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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: Santa Cruz Indymedia | Government & Elections | Health, Housing, and Public Services | Police State and Prisons
Community Responds to SCPD Killing of Sean Smith-Arlt with Sadness, Anger, Fear of Calling 911
A large group of community members in Santa Cruz attended the October 25 city council meeting to voice their concerns regarding the killing of Sean Smith-Arlt by Santa Cruz police. Many in attendance held protest signs with the pre-printed messages "Release The Videotape Now" and "We Will Remember Sean!" Sean was suffering from mental health issues at the time he was shot and killed by Santa Cruz police, who say he advanced towards them with a garden rake in his hands outside of a home on the west side on October 16. Four officers were involved in the incident, which occurred over the course of a 20 second time-span that ended with one of the officers shooting two shots at Sean. [Top photo: Abbi Samuels holds a protest sign as she waits to speak to the Santa Cruz City Council during oral communications on October 25. Scroll down for more photos from the meeting.]
One close friend of the Smith-Arlt family, Don Payne, spoke before the city council, saying he had spoken to them after Sean's killing. He described himself as having lived in Santa Cruz for 15 years.
"I hesitate to say much," Payne said, "but I do hope the council understands that the family is devastated by what has occurred."
"I can't understand how a man holding a rake above his head, approaching officers, can be taken to be such a threat," he said.
"I was told directly by a ranking department member that the person who shot Sean was a new recruit, well trained in the military, and I find that the potential militarization of the police force personally to be a substantial problem which needs to be addressed," Payne said, to the applause of the audience present in council chambers.
Several different figures in the mental health community spoke before the council, including Carol Williamson of the Santa Cruz affiliate of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and Sarah Leonard, Executive Director of the Mental Health Client Action Network of Santa Cruz County (MHCAN).
Both organizations quickly released public statements following Sean's killing.
"We are heartbroken, we are stunned by the tragic death of Sean Arlt, a beautiful, beautiful young man who was living with a mental illness," Williamson told the city council.
"We rely on the police. Calling 911 is the most difficult decision for a family to make, and now trust is deeply shaken," she said.
"The death of Sean calls for full consideration of several questions," Williamson said. "Is our law enforcement response to psychiatric crisis working? Is our mental health care system working? How should our family, our county investigate incidents about use of force?"
Several community members who themselves suffer the effects of mental health issues spoke to the council about their encounters with police.
One person who said he was living with a diagnosis of Tourettes Syndrome, said he had started the complaint process with SCPD for an incident of police brutality that occurred when he had inadvertently gone off of his medication during a stressful period in his life.
Another individual told the city council he had "over 75 5150s."
Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) grants police officers the ability to involuntarily confine a person suspected to have a mental disorder, if they are a danger to themselves, or a danger to others.
He said during one of those 5150 interactions, police had dissarmed him of a knife by shooting him with bean bag guns and rubber bullet guns.
"I think something like that would have been more appropriate for the [Sean Smith-Arlt] situation," he said.
Also speaking were the family members of those experiencing mental health issues.
Paula Leroy told the city council her daughter has bi-polar disorder and that their family is part of a support group who meet with other families with relatives of all ages who struggle with addiction and mental illness.
"With mental illness it's not really, will she have a psychotic break, but when," Leroy said. "There's no magic medicines, and I'm really terrified."
"Sometimes our kids are violent and we need to call on help, and I'm really terrified, and I don't think I will next time," she said.
Leroy feels the issue may be in police training, as opposed to the conduct of the specific officer who killed Sean that evening.
"I'm also afraid that one police officer is going to take the hit for a type of training, for a type of policy where you shoot first," she said, adding, "and if you are afraid of a rake, I don't know what kind of police training you had."
Leroy concluded by saying she would like for there to be a mental health unit that families could call for medical help, without calling the police.
"I can't trust right now," she said.
Another woman whose child struggles with mental issues echoed what Leroy stated.
"This also could have been my son who is mentally ill," she said. "We too need the police. It is very difficult to put boundaries around kids sometimes."
"I would really, really hesitate to call them the next time we needed them, because we don't want that to happen to our child," she said.
