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Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan says, "It's easy for someone to analyze a case much later and form an opinion. Whether a person is armed or not armed, it is the perception of the (officer's) life being in danger." Jordan spoke from his office in Oakland, Calif., on Feb. 6, 2013 about officer-involved shootings. (Karl Mondon/Staff)

The .40-caliber bullets tore into Gary King Jr.'s upper back as he ran from a violent struggle with Oakland police Sgt. Patrick Gonzales. They severed his aorta, sending him sprawling face-first onto the asphalt of Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Several of King's friends watched in shock as Gonzales bent over King, 20, and cuffed his hands behind his back as he lay dying that late summer day in 2007. Last week, after months of inquiries from this newspaper, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office finally issued a report on King's death that clears Gonzales of any criminal wrongdoing but leaves some key questions about the deadly encounter unanswered.

Too often, even with Oakland police under unprecedented scrutiny, the public rarely learns what happened when people die at the hands of its officers.

Court-appointed federal watchdogs for years have criticized Oakland police for questionable shootings and a culture of failing to thoroughly investigate them.

Police brass can't account for all the shootings since 2000. But an extensive review by this newspaper of police reports, District Attorney's Office files, civil lawsuits and news accounts shows alarming patterns despite the repeated warnings: two dozen officers involved in multiple shootings; at least 19 unarmed people shot; harmless items mistaken for weapons; and nearly $10 million in legal settlements.


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"Some of these shootings are travesties," said James Chanin, a Berkeley civil rights attorney at the center of the infamous police brutality case known as Riders, which led to a decade of federal monitoring of the department and mandated reforms.

Life-or-death choices

In a city overwhelmed by rampant violence, police stress they sometimes have little choice but to defend themselves with deadly force.

A 16-year-old boy was mistakenly shot by Oakland police on the 1000 block of Clay Street late Wednesday. The bullet grazed his face.     (Courtesy of KTVU)
A 16-year-old boy was mistakenly shot by Oakland police on the 1000 block of Clay Street late Wednesday. The bullet grazed his face. (Courtesy of KTVU)

"The folks we are dealing with out in the street have no regard for human life and certainly have no respect or regard for law enforcement," said police Chief Howard Jordan, insisting that officers are constantly training to handle violent threats safely.

Last month, Jordan quickly acknowledged that the shooting of a 16-year-old boy mistaken for an armed robbery suspect was "unfortunate for all involved."

Officer Bryan Clifford's ¿bullet only grazed Frenswa Raynor's face, but it echoed a persistent concern.

Experts who reviewed the newspaper's findings and a newly obtained internal investigation of the King shooting said they raise serious questions about training, character and accountability.

The newspaper's review of police shootings since 2000 found:

  • Police shoot at an average of eight people each year. Oakland police opened fire on at least 117 people during the examined period, hitting at least 88. At least nine were hit in the back and appeared to be fleeing, like King, but officers almost always said they were reaching for weapons. Thirty-nine people were killed.

  • A higher frequency of shootings. Oakland police shot at more people than officers in similar-size California cities with high violent crime rates such as Fresno or Stockton and cities more than twice Oakland's size, including San Jose and San Francisco.

    Thelton Henderson, longtime SF federal judge, has handled some of the most important legal cases in recent California history and is now poised to decide
    Thelton Henderson, longtime SF federal judge, has handled some of the most important legal cases in recent California history and is now poised to decide whether to turn over control of the Oakland police department to court oversight. He reflects on his long career one day after his 79th birthday from his chambers on the 19th floor of the Philip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco, Thursday afternoon, Nov. 29, 2012. (Karl Mondon/Staff)

  • Harmless items were mistaken for weapons. Officers who killed unarmed people said they feared for their lives but had mistook dark gloves, a shiny belt buckle, a small scale and cellphones for weapons. One unarmed man was shot in the leg while urinating outside when an officer yelled, "He's got a gun!"

  • An alarming number of officers are involved in multiple shootings. At least 124 officers were involved in shootings during the 13-year period. At least 28 had been in two or more shootings, including Capt. Ersie Joyner, with five (plus one in the 1990s), and Gonzales, who had four. Experts said the number of cops with multiple shootings seemed high and can indicate poor training and a failure to identify officers who need intervention. Jordan said five shootings by one cop is a "tremendous concern to me," but he wouldn't be specific about any officer or case.

    An undated photograph of Gary King, Jr. is kept by his father Gary King, Sr., at his home in Oakland, Calif. (King family photo)
    An undated photograph of Gary King, Jr. is kept by his father Gary King, Sr., at his home in Oakland, Calif. (King family photo)

  • Expensive resolutions but little accountability. While Oakland has paid out more than $9.6 million in legal settlements over shootings, police almost always say lethal force is justified. Earlier this month, a jury in a rare federal trial quickly decided that two officers had the right to defend themselves in 2010 when they fatally shot an unarmed man who they thought was reaching for a gun.

