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San Diego Police Cleared in 2 Shootings

July 02, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst cleared San Diego police officers on Monday of wrongdoing in two separate fatal shootings involving mental patients.

In one case, an officer shot a nude man three times after he held a rock over his head in a threatening manner to avoid being arrested. James Olson, 44, homeless and schizophrenic, had been spotted masturbating in public.

In the second case, seven officers shot a man 31 times after a prolonged scuffle. Alejandro Jimenez, 24, was a block from a county mental health facility when he broke the window at a Burger King and then fought with officers.

Pfingst's decision was immediately denounced by the American Friends Service Committee, which monitors police conduct in San Diego and has decried recent officer-involving shootings.

"These were gross violations of human rights," said committee director Christian Ramirez. "The San Diego Police Department needs to do a whole lot more in teaching officers how to deal with the mentally ill. As it is now, any mentally ill man or woman stands a good chance of being shot."

Pfingst, in his letter clearing the officers, noted that in both cases, officers attempted to subdue the suspect with nonlethal means such as pepper spray, martial arts weapons and batons and only fired their guns when the suspect began wielding a potentially lethal weapon.

Alvin Gomez, attorney for Jimenez's widow, Maria, said the officers "basically did not care about human life" and should have realized they were dealing with a mentally ill person.

"That area is notorious for the mentally ill," the attorney said. "They leave [the] mental health [clinic] and hang around."

Gomez has filed claims with the city government and the county Department of Mental Health--a precursor to suing.

In the first incident, Officer Bruce Debord responded to a call March 12 about a naked man committing a lewd act in public. When Olson attempted to walk away, the 10-year police veteran used pepper spray and a carotid restraint hold on the suspect, according to police.

During the struggle, Olson grabbed a six-pound rock and advanced toward two witnesses. After Olson refused orders to "drop the rock" and "stop," Debord fired three times, police said.

Ten days later, Jimenez was shot about 11 p.m. while allegedly resisting arrest. Jimenez had been taken to the county mental health facility by police after becoming violent and abusive with his family; he had been suffering from mental problems for several years, Gomez said.

A total of 39 shots were fired by seven officers. Jimenez was struck 31 times in the chest, legs and left arm.

Police alleged that Jimenez was swinging a shopping cart and was "unfazed by continued use of pepper spray and a baton, and an attempt by officers to use another shopping cart to knock him down."

In both cases, the district attorney ruled that officers were justified in using lethal force because they had reason to fear for their lives and those of witnesses.

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