BY STEVE E. SWENSON, Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Two Bakersfield police officers, backed up by some witnesses, believed a 15-year-old driver of a stolen car put the life of one of the officers in danger, and that's why a review board ruled the deadly shooting of the teen by the officers was justified, the police chief said Monday.
Officer Timothy Berchtold, who was right behind the Acura, and Officer Noah Landers each fired two shots at Traveon John Avila, Police Chief Greg Williamson said.
Avila, identified by police as a gang member, led officers on a short pursuit ending at the dead end of Windsor Street, where the car went up an embankment and came back toward the officers as they got out of their car, police reported. Windsor Street is near Cottonwood Road and Bradshaw Avenue.
An older suspect, estimated to be 25 years old, ran away as the officers stopped behind a 2001 Acura that was stolen June 5, police said. A 17-year-old suspect who was in the back seat of the Acura was arrested after the July 9 night-time incident.
Berchtold's bullets hit Avila in the torso and one of Landers' bullets hit Avila in an arm while the other may have grazed him, the chief said.
This was the third fatal shooting Berchtold has had in two months and now all have been ruled justified by a police shooting review board. That means the officers' actions were within departmental policy and state and federal guidelines.
Civil attorney Daniel Rodriguez, who is representing Avila's mother, Yetunda Wright, and his family, said he wonders whether Berchtold should have been back on the street at all and whether his two previous shootings made him extra jumpy in this situation.
"I want to know how many shootings an officer has to have before it is not okay to put him back on the street," Rodriguez said. "Why didn't he just get out of the way rather than shoot someone who is defenseless and not armed?"
Williamson said Avila was behind the wheel of a car coming at the officer, both officers felt Berchtold's life was in danger, three of eight witnesses reported hearing the engine revving and the car losing traction, and two independent witnesses reported that the car hit Berchtold or was close to hitting him.
The chief noted that at any second the car could have accelerated fast at Berchtold.
Williamson said one witness said the car did not back up at all. Williamson said the Acura was in park when the investigators looked at it, but that was after officers checked on Avila and paramedics pulled Avila out the passenger side of the car.
"It could have been a number of people who did that (put the gear shift in park)," the chief said.
Rodriguez said it was wrong for police to identify Avila as a gang member, and he noted that the 17-year-old who was in the back of the Acura is not facing any charges even though police said he was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy, auto theft and participating in a criminal street gang.
Police spokeswoman Sgt. Mary DeGeare said police stand by their information that both Avila and the 17-year-old are gang members. She added that the full police reports have not been submitted yet so the 17-year-old still could be charged.
The chief said it is "unique" that Berchtold has had so many shootings in such a brief period. Rodriguez called it "abnormal."
Williamson emphasized that "not only him (Berchtold) but every officer comes to work to protect lives and property. They never come to work expecting to use deadly force against an individual."
Both Berchtold, 33, a two-year veteran of the department who has nearly 4 and 1/2 years prior experience with the California Highway Patrol, and Landers, 26, a 3-year veteran, have been on routine administrative leave since the shooting, but the board's findings clear them to return to work, Williamson said.
He noted that officers involved in shootings are seen by a department psychologist before being released for full duty. Berchtold was back in the office Monday, the chief said.
Rodriguez said that in his prior cases of representing families of people shot by officers, he knows that 75 percent of Bakersfield police officers never fire a weapon in the line of duty in their entire career.
Rodriguez said he is seriously considering filing a lawsuit against the city to get answers in depositions.
Avila's mother and grandmother declined to comment, referring questions to Rodriguez.
The Review Board consisted of Assistant Chief Lyle Martin, Capt. Kevin Stokes, Capt. Robert Bivens and Capt. Joe Bianco. Williamson reviewed the investigation and concurred with the Review Board's findings.