  • Police officials fail to accurately tally shootings. Jordan's chief of staff, Sgt. Chris Bolton, blamed poor computer systems for the inability to provide shooting numbers. For example, he first said department records showed no shootings in 2005. But public records show at least eight that year, including one fatality.

    In 2005 and 2006, federal monitors slammed the department for weak internal affairs probes of shootings. And little has changed since. A report in October found: "In most cases, the investigator appears predisposed to the position that the shooting is justified, and then subtly or overtly sets out to prove that premise," wrote Robert Warshaw, the federal monitor and a former White House associate drug czar.

    His latest report, released Monday, pointed to an overall "slight improvement" on reforms, but expressed concerns with "how the department is addressing the serious issue of pointing firearms" in circumstances that "may not only be unnecessary and inappropriate, but which also elevates the risk for unfortunate and unjustified" shootings.

    And on Wednesday, former Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier, recently appointed to force change at the Oakland department, issued his plan, noting he hoped to reduce the number of times officers shot someone in response to a "furtive movement" or when "a gun was thought to be seen."

    The newspaper's review found the death of Gary King Jr. underscored years of concerns, even though King's own actions increased his risk. He fought back when Gonzales tried to detain him, and had an illegal handgun stuffed in his pants, though he never drew it. Still, experts who reviewed the case for the newspaper strongly suggested that authorities re-examine King's death. King's family -- who sued the city over the shooting and won a $1.5 million settlement -- has been saying that for years.

    Suspect's dreadlocks

    As Sgt. Patrick Gonzales cruised North Oakland alone in the late afternoon of Sept. 20, 2007, he kept an eye out for a murder suspect with dreadlocks. That person turned out to be Kevin Duarte, 22, who was eventually arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

    Gary King Jr. bore a striking resemblance to the wanted man, but King was no killer; police records show he'd been arrested in 2005 for driving a stolen car in a case that was later dismissed. Still, Gary King Sr. always worried about his oldest son's long dreadlocks and baggy jeans. Don't give cops reasons to think you're a hoodlum, the owner of a drywall company used to tell his son.

    "Every black parent tells their kids how to deal with the Police Department," Gary King Sr. said. "You have to do what they tell you. You never confront them, even when you're right. That's how you survive."

    Yet the son did things his own way -- like getting a gun after he was beaten up and robbed earlier that summer. That .32-caliber revolver was in such poor shape it needed to be hand-cocked and required triple the normal pressure on the trigger to fire, documents show.

    That afternoon, he left his parents' home and headed to a nearby liquor store to grab a soda, tucking the Smith & Wesson into the basketball shorts he wore under his jeans.

    With two shootings already on his record, Gonzales had a growing reputation as an aggressive cop, said attorney David Kelvin, who represented Ameir Rollins, a teen who claimed he had just dropped a gun when Gonzales shot him through the throat in June 2006. The city later paid Rollins $100,000 to settle a lawsuit. In 2000, a man told investigators Gonzales punched him when he objected to being publicly strip-searched, then told him the reason he hit him was "because I can.'' In 2002, Gonzales and Officer Rudy Villegas killed a man whom they say pointed a loaded shotgun at police.

    Last week's report from the District Attorney's Office said Gonzales was justified in both of those shootings. On Sept. 20, 2007, he encountered Gary King Jr.

    The struggle

    Gonzales and officers union President Barry Donelan did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed about what happened that afternoon, and Oakland police will not speak about specific cases. But Gonzales' account is revealed in court and internal police records.

    Shortly after 4 p.m., Gonzales saw King outside East Bay Liquors. Thinking he might be the murder suspect, he asked to see ID. King didn't have any.

    A surveillance video from the store shows Gonzales taking a bag of chips from King's hand, then bending his right arm behind his back.

    King tried to run, but Gonzales pulled him to the ground. Both men scrambled to their feet and locked arms, wrestling so violently that Gonzales ripped one of King's dreadlocks from his scalp.

    Gonzales shocked King with a Taser stun gun, but King broke free and started to run. That's when Gonzales drew his pistol and fired twice.

    The police story shaped up quickly: Gonzales had tried to detain a man who looked like a wanted killer. After a violent struggle, the officer, fearing for his life, shot him.

    During a 65-minute interview with investigators, Gonzales said repeatedly that he had felt King's gun in his pants during the fight, a transcript shows. "I knew he was reaching for a gun ... now I am fearing (for) my life knowing that he is going to pull the gun out and try to shoot me."

