enforcement agencies and organizations arrived not long after the shooting, Martin said, including a department chaplain, peer support officers, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department investigators, District Attorney’s Office investigators, and legal representation provided by the Santa Maria Police Officer’s Association. The two who fired their guns—later identified as officers Nathan Totorica and Raymon Easter—were taken to another location, not department headquarters, to debrief and talk with investigators from the Sheriff’s Department and DA’s office, Martin said, as well as contact their families.

The two were also put on paid administrative leave, a policy that’s become common practice in most departments nationwide over the past decades, Martin explained, which allows officers time to decompress and come to terms with the traumatic experience. Psychologists and other modes of support were available to Totorica and Easter in the days following the incident, a simple measure that helps officers process and calm down before their names are released to the public, the legal process gets moving, and they return to work.

The policy is twofold—it allows time for investigators to determine whether the use of force was justified and for any tension in the community to die down, Martin explained.

“They’re taking somebody’s life, and if there is a shooting, I think the public has the right to know and should demand that the oversight on something like that is 100 percent,” he said. “I don’t think the public expects perfection, but they should demand all the transparency.”

The incident was the second time SMPD officers fired on a suspect in the two years since Martin took over. The last incident, a fatal shooting on Jan. 13, 2013, also included deployment of a non-lethal round before officers fired their guns on Robert Michael Guzman, who rushed police wielding metal cutters and yelling a “war cry,” according to reporting done at the time by the Sun.

It was barely the end of Martin’s first month as the city’s permanent chief of police. Before that, he made a number of changes as the interim chief, following Chief Danny Macagni’s retirement in August 2012, including more careful recording, tracking, and follow through with citizen complaints.

Macagni retired in the wake of several officer-involved shootings that occurred in his last few years as chief. In one incident, which involved the SMPD’s SWAT and narcotics units, two officers were caught in police crossfire. Neither was wounded fatally. The shooting that ultimately led to a vote of no confidence from the Santa Maria Police Officer’s Association was the infamous officer Albert Covarrubias Jr. incident in January 2012, when SMPD officers tried to arrest Covarrubias for sexual misconduct with a minor while he was on duty. Covarrubias drew his gun, fired, and was shot by arresting officer Matt Kline, his patrol partner and the best man at his wedding three weeks prior.

“I’ve called a number of officers into my office over the last 40 years, relieved them of duty pending an investigation, and there’s no issues with that,” Martin said. “That should have been done in the Covarrubias case. … But there was a lack of leadership, lack of management, and infighting, which led to a situation that happened that never should have happened, ever, and is never going to happen in Santa Maria again.”

There were other factors that led to the department’s climate at the time, Martin said, the most consequential of which of was lack of funding due to the recession. The department had to cut back on two vital aspects of its work besides having the number of officers needed for citizen complaints and patrols: hiring new officers and providing enough ongoing training.

Preparing for the worst

Equipping an officer with the tools needed to handle a situation that could require the use of deadly force goes beyond the utility belt. Officers must be able to make split-second decisions when responding to a threat, all while alerting other officers of the situation, keeping department policy in mind, and thinking about the legal precedents regarding use of deadly force.

County Sheriff Bill Brown said Sheriff’s Office deputies receive quarterly training throughout the year, much of which revolves around firearms. The mandatory training goes beyond simple marksmanship, putting deputies into scenario-based situations designed to expose them to the rapid, and often stressful, decision-making process that comes into play.

Since he took over in 2012, Chief Ralph Martin has overseen small and large changes for the SMPD, all of which have gone toward a safer, more transparent, and supported police force.

“Firearms training is a fundamental function of what we do,” Brown said. “They get a practical element in terms of the use of firearms and marksmanship, but they are also routinely put into training situations that are ‘shoot, don’t shoot’ situations that are designed to acclimate deputies to recognize what situations really call for a response and ones that don’t really call for a response.”

Two recent incidents, which occurred just a few days apart in Carpinteria in early June, illustrate the variability that situations involving suspects with firearms can have, as well as the importance of training and preparedness.

On June 7, a sheriff’s deputy pulled over Santa Barbara resident Oscar Varela Moreno for a suspected traffic violation, explained Sheriff’s Office Lt. Brad McVay, who responded to the incident as manager of the department’s coastal division in South County. Though he couldn’t clarify the exact details due to an ongoing investigation, McVay explained that the deputy said he encountered Moreno earlier in the evening, and in the course of a conversation, determined that the 23-year-old shouldn’t be driving. Later, in the first hour of June 7, the deputy allegedly saw Moreno driving and flipped the lights on.

McVay said Moreno pulled over, popped the trunk, and got of his vehicle while it was still in drive. With the car rolling along, Moreno yanked a shotgun out of the open trunk, brandishing the weapon while trying to stay near his moving vehicle, according to McVay.

