Friday, February 26, 2021

DA Clears EPD Officers in Fatal Shooting

Posted By on Fri, Feb 26, 2021 at 4:32 PM

click to enlarge MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming has concluded the Eureka Police Department officers involved in the fatal shooting of a 51-year-old Eureka man last summer were justified in their actions.

John Karl Sieger, a military veteran, was reportedly intoxicated and suicidal when he raised a pistol at officers during a tense standoff at a home on the 2800 block of Lowell Street last year.

“Once Mr. Sieger refused their commands and pointed his gun at them, the officers reasonably believed they were in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury," the DA's Office release states.  "The District Attorney has notified Mr. Sieger’s family of her decision."

In the news release, the district attorney’s office outlines a detail account of how the events unfolded on the evening of July 23, 2020.

Earlier this month, a Use of Force/Shooting Review Board called by Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson found officers performed properly at the scene.

The district attorney's release noted the situation "illustrates the difficult decisions that often must be made in cases involving persons dealing with mental health issues."

"The District Attorney appreciates that EPD’s efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution included quickly involving a mental health expert, and the rapid response of the mental health expert to a crisis situation," the release states.

Read the full release below:
DA Maggie Fleming has completed her review of the investigation regarding the Eureka Police Department (EPD) Officer involved shooting of 51-year-old John Karl Sieger on July 23, 2020. A Humboldt County Critical Incident Team, with members from EPD, the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office, Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department, Arcata Police Department, California Highway Patrol, and Fortuna Police Department, conducted the investigation.  The Humboldt County Coroner’s Office and the California Department of Justice – Bureau of Forensic Services provided additional investigative resources.

The investigation revealed that shortly after 5:00 pm on July 23rd, an out-of-county friend of Mr. Sieger called EPD to request a check on his welfare, because she had received texts indicating he was contemplating suicide.  Mr. Sieger’s messages to his friend initially included photos of bottles of alcohol; a subsequent message sent just before 4 pm included the same bottles with a hand gun.  After the friend sent a text telling Mr. Sieger she was worried and asking him to be safe, he replied that he “can’t” be safe and that he was done with his life.  She asked him by text to go find help and then asked where he was.  When he questioned why that mattered, she replied she was going to call EPD to come check on him.  She then called EPD at 5:16 pm. 

At 5:19 pm, EPD Officers Wilson and Huffman responded to a request for a check on Mr. Sieger’s welfare from EPD dispatch; Sergeant Omey and Officers Endsley and Christiansen followed shortly thereafter.  While traveling to Mr. Sieger’s home on Lowell Street in Eureka, officers requested information about Sieger from dispatch.  Once at the scene, officers sought information on who else might be in the home.  During this time, Mr. Sieger’s friend remained on the line with EPD and continued to share information she was receiving from Mr. Sieger.  Sergeant Omey attempted to reach Mr. Sieger by phone at 5:43 and did reach him when he tried again at 5:46, but Mr. Sieger quickly ended the call.  Officers on scene requested that dispatch notify neighbors to shelter in place.   At 5:49 pm, while maintaining positions outside Mr. Sieger’s house, EPD requested a mental health expert on scene. At about the same time, Mr. Sieger texted the friend: “You called EPD? wtf?” 

At approximately 6:20 pm, a mental health clinician and additional EPD officers arrived on scene and the search for information on Mr. Sieger via online databases and social media continued.  A few minutes after the clinician’s arrival, the friend received a text from Mr. Sieger: “If they see me I will shoot them.”  Using information uncovered about Mr. Sieger’s family, the mental health clinician contacted one of Mr. Sieger’s sons, who lived out of county and had not spoken to his dad that day.  Officers also contacted Mr. Sieger’s sister, who let them know he lived with his wife and younger son.  She also said she had received a text earlier that day indicating a personal matter  could be affecting Mr. Sieger’s mental state.  When his sister contacted Mr. Sieger to ask if he was OK, he responded, “I am not.”  At that point the sister said she would come to the home to assist.  EPD was able to contact Mr. Sieger’s wife and son inside the home and both exited the house to safety at 6:54 pm.  They both were aware that Mr. Sieger was in the backyard but were not aware that he was suicidal.  Mr. Sieger’s wife noted he had been drinking all day. 