    King spun around, reaching into his pants, "looking directly at me," Gonzales said. "I immediately pulled my firearm" and shot.

    The District Attorney Office's report last week said, "King attempted more than once to get his loaded gun out of his pants" -- a finding based on interviews with Gonzales but disputed by other witnesses.

    A close examination of police and coroner's reports, court depositions and an internal affairs report raise significant questions about Gonzales' account. The documents also reflect many of the federal monitors' concerns about probes of officer-involved shootings. They showed:

  • Authorities can quickly jump to conclusions: As paramedics tried to save King, word quickly spread among police that a gun had been found in King's pants. But before Gonzales or any of the witnesses had been formally interviewed, a coroner's deputy wrote in a report that Oakland homicide detective Sgt. Lou Cruz told him that King "drew a handgun."

    Further investigation, though, revealed that King hadn't drawn a gun. The revolver was still tucked in his basketball shorts as he lay dying.

  • Conflicting accounts of who found the gun: In his interview with investigators, Gonzales said he handcuffed King, then grabbed from King's shorts the gun he had first detected during their scuffle. He said he gave the gun to another officer for safekeeping.

    But that same night, Officer Richard Coglio, the first cop who responded after the shooting, wrote a different version of events in a police report. Coglio said he was the one to search King, after Gonzales directed him to begin CPR.

    "I conducted a search of King's waistband and pockets. ... I felt the handle and cylinder of a revolver. I advised Sgt. Gonzales," Coglio wrote in a report. Eventually, he repeated that story in a deposition after King's parents sued police.

    Coglio testified that Gonzales never warned him that King was armed.

    The difference in the two accounts "is just huge," said LaDoris Cordell, San Jose's independent police monitor and a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge who reviewed the case for the newspaper.

    She said the discrepancy calls into question whether Gonzales knew King had a gun when he shot him. As a firearms instructor, Gonzales would have known to warn Coglio if he believed Coglio was approaching an armed man, Cordell said.

    "There's no way the officer on the ground can know the status of that weapon. Is it ready to discharge? If (the person) moves, is it going to go off?"

  • Internal affairs investigation never explored differing accounts: Sgt. Donna Hoppenhauer, the internal affairs investigator, never mentioned the conflicting accounts in a 39-page report. The District Attorney Office's report last week also does not mention Coglio's account, and an office spokeswoman said DA investigators "did not see any significant difference" in the two officers' statements.

    Hoppenhauer testified in a deposition that she read Coglio's report but didn't interview him about it. "I don't think (there's) a discrepancy," she said.

    However, another expert disagreed. Hoppenhauer either "didn't see or didn't look for the contradictions, or if (she) did come across them, (she) didn't use them and didn't ask the right follow-up questions," said University of Nebraska criminologist Sam Walker.

  • Internal affairs discounted witnesses who disputed officer's account: Several people who were on the busy street said King didn't reach into his pants as Gonzales described. "I can guarantee you that he was not doing that because he was running away," a passer-by, Warren Zittel, testified in the King suit.

    But Hoppenhauer relied primarily on a witness who described King reaching to his waist. In a deposition, however, that witness admitted to being a heavy marijuana user who struggled to differentiate reality from dreams and was lighting a joint when she saw the shooting.

    Later, in a deposition for the Kings' lawsuit, Hoppenhauer testified that witness provided the best corroboration to Gonzales' story but that she didn't know of the woman's drug and mental health problems.

    Shortly after Hoppenhauer's testimony, Oakland agreed to pay King family's $1.5 million to end the lawsuit. Gonzales, by then, was back on the street.

    In 2009, he became a hero on one of the bloodiest days in the history of the Oakland Police Department: Gonzales fired the fatal shots during a gunfight with parole violator Lovelle Mixon who had already killed four officers.

    Inherent danger is a reality every day for Oakland police, Jordan said. "It's easy for someone to analyze a case much later and form an opinion. Whether someone is armed or not armed, it is the perception of the (officer's) life being in danger."

    Still, the pressure is on Oakland police with a federal judge considering even tighter control.

    "We deserve criticism of some officer-involved shootings," Bolton, Jordan's chief of staff, said, declining to be specific because of laws sealing police personnel records. Still, he insisted perceptions that police are callous about shootings "are far removed from the truth."

    Proving that to the public, however, is essential, Cordell said.

    "The best way," she said, "to destroy any trust that might be building between police and community is to keep everything private, secret and sealed."

    Staff writers Daniel J. Willis, Matthew Artz, Scott Johnson and Veronica Martinez contributed to this report. Follow Thomas Peele at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.