By Ian Butler, Riptide Correspondent
As one who has closely followed events that led to the shooting of Errol Chang by the Daly City SWAT team on March 18, 2014, I was shocked to read District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe's report on the incident and find what appears to be a deliberate attempt to whitewash the real story.
My concerns about the D.A.’s objectivity began with the press release he sent out a few days prior, in particular this quote: "It is our belief that both officers… to the last moment sought to avoid the very result demanded by the conduct of Errol Chang."
This statement shows an ignorance of mental illness. How can the conduct of a diagnosed schizophrenic in the midst of a psychotic episode demand that he be killed? If anything, his conduct demanded patience and de-escalation, but the police exhibited neither.
My concerns were affirmed when the full report came out, playing up the officers' heroism while ignoring or even misrepresenting the most troubling parts. In particular, after the police deployed their Tasers on Errol, the report reads: “He fell into his brother at one point, but was able to right himself and pull out the prongs.”
This doesn’t jibe with his brother Matt's account, which he shared at a Pacifica City Council meeting and which was reprinted in the Pacifica Tribune. As Matt put it, “One of the officers Tased Errol, and he started to run towards the house passing an officer and I tackled him. The officers were pointing their guns and yelling at me to get off of him, and pulled me off.”
I asked Matt and he said that he told the D.A. the same story, and said the officers involved later referred to him as the guy who “tackled his brother.” So how did that turn into Errol falling on him? Did the police change their story, and if the stories didn’t jibe, why would the D.A. report include only one side?
This is important because that moment was the best chance to prevent a standoff. Unfortunately, rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to restrain Errol, the six police officers pulled Matt off him, allowing Errol to enter the house.
Once in the house, the situation escalated further. Learning that there was a rifle in the house, albeit taken apart and hidden in three locations, police called in the SWAT team. It is tempting to second-guess the wisdom of parking a tank full of armed SWAT members in full view of a man who just said “Obama was trying to assassinate” him, confirming his worst delusions.
But the police did have to take the threat to public safety seriously. Nevertheless, they must have known that doing so could only increase Errol’s agitation and paranoia.
Six hours later, according to the report, the decision was made to enter the home, “as the approaching darkness would have compromised the safety of the officers.” At the time Errol had his arms out the front window in the surrender position, seemingly contained, but the police didn’t want to risk Errol finding the rifle after darkness fell.
Once the officers got into the home from the back, they discovered that Errol had constructed a barricade of “mattresses and furniture, which blocked the hallway from the front room where Mr. Chang was.”
What the report leaves out is that Errol’s father had told the officers that he had hidden the rifle in the bathroom, which was NOT behind the barricade. All they had to do at this point was search the bathroom for the rifle. If they had, they would have found that it was still there and that Errol was unarmed. Once Errol was known to be unarmed, the standoff could have continued indefinitely, with no risk to anyone.
But instead, the police chose to shoot flash-bang grenades into the living room—further agitating Errol—and tore down the barrier Errol had constructed, leaving themselves vulnerable to a frightened, psychotic, schizophrenic man with a knife. The outcome was inevitable. Errol tried to defend himself from this invading force, stabbing an officer in the arm, resulting in seven shots fired at him, killing him instantly.
When an officer is in imminent danger, using lethal force to stop the attacker is perfectly legal. The real question is, why put yourself in imminent danger when there is no need to do so? And why doesn’t the report even ask this question?
It also doesn’t ask why no mental health professionals were called to the scene. Surely, in six hours they could get an expert who might have steered them toward a more peaceful conclusion. All the report says is that Errol’s own doctor was unavailable.
Other parts of the report also leave out important context. It says that Errol “had been incarcerated for criminal conduct, including robbery” but leaves out the critical fact that the “criminal conduct” in question had occurred during his only previous psychotic breakdown, when he took a person’s cell phone because he believed the person was following him.
In addition, the report leaves out the fact that the police failed to collect five or six of the potentially dangerous flash-bangs from the house, and one was found under the neighbor’s home as well.
Of course, mere incompetence doesn’t rise to the level of criminal behavior, and perhaps is outside the scope of a D.A. investigation. But the report goes out of its way to show the officers' heroism, while leaving out any details that might show the heroic acts may have been unnecessarily dangerous. And it doesn’t begin to question the wisdom of treating a mentally ill man like a common criminal.
This is just one more step on a long road to justice. It may take a civil trial for the full story to emerge. Meanwhile, more people are being shot in eerily similar circumstances, most recently in Half Moon Bay, where Yanira Serrano-Garcia, an 18-year-old woman with special needs armed with only a butter knife, was killed by a police officer a mere 20 seconds after he arrived on the scene. There are many reasons why this kind of thing is so prevalent, and this D.A. report underscores one of them—officers who do so face little fear of recrimination.
It is time for our society to have a serious discussion of how we treat our mentally ill. Often they don’t get the treatment they need and end up homeless or in prison, and sometimes far worse than that. To add insult to injury, Matt’s mother Christine Goias recently received a letter from Social Security informing her that Errol’s disability claim had been denied. According to the letter, he was deemed “not disabled under our rules.” The events of March 18 suggest otherwise.
I recently interviewed Matt Chang, as well as Martin Fox, a lawyer working to implement Laura’s Law in the county, which makes it possible to intervene when the mentally ill become unstable.