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DA: California police officers justified in killing mentally ill Army vet

By CYNTHIA HUBERT | The Sacramento Bee (TNS) | Published: December 31, 2014

Nearly a year after Lodi police fatally shot a mentally ill Gulf War veteran on the quiet street where he lived with his mother and brother, two veteran officers have been cleared of criminal misconduct in the killing.

Parminder Singh Shergill’s death roiled the town of Lodi and its substantial Sikh community, many of whose members knew Shergill as a soft-spoken man who took long daily strolls and exchanged pleasantries with his neighbors.

Officers killed Shergill in a hail of gunfire after they encountered him in a park a block from his home on Elderica Way on the morning of Jan. 25. They approached him at the request of family members who reported he had left home in an agitated state, was off his medications and needed treatment at a psychiatric clinic. Relatives said Shergill, 43, suffered from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to police accounts, the two responding officers, Corporal Scott Bratton and Officer Adam Lockie, found Shergill at nearby Peterson Park shortly after they spoke with the family. They told investigators that Shergill refused their demands to stop and talk, then turned and threatened them with a knife as they pursued him. The officers said they opened fire because they feared for their lives and the safety of Shergill’s family.

They fired 14 bullets into his body; he died just steps from his mother’s home.

Residents of Elderica Way who witnessed portions of the pursuit offered conflicting accounts about whether Shergill threatened the officers, according to a review of the incident released Tuesday by the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office. One witness said he saw Shergill raise his right hand and take “three or four steps quickly toward” the officers. At least two others said Shergill never lunged at police.

After reviewing the accounts and an array of other evidence, the District Attorney’s Office concluded the officers were legally justified in killing Shergill. Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelbrau, who authored the report, said Bratton and Lockie “acted reasonably” to protect themselves when they fired the shots that killed Shergill.

The officers “were reasonable in their belief that deadly force was necessary to prevent serious injury or death to themselves or others,” Himelbrau wrote.

Among the concerns the officers weighed as they pursued Shergill, according to the report: He was off his medications and acting erratically; they had been told he assaulted his mother that morning; he had military experience; he was carrying a knife and heading back toward his family’s home.

“Once Shergill turned towards the officers, facing Cpl. Bratton, Shergill’s action elevated his threat level,” the report said. “… Given Shergill’s height and distance from the officers, it is reasonable to believe that Shergill would have covered the distance in a matter of seconds.”

Shergill’s sister, Kulbinder Sohota, said she was devastated by the DA’s decision not to prosecute the officers.

“I’m not surprised they are saying it’s justified, because it’s happening all over the country,” Sohota said, crying. “Now it’s Lodi. Those officers murdered my brother, and they are getting away with it.”

Sohota said the family will continue to pursue a federal civil rights lawsuit on her brother’s behalf. The suit alleges Bratton and Lockie were improperly trained in how to respond to people suffering from mental illness, and that they killed Shergill without good cause. It asks for unspecified damages.

Mark Merin, the Sacramento attorney representing the family, said he believes the DA had probable cause to file charges. Merin had called for a special prosecutor to review the shooting, contending that district attorneys are inherently biased because of their close relationship with local police departments.

“DAs bend over backward to give officers and police departments a lot of leeway,” he said. “In this country, we have one system for investigating police officers and another for investigating civilians. It’s not right.”

According to FBI statistics, about 400 people are killed by police officers each year in the United States. In the vast majority of those cases, the use of deadly force is found to be justified, and rarely results in a criminal complaint. State laws, including California’s, generally allow for the use of deadly force if officers believe the person they are confronting poses a risk to their safety or the safety of the public.

Following the recent police killings of unarmed men in Missouri and New York – cases in which officers also were absolved of criminal conduct – some civil rights advocates have echoed Merin in calling for the routine use of special prosecutors to review deadly force incidents.

But several experts said outside reviews should be reserved for extreme situations.

“I don’t think you want to have a special prosecutor come in every time a police officer is involved in a shooting,” said Lori Lightfoot, a former prosecutor who led a civilian team inside the Chicago Police Department that reviewed use-of-force incidents. “It’s very demoralizing to police and the state’s attorneys.”

In addition, the learning curve for such investigations is exceedingly difficult for outsiders, Lightfoot said. Investigators must scour the scene, conduct interviews, do background checks on officers and suspects, examine weapons and review autopsy and DNA evidence, among other tasks. Witness testimony, Lightfoot said, often is conflicting and unreliable.

David Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer and criminology professor who conducts police training on the use of deadly force, agreed.

“You can argue that police are investigating themselves, but who else in our society has the experience to conduct these investigations?” said Klinger, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. “The most important component in all of these cases is a proper, thorough on-scene investigation by people who have the training and experience in dealing with these types of things.”

The Shergill case was investigated by a task force that included members of the Lodi Police Department, San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office, the county coroner and the California Department of Justice.

“It is arguably the most detailed, comprehensive investigation that any law enforcement agency could conduct,” said Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms.

Helms said the Shergill case has prompted changes within his police force. The department is providing officers with more comprehensive training in handling people with mental illness, he said, and police now routinely carry electronic Taser devices that can be used to disable suspects without shooting them. The department also plans to equip its officers with body cameras, he said.

“These measures wouldn’t have made a difference in this case due to the circumstances,” Helms said, “but today our officers are better equipped to deal with a growing number of calls involving people suffering from serious mental illness.”

He expressed his condolences to Shergill’s family. “It’s a tragedy for everyone involved,” he said, including the two officers.

“My heart also goes out to Corporal Bratton and Officer Lockie and their families, who will carry this with them for the rest of their careers and lives,” Helms said.

Shergill’s sister said she, too, will carry scars.

“I still cannot sleep, and my tears keep coming,” Sohota said. “It’s still so fresh for me.

“Before all of this, I thought of police officers as gods, but I have changed. Those Lodi officers, to my eyes, should be prosecuted, and they are still on the streets. Doesn’t my brother’s life mean anything?”

Nearly a year after Lodi police fatally shot a mentally ill Gulf War veteran on the quiet street where he lived with his mother and brother, two veteran officers have been cleared of criminal misconduct in the killing.

 @Cynthia_Hubert.

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© 2014 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Visit The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at www.sacbee.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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