Several homeless people spoke before the city council about the killing.
A woman wearing a backpack with a sleeping bag tied to it stated that she had lived in the area for about a month. "I sleep outside," she said.
She advocated for a more fair judicial process, with regards to Sean's killing.
"If you have an officer shooting someone, then he needs to be faced by a judge, just like anyone else in our society," she said. "He is human without his badge, just like the rest of us."
A homeless woman who has spoken to the city council many times about issues regarding the difficulties she faces living outside in Santa Cruz also felt that serious measures should be taken with regards to the officer who shot and killed Sean.
"I think that officer ought to be fired immediately," she said.
A number of political activists and community volunteers spoke to the council about Sean's killing, and the need for a change in police procedures as well as how those suffering from mental illness are cared for locally.
"Given what we know we have the right to be outraged," said community activist Michael Gasser.
"We've heard about people saying they're not going to call 911, he said. "I'm going to think really hard before calling 911 in a similar situation myself, and advise others similarly until this changes."
Abbi Samuels offered a number of recommendations regarding police accountability and transparency.
Samuels was active with Santa Cruz Resistance Against Militarization (SCRAM), a group that organized to stop the militarization of the police in Santa Cruz County when the SCPD was going through the process of acquiring a Lenco BearCat attack vehicle.
"Have an independent investigation done by outside investigators, outside of Santa Cruz," Samuels told the council.
"Release the video tapes and audio tapes. We want to know the truth. If you've nothing to hide, please release them," she said.
Samuels also demanded the names of the four officers involved be released to the public.
"They are not the victims," she said.
"If they are not released, I demand Chief Vogel resign," Samuels said.
Rabbi Philip Posner told the council that if the preliminary reports about Sean's killing were true, and he was killed because of the garden tool he was holding, then it was, "such an abuse of power," he said.
"I empathize with the work of police," Rabbi Posner said. "It's a tough job, but we are talking about a human life, and I hope that we find out the truth, and if so we take the necessary steps to make corrections."
He clarified that statement, though, adding that the police responding with a bullet in response to the threat of a garden tool was, "beyond comprehension."
When M. Lee Brokaw spoke before the city council, he used a metaphor from his place of work.
"I'm a general contractor, and in my profession they say that if a man has a hammer, all he sees are nails," Brokaw said. "I think it is time to disarm the police."
Long-time community activist Ann Simonton talked about a program in Vancouver that sent out social workers to help those in a mental health crisis, as opposed to armed police.
"This is a terrible tragedy for our community," she said. "I hope we can use this as an opportunity to be forward thinking and to change the police."
"A de-escalation takes longer than 20 seconds," Simonton said.
City council candidate Chris Krohn spoke, taking issue with the process by which the meeting was organized. He said the issue needed to be agendized, with a full public meeting held at the Civic Auditorium, and that the city council was not taking Sean's killing seriously.
Sitting city council members Noroyan and Posner briefly shared their thoughts about the killing, and Mayor Mathews read from a written statement.
SCPD Chief of Police Vogel was asked by a community member to repeat a presentation about the incident he delivered to the city council earlier in the meeting, when those speaking out about Sean's killing were not present.
While reading from his notes, Vogel said that withholding the names of the four officers involved in the killing was a "standard procedure" and has been a "past practice" in the county for all officer involved killings. In addition to Vogel, Deputy Chief of police Rick Martinez was present, as well as Lieutenant Dan Flippo.
After the city council adjourned the afternoon session of the meeting, a heated scene between community members and two of the police officers present developed outside of council chambers.
Individuals who had just spoken during oral communications about Sean's killing took issue with a Santa Cruz Police officer who was laughing and smirking at one person in the group.
Officer Ian Burnham continued to laugh as an angry crowd began to form around him and Officer Brad Burruel.
SCPD Sgt. Bush was on the scene and would not respond to questions from the public about the officers' conduct, though he did eventually direct both Burnham and Burruel to exit the situation and leave the area, which prompted the crowd to dissipate.
After the meeting, SCPD's Ian Burnham laughs at community members who spoke to the city council about Sean's killing