Guardian News and Media/Washington
The unarmed 73-year-old man killed by Bakersfield police on Monday had a crucifix in his pocket that his neighbours mistook for a gun, authorities have said.
Francisco Serna was killed early on Monday morning while walking around his neighbourhood in the southern California city, something his family said he did frequently after having been diagnosed with dementia.
Police said they were responding to a 911 call claiming that Serna was armed with a gun, although investigators later concluded that he was unarmed.
Bakersfield police released a more detailed account of what they say preceded Serna’s killing on Tuesday evening, reporting that investigators found a “dark coloured simulated woodgrain crucifix” on Serna during a search. The release did not provide any details on the size of the object.
According to the police account, a woman was parking her car outside her house in Serna’s neighbourhood at about 12.30am on Monday morning when the 73-year-old began questioning her, and asked to look inside her car.
The woman told authorities that Serna kept his right hand inside his jacket and that she saw “a dark brown or black handled object that she believed was a gun” inside the jacket, police said.
The woman allowed Serna to search her car before running to her home and telling her husband to call 911, according to authorities. The woman’s husband described Serna to police as “an older Hispanic male” and said he had a gun.
Police said a number of Bakersfield officers arrived in the neighbourhood minutes later, speaking with the woman and her husband, before Serna – who had gone back into his home at some point – left his home across the street and, authorities claim, walked toward the officers, ignoring commands to take his hand out of his pocket.
Officer Reagan Selman opened fire on Serna as the man continued to approach and came within 15 to 20 feet of the officer, police said. Selman fired seven rounds at the 73-year-old, killing him in his neighbour’s driveway.
Selman has worked with Bakersfield police since July 2015 and this is his first shooting, according to the police statement. Selman and six other officers at the scene of the shooting are on administrative leave while Bakersfield police investigate the case.
Bakersfield is the largest city in Kern County, California, where in 2015 law enforcement killed more people per capita than any other county in the US, according to a Guardian investigation. The internal investigation into Serna’s killing will be reviewed by the local district attorney’s office, where the Guardian reported that most investigators are former local law enforcement officers.
Serna’s family organised a candlelight vigil in his neighbourhood, and called for the US department of justice to review Serna’s death and for the California attorney general to appoint an independent investigator to the case.
“It is difficult to accept that our dad’s life ended so brutally, abruptly and with such excessive violence,” the family said in a statement read at the vigil. “Our dad was treated like a criminal and we feel he was left to die alone without his family by his side.”
The family said that police did not allow them to comfort their mother, Serna’s wife, immediately after the shooting, and that they were threatened with arrest if they crossed police lines during the investigation. The family also said they were not told by police Serna had died and instead found out through local news coverage.
Serna’s death has increased demands for changes to the way police interact with people with disabilities. Serna had recently been diagnosed with dementia, according to his family. The Ruderman Family Foundation, which works to support people with disabilities, released a statement reiterating “its call for better policing when interacting with people with disabilities”.
“The killing of Francisco Serna is another tragic incident of police shooting a person with disabilities, something which is occurring on a near-weekly basis now throughout the US,” said Jay Ruderman, the foundation’s president. “These tragedies are unnecessary and preventable.”
The Counted, the Guardian’s investigation into police killings in the US, found that mental health issues were reported for more than one in every five people killed by police in 2015.
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