Tim Whyte | An Erratic Suspect and a Split-Second Decision

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By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

The man was behaving erratically. In the moment, it was anybody’s guess as to what was causing his strange behavior. Drugs? Mental illness? 

Death wish?

Employees at Jimmy Dean’s, a local fast food restaurant, were concerned when they saw him jumping around outside the business, yelling and screaming, and he began shedding his clothing.

They did the right thing: They called law enforcement. 

A deputy from the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station responded. When the deputy encountered the man in the Valencia Industrial Center, it escalated quickly into a physical confrontation — and the man managed to take the deputy’s taser and handheld radio, and then smashed a window of the patrol car.

Imagine if he’d gotten the deputy’s gun. We’d be telling a much different story.

The deputy managed to get back to the radio in the patrol car and call for backup. When the backup deputies arrived, the man attacked them, too, this time wielding a stick and injuring one of the deputies in the face.

The above is how the Sheriff’s Department’s Homicide Bureau has described the incident, and at this point we have no reason to doubt its accuracy. The investigation that will happen as a matter of due course and procedure will inevitably lay out more details, so there may be things we don’t yet know.

But for now, that’s the information we have. 

So, assuming for now that’s all accurate — and I do — put yourself in the shoes of the deputy who was on the receiving end of the second attack by the bizarrely behaving suspect. You know he’s already attacked one of your fellow deputies. You know he has already grabbed a radio and a taser, and you don’t know whether he might know how to use the taser against you, or anyone else.

Could this man be a danger to you, your fellow deputies and the many civilians in the surrounding businesses? 

You have a split-second decision to make. He’s attacking you. What do you do?

I know what I’d do. 

I’d shoot him.

And that’s what the deputy did. The deputy fired two shots, hitting Alvaro Venegas, 35, in the upper torso. Venegas died at the scene.

What happened over the next few hours is my one big gripe about how the Sheriff’s Department handled the flow of information on this incident: They knew the suspect was deceased. The Fire Department responded to a “psych rescue” call at the scene and said they transported no one to the hospital. Yet, for several hours after the incident occurred, no one in the Sheriff’s Department — not locally, not Homicide, not the Sheriff’s Information Bureau — would confirm that the suspect was deceased. 

There was no doubt. They knew he was deceased. And, we “knew,” too, intuitively at least — but in the interest of responsible reporting, we refrained from including that in our online coverage until we got confirmation from the Sheriff’s Department. It took more than three hours to answer a simple, yes-or-no question, to which the answer was clearly already a known fact: 

“Is the suspect deceased?”

I know they have procedures they must follow. I know there are strict protocols for investigating things like an officer-involved shooting and that’s understandable, to a point. We’ve recently had good, productive conversations with SCV Sheriff’s Station leadership about such things. But it shouldn’t take three hours — closer to four, really — to simply acknowledge a fatality has occurred, even if the rest of the details aren’t ready. 

It’s a bad look, if nothing else.

But back to the shooting: Did the deputy do the right thing? Based on what we know, I say yes. 

The speculation on social media was predictable and quick, because many folks out there are predisposed to blame law enforcement in any such situation, and it’s really easy to second-guess someone else’s split-second decision while you have ample time to ponder it and break things down. 

The reactions went along these lines: Why did they have to shoot him? Couldn’t they have tased him? Couldn’t they have “talked him down”? Couldn’t they just shoot him in the leg?

Let’s take that last one first. Someone has been watching too many movies.

As I understand it, law enforcement officers are trained that, if they conclude deadly force is what’s needed — and they often have an instant to make that decision — they should shoot at “center mass,” the largest possible target. That’s the torso. This doesn’t mean they are “shooting to kill.” It means they are “shooting to stop.”

The notion of anyone — even a highly trained, skilled professional — with adrenaline flowing, under attack, in a high-stress, high-risk situation with an unpredictable, out-of-control suspect, ­being able to marshal the precision to “shoot to wound” a moving target, is simply not realistic. 

I’m close to someone who is in law enforcement. And if that person is ever in a situation like this one, I don’t want them second-guessing, pondering the decision, or trying to graze the suspect on the kneecap. “Hold still while I take aim…” It just doesn’t happen like that in real life.

It’s sad that Alvaro Venegas is dead. As we must, when someone in such a situation dies, we have told his story, too. He was a seasonal farm worker from Vacaville. He leaves behind a 6-year-old son, and according to his ex-wife he had wrestled with some vexing personal demons for the past several years, including being schizophrenic. 

Whatever his mental condition, his actions that day are what brought about his demise. It’s tragic, and I’m sure the deputy who was involved has had to wrestle with the emotional impacts of being the shooter who took a life. I can only imagine how heavily that weighs on a person.

But as far as I can tell, in that moment, in that fateful split second, the deputy didn’t have much choice.  

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter:  @TimWhyte.  

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