The California police officer who fatally shot a Black man holding a baseball bat inside a Walmart store has been charged with voluntary manslaughter, local officials announced Wednesday.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said in a statement Wednesday that San Leandro Police Officer Jason Fletcher was charged over the April 18 incident in which he responded to a call about an alleged theft and possible robbery at Walmart. He entered the store, and within 40 seconds tased and shot 33-year-old Steven Taylor, who’d been accused of trying to leave the store with the bat and a tent he hadn’t paid for. His grandmother told the Los Angeles Times Wednesday that he was homeless and experiencing a mental health crisis when he died.
The shooting, like many in recent months, was partially captured by a bystander on cell-phone video. The San Leandro Police Department shared that video alongside body camera footage in its “community briefing” about the incident a few days later.
Fletcher has been with the San Leandro Police Department since 2006, according to the East Bay Times. He’s also the first officer in Alameda County to face criminal charges for an on-duty killing in more than a decade, according to the Times. A former Bay Area transit officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after fatally shooting an unarmed Black man in 2009 — an incident that was also recorded by a bystander.
O’Malley said in a statement that she didn’t take the charging decision lightly, but an “extensive investigation” and a “deep and thorough analysis of the facts and the current law” had warranted the decision.
Current law includes a new rule on policing that took effect in January, allowing officers to use deadly force only when it’s “necessary” to defend from death or serious injury. Under that definition, officers can face charges if they shoot someone when there’s another available alternative, according to the Guardian.
Taylor “posed no threat of imminent deadly force or serious bodily injury to defendant Fletcher or anyone else in the store” when he was killed, Robert Chenault, an inspector for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, wrote in a probable cause document released Wednesday. Fletcher’s use of deadly force was unreasonable, Chenault wrote, due to his actions and his “failure to attempt other de-escalation options.”
The probable cause document said Fletcher was responding to a call about an alleged theft from a Walmart security guard, and went inside the store and confronted Taylor after speaking with the security guard for about 10 seconds. The security guard told Fletcher the incident he called about wasn’t a robbery. By that point, two different customers had approached Taylor to offer help, and store security had told Taylor that police were on their way.
Taylor waited near the shopping carts. The video recorded by a bystander shows that Fletcher walked up to him and tried to take the bat away. The officer was holding his service pistol when he grabbed the bat with his left hand, according to the probable cause document.
Taylor pulled back, and Fletcher told him to drop the bat. A bystander, too, can be heard in the bystander video pleading with Taylor to put the bat down. As Taylor stepped away, Fletcher deployed his Taser twice. After that, Taylor struggled to remain standing, stumbling forward while he held the bat downward, according to body camera footage. Fletcher then shot Taylor in the chest, just as a backup officer arrived in the store.
After the gunshot rang out, people can be heard screaming in the store. Taylor dropped the bat and fell face-down to the floor, leaving a trail of blood. The other responding officer deployed their Taser as Taylor stumbled, according to body camera footage. Fletcher cut Taylor’s backpack off to put him in handcuffs once he was on the floor.
Less than 40 seconds elapsed between Fletcher entering the store and the fatal gunshot, according to the probable cause document.
San Leandro Police Chief Jeff Tudor said in a brief statement posted to the department’s Facebook page Wednesday that he understood Taylor’s death had “deeply affected this community.” Local activists protested in their cars in April.
“It is important that we allow the judicial process to take its course,” Tudor added.
Fletcher’s attorney did not immediately respond to a VICE News request for comment, but told the San Francisco Chronicle he was “very, very disappointed” with the charges. He’s scheduled to be arraigned Sept. 15.
Cover: Screenshot from bystander video at Walmart in San Leandro, Calif.