At 6:56 pm the friend texted Mr. Sieger that she only called the police because she couldn’t come check on him.  He replied she did not need to ever think of him again and at 7:00 pm he texted her, “I respect cops and don’t force me to kill any of them.” The friend continued to send text messages pleading with Mr. Sieger to talk with those present and told him a crisis counselor was there.

Shortly before 7:30 pm, one of the officers contacted a next-door neighbor to ask if the view from an upstairs window looked down into Mr. Sieger’s backyard.  That neighbor allowed the officer to take a position in their house which provided a partial view of Mr. Sieger’s backyard. 

About 7:30 pm, after speaking with Mr. Sieger’s sister, the mental health clinician contacted Eureka Veteran’s Affairs and learned Mr. Sieger was a client, last seen for mental health issues in September 2019.   At 7:42 pm, the mental health clinician sent a text to Mr. Sieger introducing herself and letting him know she wanted to try to help.  He responded 2 minutes later: “There isn’t an out for me and I know this.  Please don’t corner me.  I won’t call anyone.”  At 7:46 pm the clinician let him know no one wanted to corner him but simply wanted to help and listen.  He replied at 7:48 pm, “I apologize for this but I am simply done.  My life was set as f——d years ago.”   The officer observing from the upstairs room could see Mr. Sieger holding something in his hand but could not identify the item.

Within 1 minute of that text, officers heard three loud pops which they recognized as gunfire.  Shortly after the clinician sent a text asking Mr. Sieger to explain the shots, he replied he wanted to prove he needed to be left alone and asked her to stop texting him.  The officer in the upstairs window could see Mr. Sieger at this point and confirmed his possession of a handgun.   

At 8:23 pm, Mr. Sieger looked over the top of the fence at EPD officers.  The officer in the upstairs window announced that Mr. Sieger was coming out and the back gate opened.  Mr. Sieger initially paused, but then stepped out into the alley.  The recording from an EPD body-worn device documented officers shouting, “show us your hands,” and “gun!”  In response to the officers’ commands, Mr. Sieger yelled back, “No, f—- you.”  Immediately following the verbal exchange between officers and Mr. Sieger, video from an EPD body-worn camera showed Mr. Sieger raising his right hand, pointing a handgun directly at the officers.

In response to Mr. Sieger pointing his handgun at the officers, Officers Endsley, Bishop, Wilson, and Sgt. Omey fired their weapons at Mr. Sieger.  Mr. Sieger was struck by gunfire and fell to the ground.  Officers immediately approached Mr. Sieger and began lifesaving efforts including CPR.  Medical personnel present and Humboldt Bay Fire personnel continued with the lifesaving efforts, and transported Mr. Sieger to St. Joseph Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 8:47 pm. 

Officers recovered a .40 caliber Glock pistol loaded with 7 rounds of ammunition where Mr. Sieger fell to the ground.  The serial number from the Glock matched the serial number of the firearm in the photograph Mr. Sieger sent to his friend earlier in the day.  Officers also recovered three .40 caliber shell casings in Mr. Sieger’s backyard, consistent with the report of three shots heard by law enforcement. 

An autopsy by Dr. Super on July 28 revealed wound paths consistent with four officers firing from separate locations.

The California Penal Code addresses justifiable homicide at Section 196:

Homicide is justifiable when committed by peace officers and those acting by their command in their aid and assistance, under either of the following circumstances:

(a)In obedience to any judgment of a competent court.

(b)When the homicide results from a peace officer’s use of force that is in compliance with Section 835a.

The California State Legislature made significant additions to Section 835a in 2019 (Assembly Bill 392).  It now states:

Section 835a. Reasonable force to effect arrest; Resistance

(a)The Legislature finds and declares all of the following:

(1)That the authority to use physical force, conferred on peace officers by this section, is a serious responsibility that shall be exercised judiciously and with respect for human rights and dignity and for the sanctity of every human life. The Legislature further finds and declares that every person has a right to be free from excessive use of force by officers acting under color of law.

