In October, Santa Cruz officers made a split-second decision to save themselves from serious bodily injury or death, shooting a man who was attacking them with a deadly weapon. The Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office announced Thursday the shooting was justified under the law.
However, ex-Santa Cruz City Councilman Micah Posner couldn’t wait for an investigation to reach an informed conclusion. Immediately after the event, he and his followers publicly blasted police, saying “one of the officers made a mistake.” Premature public criticism is shameful and disturbing because it flies in the face of due process.
Officers responded late at night and in the rain when terrified Santa Cruz residents called for help. Arlt was trying to break into their house, while screaming he was going to kill them. Let’s not minimize this. If you can think of something scarier than being awoken on a dark, stormy night by a man trying to break into your house while screaming he’s is going to kill you, I would like to hear about it.
Officers arrived, and Arlt charged at them with a bow rake. Three attempts to use Tasers failed, and when he got within 10 feet of one of the officers, he was shot, and later died.
After the shooting, Posner condemned the police response. With scant information and no objective evidence, Posner publicly tried the officers for the grievances of which he imagined they were guilty.
Much has been said about Arlt’s mental health. Much has been said about the son he left behind. Much has been said about police needing “better training” and “community policing.” All of that may be true, and more. However, on the night he was shot, Arlt was not behaving like a kind and gentle person. In fact he acted dangerously and aggressively, threatened a family with death, then violently assaulted officers with a deadly weapon. “Better training” will not convince an officer to absorb a hit from a heavy, spiked metal tool. “Community policing” does not prevent someone suffering a mental break from instigating a vicious attack with a deadly weapon.
If you scoff at the categorization of a rake as a deadly weapon, ask yourself what would happen if someone struck you full force in the head with a bow rake.
Deadly weapons are not limited to guns and knives. To illustrate, the month after Arlt attacked officers with a rake, South San Francisco officer Robbie Chon was critically injured when he responded for a disturbance, and the suspect hit him in the head with a skateboard. Officer Chon nearly died, and in fact still remains in the hospital all these months later. Like Arlt, the man who clubbed officer Chon in the skull with a skateboard also suffers from mental health issues.
I bring up the mental health issue, because after police-involved shootings there is often a line of commentary that insinuates the officer’s choice to use deadly force was somehow less justified because the person shot suffered from mental illness. In response I ask you once again to examine the image of a rake and ask yourself: If the tines of that rake were imbedded in your skull, how much would it matter to you that the person who swung it suffered from mental illness?
This debate is not about funding for the treatment of mental illness. It is about protecting oneself from the imminent threat of death or bodily injury, and asking whether or not that defensive action is protected by the law. It is.
If officer Chon worked in Santa Cruz and had shot his assailant to avoid the brutal head injury that nearly killed him, Posner probably would have proclaimed for the cameras that the officer made a mistake. Posner should be ashamed of himself.
No one should stand on the outside and pass fallacious, oily, uninstructed judgment on the men and women who place themselves in harm’s way every day to protect us. Posner ought to apologize to the involved officer, asking forgiveness for his defamation.
When these tragedies occur, the officers involved are traumatized. We should all withhold hasty judgment and allow these brave men and women the due process of an informed investigation.
Nicole Pifari works as an attorney representing police officers in civil, administrative and criminal matters. The firm she works for represents the Santa Cruz Police Officers Association. She writes this as an individual, not as an employee of the firm.