“In that situation you have to react, pull your weapon, call in for backup, and warn them about the threat,” McVay explained. “Another deputy arrived on the scene to assist, and I know they were trying to convince the gentleman to put the shotgun down. I can only assume this, but at some point they felt it was necessary to fire on him, so my guess is that he basically decided to bring the firearm up and point it at them.”

Both officers—later identified as Sgt. Brad Welch and Deputy Robert Baisa—fired on Moreno, hitting him several times. Moreno was transported quickly to Santa Barbara’s Cottage Hospital, where he awaited transfer to the county jail following medical clearance.

Though many law enforcement officers never have to fire their weapon on duty, such as McVay, both officers involved in the June 7 incident had fired their weapons on duty before. Sgt. Welch was a first responder to the Isla Vista mass shooting perpetrated by Elliot Rodger on May 23, 2014, and was one of three officers who returned fire, injuring Rodger with a gunshot wound to the thigh shortly before he took his own life.

“We’re pretty confident that that’s exactly what caused him to terminate himself. Once he got hit, I think he realized it was over,” McVay said. “One of them even had a malfunction in the middle of all that and was able to clear and continue.

“That’s amazing: to be under that stress, being fired at, have a malfunction, be able to clear it, and get back on your game, that’s incredibly impressive.”

A few days after the June 7 incident involving Moreno, another situation called for equal vigilance and preparedness, though officers didn’t have to fire. Santa Marian Taidje Rayburn Robinson violated a restraining order and his parole when he emailed suicidal threats and images of himself with a shotgun to the woman who’d filed the order against him, a Sheriff’s Office release detailed.

Sheriff’s deputies responded to Robinson’s location, a motel in Carpinteria, to check on his welfare. Robinson allegedly holed up in the motel room with his recently purchased shotgun and refused to come out. Deputies with the Special Enforcement Team and Hostage Negotiation Team responded to the situation, setting up a safety perimeter and evacuating nearby motel residents in case gunfire was exchanged, but after an hour on the phone with a deputy, Robinson came out peacefully, ending the standoff.

The quality of training a department employs is paramount in situations like these, McVay explained, especially considering the number of officers responding and the various tasks that must be completed quickly.

“You’ve got to train; you’ve got to practice those things in advance,” he said. “It’s imperative that the people responding work as a team, that’s probably the most critical aspect.”

The Lompoc Police Department (LPD) responded to a similar situation on May 28 of this year, involving a barricaded, possibly suicidal man in a trailer on North Poppy Street in Lompoc. The LPD received a call from the individual’s family, who told officers that he was drunk, armed, and making suicidal threats.

The LPD brought in its Crisis Negotiation and SWAT teams due to the nature of the threats the man was making. The suspect told responding officers over the phone that he was “locked and loaded” and that he was going to “go Full Metal Jacket,” according to a report released by the LPD.

The Crisis Negotiation Team lost contact with the man, LPD Chief Pat Walsh told the Sun, who then fired a round, though it didn’t appear to be aimed at officers or meant as an attempt at suicide. Walsh’s officers responded to every aspect of the call according to department policy, Walsh explained, and management ultimately decided to pull away from the standoff after the man fell asleep.

“Being intoxicated and depressed isn’t a crime,” Walsh said. “We ended up backing away because, yeah, he is a danger because he has a weapon, but why would we go up to his door and confront him?”

Being trained for such a volatile situation is hugely important, but experience helps a great deal when making a common sense decision regarding how to move forward, even if the decision isn’t popular with everyone, Walsh explained.

“We chose to walk away, and I took some heat from community members for that,” he said. “But we came right back at it early in the morning, and we figured he would wake up hung over, which he did, and we called, and he said he was embarrassed and didn’t remember doing it, and so we solved the situation peacefully.”

The cost of response 

No training, though, can truly mimic what happens during a life or death encounter. Law enforcement agencies recognize they’re fighting an uphill battle to prepare officers for situations in which they must fire, that’s why training continues for the span of a career, Walsh explained.

“Someone who is put into a deadly force situation, if you have no experience in your past, you’re not going to know what to do, and you’re probably going to shoot people you shouldn’t,” he said. “People in the academy will push and push [cadets] through those scenarios, and we just keep pushing and pushing [officers], and it gets those critical thinking skills put into motion, and when you get out on the street you kind of have that in the back of your mind; it’s really built decision making into your psyche so that when it does happen, you make the right decision, hopefully.”

The Santa Maria Police Department redesigned the decal for new vehicles to clearly show “Santa Maria,” which aids the department’s image and officer morale, Chief Martin told the Sun.

Even an officer with hours of successful training behind them can become overwhelmed by a high stress situation, especially those involving firearms, explained Dr. Todd Langus, who has a private practice in Orange County but drives to Lompoc’s Champion Center once a week to help treat first responders dealing with substance addiction and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Lungren’s retired from a law enforcement career of 20 years and now aids first responders as a psychologist. Having been involved in a use of deadly force incident during his law enforcement career and experiencing subsequent PTSD, Lungren has firsthand experience with the kind of trauma first responders go through in situations that may or may not even involve firearms.