(2)As set forth below, it is the intent of the Legislature that peace officers use deadly force only when necessary in defense of human life. In determining whether deadly force is necessary, officers shall evaluate each situation in light of the particular circumstances of each case, and shall use other available resources and techniques if reasonably safe and feasible to an objectively reasonable officer.

(3)That the decision by a peace officer to use force shall be evaluated carefully and thoroughly, in a manner that reflects the gravity of that authority and the serious consequences of the use of force by peace officers, in order to ensure that officers use force consistent with law and agency policies.

(4)That the decision by a peace officer to use force shall be evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable officer in the same situation, based on the totality of the circumstances known to or  perceived by the officer at the time, rather than with the benefit of hindsight, and that the totality of the circumstances shall account for occasions when officers may be forced to make quick judgments about using force.

(5)That individuals with physical, mental health, developmental, or intellectual disabilities are significantly more likely to experience greater levels of physical force during police interactions, as their disability may affect their ability to understand or comply with commands from peace officers. It is estimated that individuals with disabilities are involved in between one-third and one-half of all fatal encounters with law enforcement.

(b)Any peace officer who has reasonable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a public offense may use objectively reasonable force to effect the arrest, to prevent escape, or to overcome resistance.

(c)(1)Notwithstanding subdivision (b), a peace officer is justified in using deadly force upon another person only when the officer reasonably believes, based on the totality of the circumstances, that such force is necessary for either of the following reasons:

(A)To defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person.

(B)To apprehend a fleeing person for any felony that threatened or resulted in death or serious bodily injury, if the officer reasonably believes that the person will cause death or serious bodily injury to another unless immediately apprehended. Where feasible, a peace officer shall, prior to the use of force, make reasonable efforts to identify themselves as a peace officer and to warn that deadly force may be used, unless the officer has objectively reasonable grounds to believe the person is aware of those facts.

(2)A peace officer shall not use deadly force against a person based on the danger that person poses to themselves, if an objectively reasonable officer would believe the person does not pose an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the peace officer or to another person.

(d)A peace officer who makes or attempts to make an arrest need not retreat or desist from their efforts by reason of the resistance or threatened resistance of the person being arrested. A peace officer shall not be deemed an aggressor or lose the right to self-defense by the use of objectively reasonable force in compliance with subdivisions (b) and (c) to effect the arrest or to prevent escape or to overcome resistance. For the purposes of this subdivision, “retreat” does not mean tactical repositioning or other de-escalation tactics.

(e)For purposes of this section, the following definitions shall apply:

(1)“Deadly force” means any use of force that creates a substantial risk of causing death or serious bodily injury, including, but not limited to, the discharge of a firearm.

(2)A threat of death or serious bodily injury is “imminent” when, based on the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable officer in the same situation would believe that a person has the present ability, opportunity, and apparent intent to immediately cause death or serious bodily injury to the peace officer or another person. An imminent harm is not merely a fear of future harm, no matter how great the fear and no matter how great the likelihood of the harm, but is one that, from appearances, must be instantly confronted and addressed.

(3)“Totality of the circumstances” means all facts known to the peace officer at the time, including the conduct of the officer and the subject leading up to the use of deadly force.

The District Attorney has concluded the shooting was legally justified, because the officers’ actions complied with California Penal Code Section 835a.  Once Mr. Sieger refused their commands and pointed his gun at them, the officers reasonably believed they were in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury. The District Attorney has notified Mr. Sieger’s family of her decision.

This case illustrates the difficult decisions that often must be made in cases involving persons dealing with mental health issues.  When law enforcement can reasonably assume that others are not in danger, they can exercise the option to disengage from a person struggling with mental health issues.  The investigation of this case revealed that EPD personnel were considering that option – until Mr. Sieger discharged his firearm in the backyard.  At that point, given Mr. Sieger's mental state and proximity to neighbors, the safety of others could not be assured and EPD remained on scene, while continuously attempting to peacefully resolve the situation.  The District Attorney appreciates that EPD’s efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution included quickly involving a mental health expert, and the rapid response of the mental health expert to a crisis situation. 
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Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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