Madeira, CA — Last year, Madeira, CA police shot and killed 32-year-old Sergio Valdovinos, a mentally ill man who police says was swinging at them with a large stick. Now, a federal civil rights lawsuit is accusing police of excessive force and they have video to back up their claims.
That video could be key evidence once the case goes to trial in U.S. District Court in Fresno.
The lawsuit was filed June 22 by Los Angeles civil rights attorney Carl E. Douglas on behalf of Valdovinos' wife, Maribel Shaw.
"I have been doing civil rights cases for more than 30 years," said Douglas. "Regrettably, their wrongful tactics created a circus that led to deadly force. Regrettably, they did not use the element of time and wait for health officials to arrive."
Valdovinos was known to police. They'd been out to his home before. In fact, they'd responded to his home on at least 50 occasions over the last two years. He was mentally ill and reportedly suffered from schizophrenia.
For years, his mother had attempted to get him help, to no avail. Surely his condition was wearing on her, as well as the community who lived in adjacent homes. But neither his medical condition nor the frequent police calls to the home were any reason for law enforcement to kill him, according to critics within Valdovinos' family.
Video from the SWAT team entry was recorded by a neighbor. It shows the team, in line formation, turning the corner around the garage, and engaging the young mentally ill man on his front porch.
After commands were given and apparently ignored, police opened fire, killing Valdovinos with eight quick shots. It was over. No more would his mother be terrorized by his supposed irrational, impulsive behaviors. No longer would the community have to worry about the schizophrenic man down the road. But questions remain.
Could the police have ended the situation without killing him? Could they have disarmed him without using deadly force?
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When asked if the level of force was appropriate, the Madeira police chief responded by saying his team had to neutralize the "threat" and that there was little time to contemplate whether the force was excessive. He said:
We need to use a level that stops that threat. How many shots that takes? I don't know. There's so many factors that come into play. From the time that you start pulling the trigger, to the time he falls, by the time your brain catches up with that, you could have fired three or four more rounds just because you knew you had to...Eight rounds sounds like a lot. I don't think that's excessive at this point.
Unfortunately, the keywords we often hear at TFTP are: "in fear for my life" and "stop the threat," all of which begs the question of whether a taser should have been deployed. After all, the man was suffering from a mental illness.
The chief responded to the suggestion a taser should have been used by saying, "the opportunity did not present itself."
But other officers have been faced with equally terrifying situations and created space and opportunity sufficient enough to deploy a taser. In one such instance, a man who was either schizophrenic or on a drug such as "bath salts" or "PCP," took all his clothes off and laid down in a busy city street.
When one solitary officer arrived on the scene, the crazed man got up from the ground and quickly walked toward the officer in a threatening manner. Instead of drawing his service pistol, which he could have deployed with justification, he chose his taser, and dropped the man like a bag of bricks.
So how is it a team of SWAT team members could not have done the same? Maybe they're not trained to de-escalate. And therein may lie the problem. Police need better training to deal with mentally ill, and de-escalate dangerous situations.
Indeed, this is what Valdovinos' mother wants to change. Martinez hopes the lawsuit prompts the Madera Police Department and other police agencies to get proper training so they can properly interact with mentally ill people. "She did everything she could to get help for her mentally ill son," Holly Carter, a spokesperson for the family said. "She hopes her lawsuit will prevent another family from going through what she has gone through."