Shots in the Dark

Investigators gather evidence after police shot and killed Donald Miller II next to Custom House Plaza in Monterey in 2015. Miller had a replica gun.

This list starts in 1987 with Humberto Estrada, killed by unidentified Marina Police officers on April 9 of that year after he somehow threatened the lives of police and a local family. In a letter curiously dated that same day from then-District Attorney Michael Bartram to then-Marina Police Chief Dan Givens, Bartram writes that “as a result of our independent investigation… I have concluded that the shooting was justified in the defense of other human beings. It was obviously a heroic act that in all likelihood saved the lives of both officers and the Fikes family.”

There’s no other detail of how Estrada came into contact with the Fikes family – just his name, the name of the family he purportedly menaced, the fact that police killed him and that letter of absolution.

The list ends with Ramon Curiel, shot and wounded by Gonzales police officers Alfonso Carrillo and Matthew Doughty on June 10 when he reportedly opened fire on police after officers first stunned him with a Taser. The 38-year-old Curiel survived his injuries and is in Monterey County Jail on $1 million bail, charged with attempted murder, assault with a firearm and obstructing a police officer. There’s no letter of absolution for police in his file, at least not yet; the case is listed as “pending” as the circumstances of his shooting remain under investigation by the District Attorney’s Office.

And in between those years, from April 1987 to June 2019, there are 81 other records involving 79 other people shot by police – the numbers don’t seem to jibe, but in two instances, two names of people shot by police in a single incident are listed. Each record contains some small measure of detail into police shootings and other instances of police causing a death that have occurred in Monterey County over the past 32 years. In one case, a man died after police lobbed an incendiary device into a home where he was hiding.

The spreadsheet was compiled by the District Attorney’s office and made public on July 8 in response to records requests made under SB 1421, the police transparency law authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, that went into effect on Jan. 1. The law allows the public access into police records previously considered off-limits; one aspect of the law mandates that, upon request, law enforcement agencies must release information about officer-involved shootings or instances in which an officer caused a citizen great bodily injury.

In several of the years the spreadsheet covers – from 1988 to 1990, for example, and then again, in 2010 – there are no records at all because no police shootings occurred. In other years, there are multiple records – an all-time high of eight in 2009, with three in Salinas, one in Del Rey Oaks, one in Gonzales and three in which no location is identified. There were six in 2014, including four in Salinas that occurred over a four-month span and that, at one point, set off protests and a riot in which an innocent bystander was shot and killed. A suspect in that shooting has never been identified.

The spreadsheet shows the following information in most of the cases: whether the report is in print or digital form; the names of the officers involved in the incident; the names of the investigators investigating the incident; the tracking number assigned to the case; the date of the incident; a brief summary culled by a legal secretary reading the file; and the DA’s recommendation letter.

None of the records contain any detail of what happened, how the incident was investigated or witness or officer statements, all of which are releasable under SB 1421. And District Attorney Jeannine Pacioni says that’s on purpose.

“We wanted the public to see how many there were and if interested, to reach out to us and say, ‘We want access’ to whatever instance it is.”

Access, though, comes at a cost. If the file is digital, Pacioni says, it means a staff member has to read the entire file and redact confidential information, such as social security numbers, relationships and private names.

“These are not small investigations,” she says, “and if it’s a digital file we have to pay someone to do it and we would pass that cost on to the requestor.”

A case currently before the California Supreme Court may change that. Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California News Publishers Association, says an appellate court decision in the case of National Lawyers Guild vs. City of Hayward ruled that organizations were allowed to recover costs of redacting body camera footage, and costs associated with identifying records they can and should release. But a city or organization isn’t allowed to charge someone asking to merely inspect documents.

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If someone requests access to all files on the spreadsheet, Pacioni estimates it would take her office a year to comply because someone would need to redact the reports.

As Pacioni’s office compiled the spreadsheet, Monterey County Counsel’s office shared it with local police associations to let them know the information was going to be released.

“Everybody knows it’s coming at some point,” Pacioni says. “Our obligation is to produce the information and that’s what we needed to do.”

Salinas Police Officer Jim Knowlton, head of his department’s union, says while local unions were informed, it’s unlikely that officers whose names appear on the list but who have since retired have been told their names were being made public.

“Until SB 1421 passed, we had no expectation any of this would be out in the public,” Knowlton says. “They’re doing the best they can under the statute. But some of those officers involved, I guarantee they haven’t been involved in this process. If they wanted to make a legal argument against the release of their names, the genie is out of the bottle.”

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