June 15, 2001

Police Tactics Questioned After Death Of Mentally Ill Man: Is Flores Shooting Justifiable?

By Leilani Nisperos

Benjamin Flores, Jr., 34, woke up at 7:15 a.m. on a Saturday morning in April to the sound of police officers pounding at his front door. He listened in disbelief as police informed him that they were responding to a call that they had received 15 minutes earlier from his roommate, who complained that his mentally ill father, Benjamin Flores, Sr., 60, was threatening him with a pair of scissors.

Flores, Jr. looked down the hall to see his emaciated father standing in the living room, the pair of blunt-tipped scissors still clasped tightly in his hand. Despite his son's pleas and officer's commands, Mr. Flores, Sr. refused to put down the scissors. Reluctantly, Flores, Jr. followed police orders to step out of the house and allow them to "handle the situation." He feared that police might shoot one of his two dogs by mistake.

But it was his father, not one of his dogs, who was shot.

A family photo of Gabino Benjamin Flores standing in the exact place he was shot, in the living room!

The shooting death of Flores, Sr. was one of six fatal shootings by San Diego police officers during the first six months of this year, alone. A total of seven fatal shootings occurred for all of last year.

The shootings have taken place in the wake of a serious overhaul of police policy and tactics. Police outfitted every patrol officer with non- and less-lethal weapons in the wake of several high-profile officer involved shootings. A task force on police use of force will be making more recommendations to the department later this month.

Now community activists and family members of victims of officer-involved shootings are bringing up the question: what has changed?

Flores shooting

When police entered 3711 Clavelita Street in the South Bay, one officer tried to knock the scissors out of Flores' hand with a baton. Another officer shot at him with a Taser gun, but missed, said Lt. Jim Duncan of the San Diego Police Department's homicide unit.

Lt. Duncan then reports that a police dog bit Flores in the arm. While standing, Flores punched the dog and threw it to the side with both hands. Police say Flores weighed 165 pounds; the family says he stood 5'3" tall and weighed between 120 and 130 pounds. Flores proceeded to move closer to K-9 officer, Officer Anthony Zeljeznjak and stabbed the officer in the abdomen. Police reports then say that Officer Zeljeznjak drew his gun, firing six to seven shots at Flores. Another officer fired one shot, but missed. Flores was taken to UCSD Medical Center, and died at 10 a.m.

Benjamin Flores Jr. has a significantly different view of the situation.

According to Flores Jr., he watched from the porch as officers approached his father. After Flores Sr. gave no response, Flores Jr. said an officer hit his father with a baton at least twice. His father fell to the floor, and the officers were over his father. Flores Jr. said that the police dog was released while the officers were close to him.

Flores Sr. fell back beyond his son's sight, so Flores, Jr. did not see which officer fired. After the shooting, Flores Jr. found four shell casings in the hall. He believes that his father was on the ground when he was shot, but he cannot be sure.

"He had gotten knocked backed out of the hall, and more towards the living room," he said. "I didn't see the Taser, they had the bean bag gun, but they didn't use it. I never saw the Taser gun."

Police did not comment on Flores' location when he was shot.

"As far as his being on the ground when he was shot, I can only tell you what our investigation shows, which was that he was standing and in the process of stabbing an officer," said Lt. Duncan, of the homicide unit.

Officers took Flores Jr. to his aunt's house, and returned to tell him that his father had died. Later that afternoon Flores Jr. returned home to clean his father's blood off of the furniture.

"There was blood on the arm on the couch, like he had been shot and he reached up," Flores Jr. said. "I just finally got the carpet normal this weekend, it was pretty messy."

Family members describe the scissors as round-tipped scissors that had been in the family for 20 years. Armando Tamayo, Flores' nephew, said that since Alzheimer's kept his uncle from working as a church usher and bus driver, he worked as self-employed tailor, repairing old clothing and selling it.

Family members like Patricia Blinn, Flores's niece, are appalled by the situation. Ms. Blinn admits that the family has had a hard time dealing with the death.

"The police will do their investigation, and will be using the term `justifiable homicide,'" Blinn wrote in a letter printed in La Prensa last month. "I call it `murder.'"

Flores Jr. at least expected that he would have been kept aware of what was going on.

"After I gave that final statement and they dropped me off at my aunts, I never heard from them again," he said. "They never called me to tell me that it was okay to go back to the house. They never called to tell me the body was ready."

Since the shooting, Flores Jr. has tried to focus on finishing classes. He recently became a certified nursing assistant, and was studying to work with the mentally ill. He exercises to take his mind off the situation.

"You just saw your dad get shot. It's not something you want to think about every day," he said.

Dealing with mental illness

After the death of William Miller, Jr., 42, a mentally ill homeless man who was fatally shot after he charged at officers with a stick, the police department began implementing a number of policy changes. Last year, the police department created a Use of Force Task Force to recommend policy changes.

Along with equipping every officer with non and less-lethal weapons, police expanded a program that pairs trained counselors with officers. They also made three-day-long communication skills and mental preparedness training a requirement for all patrol officers and their supervisors.

After the death last year of William Miller, Jr., police increased the number of non-lethal and less-lethal weapons available to officers. The police department has also partnered with the county to expand the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), a program that pairs a police officer with a licensed counselor.

PERT responds to cases involving individuals who may have a mental illness. Marie Louise deBronac, a psychologist and a PERT team leader, said San Diego County's 16 PERT teams did assessments of 4,000 individuals last year.

She said the teams are called out after an officer responds to a mental health situation. But while the teams respond to such emergencies, she said they are not necessarily responsible for responding to mentally ill individuals who may be armed.

Flores Jr. said a PERT officer came out the day his father was hospitalized. He called police and specifically asked for the psychiatric team.

A PERT team may not have responded when Flores was wielding scissors, deBronac said, because Flores was armed.

"PERT wouldn't have been right in the forefront anyway, because we're not trained to disarm people," deBronac said. "It's the officers job to secure the scene, and make sure that everybody's safe."

She also added that it is harder for an officer to defend him or herself against a person who is armed than people realize.

"It's only in television and movies that you have time to shoot a gun out of someone's hand, or wound them in the foot," deBronac said. " That's not real life."

But Karen Luton, the executive director of the Mental Health Association, said Chief David Bejarano has been open to training officers in mental health issues, but actually reaching all of them has been a slow process. While PERT teams can be helpful, a regular officer will usually respond if one of the 16 teams is occupied. If that person has had the usual mental health-training cadets receive at the academy, that person could be ill equipped to handle the situation.

"I do know that a lot of the training the officers go through - teaching them to yell and be authoritative - all those are counter productive when dealing with mental health issues," she said.

When officers respond to someone in the advanced stages of a mental illness, or a person who may have stopped taking medications, Luton said officers are dealing with people who might be hearing and seeing a totally different reality. That person, if feeling threatened, will want to run or fight. It can be a deadly situation if that person is dealing with officers who have their weapons drawn.

"They're not trained to shoot, to wound or maim or slow down. They're taught to shoot to kill," Luton said. "Generally what that means is that a person who is mentally ill, or who has some kind of mental disorder… most likely that person is going to lose the encounter. They'll either be wounded or dead."

Part Two: Community's Response to Police Department Shooting Policy ... Next Week

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