“There are certain factors in a situation that [officers] may not be expecting, which can bring what’s called a shock response,” he said. “That shock reaction will shut down certain areas of the brain where the training and experience is held, and it will ignite that fight-or-flight center of their brain, and the officer isn’t choosing that, it’s just the brain going on autopilot and reacting.”

Lungren said that shock reactions happen to law enforcement in two distinct ways, one of which is encountering a situation the officer’s not psychologically prepared for, such as responding to a routine noise complaint when someone draws a weapon on officers. The other way, Lungren explained, may involve a situation that an officer’s ready for, but threats escalate or change so quickly that the human brain just can’t keep up.

There’s a lag time in which the brain must come out of shock and orient itself to the situation, Lungren said, which not only affects how officers respond in the moment, but also how they will process and feel about the situation later. The shock reaction imprints the feelings of fear and helplessness that everyone feels during life-threatening situations, and continues to loop in that person’s mind after the situation has subsided.

First responders internalize those feelings differently than civilians though, Lungren explained.

“When a first responder feels fear, they internalize it as weakness,” he said. “I don’t know where they get that—I went through it when I was in law enforcement—but I think helplessness gets internalized in first responders because they are called to do what? Save lives. And so when they can’t do that, they internalize that helplessness as a loss of control and therefore a failure.”

The severity of PTSD following a shock depends on a number of factors, but most important, Lungren explained, is the amount of time that passes between the initial shock reaction and when the responder can get help, talk about the situation, and process the emotions that follow.

“For first responders, the longer you let that freeze frame of that situation stick and replay, and the longer you let them re-experience the emotions when they flashback to the fear and helplessness, it’s like cement drying, and the longer it takes, the harder it is to get out of there,” he said. “The quicker you can get to the shock reaction, the quicker we can get to extinguishing that reaction, and we can decrease a lot of the trauma that stays in the brain.”

This illustrates the importance of peer support teams in law enforcement, Lungren said. He also consults and offers training to peer support officers and management, including some work with the LPD and the UCSB Police Department so far, though he hopes to lend his expertise to other agencies in the county.

Lompoc’s department peer support team responded following a shooting in February of this year, during which Officer Timothy Xiong fired on a 17-year-old coming toward the officer with a 9-inch metal barbecue fork, despite verbal commands to halt, Chief Walsh said. 

His department’s peer support team serves a vital role in aiding officers directly after an incident as well as in the weeks following, he explained.

“What you want to do as an employer is everything you can to make sure your employee is taken care of and sound physically, mentally, and spiritually before they come back to work, otherwise, you’re adding to the trauma,” he said. “I’ve actually been negotiating with the Lompoc Police Foundation to support us in bringing an expert to come in and teach our peer support and some of our supervisors in how to deal with trauma, you know, best practices as it pertains to peer support.”

The Santa Maria Police Department began a peer counseling support group six months ago, explained Chief Martin, which is available to the entire department, including non-sworn employees like dispatchers and crime scene investigators. The group can address issues including PTSD, substance abuse, domestic violence, and bereavement support. The department may open the program up to other local agencies, Martin said.

Officers must go through 32 hours of training, Martin explained, to be part of the support group. Before Martin arrived, the SMPD averaged about 2,000 hours of training per year for the whole department, he explained, but now averages more than 5,000. Support from the City Council and mayor of Santa Maria was important in securing the money to ensure the necessary training for daily operations as well as newer programs like the peer support group, Martin said.

Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino told the Sun that she has seen a difference in the SMPD over the last few years in many respects, including the number of patrol officers she sees each day and the number of positive remarks she gets from citizens. It’s changed the way she views funding for the department as well, Patino explained.

“Here’s the thing, too, that people don’t realize: We had asked our previous chief to cut back,” she said. “And it’s easy to say ‘cut back 5 percent,’ but boy, I tell you what, I’m convinced now that we don’t do that in public safety.”

Many of the changes Martin made at the SMPD weren’t reliant on funding however, such as a stricter dress code for detectives. Other changes may have required funds but also called on collaboration from officers in the department, Martin explained, specifically in redesigning decals placed on the department’s newest vehicles, which clearly read “Santa Maria Police.” These policies aid in unifying a department and providing a sense of shared identity, which indirectly stokes the efforts of support officers and raises morale across the department, Martin said.

It’s an aggregation of best practices and regular training that comes together to create a climate that prepares officers for a variety of incidents, Martin explained, including those that call for the use of deadly force. When those situations do arise though, every policy serves a purpose, either to aid the officers forced to fire, or to empower those who are there to support them.

“It all adds up,” Martin said. “You just have to hold them up to that highest level, and that’s what I’m here for.”

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