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Fresno County sheriff’s office under scrutiny following shooting death of unarmed homeless man

A federal judge on Monday ordered a closer look into Fresno County’s law enforcement training standards following the 2020 death of an unarmed homeless man who was shot in the head by officers after being found asleep inside a closed business.

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge on Monday ordered a closer look into Fresno County’s law enforcement training standards following the 2020 death of an unarmed homeless man who was shot in the head by officers after being found asleep inside a closed business.

Advancing a civil rights lawsuit brought the decedent’s family, U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii denied the county’s attempt to squash allegations that its sheriff’s department openly promotes the use of deadly force. The family claims the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department killed civilians at a higher rate between 2013-2019 than most California counties and has ignored calls to implement new de-escalation training. 

“These are not—as defendants contend—'conclusory’ allegations,” Ishii wrote in a 17-page ruling. “They are factual allegations that collectively support a reasonable inference that the sheriff’s department had a custom (and possibly policy) emanating from the top and permeating multiple relevant aspects of the organizations.” 

The case stems from the death of Kenneth Mullins who was shot by deputies after he exited a Fresno auto dismantling shop on March 6, 2020.

According to the complaint, the shop’s owner found Mullins sleeping inside the closed business located near the Fresno airport. The owner called the department to report a trespasser and noted there were guns and ammunition stored in the building but that he wasn’t sure if Mullins had found them.

Following a 30-minute standoff, Mullins, 32, exited the shop but continued to ignore deputies’ commands. Shortly later, two deputies shot multiple times and killed the father of one at the scene. An autopsy later revealed Mullins died from gunshot wounds to the head.

In a press release following the shooting, the department said deputies tried to contact Mullins via a loudspeaker and even sent a tactical robot in to the building before the shooting took place outside.

“Two deputies staged nearby made contact with the man and gave him commands. The suspect did not comply and two deputies fired their guns multiple times, striking the man,” the department said.

The county’s attorneys at Weakley & Arendt of Fresno didn’t respond to requests for comment about Monday’s order.

In their lawsuit, Mullins’ minor daughter and mother claim the deputies eschewed pepper spray or non-lethal force and fired their weapons even though Mullins was unarmed. Furthermore, they say the department hasn’t been transparent about the killing and is refusing to confirm whether the deputies were volunteers or if there is body camera footage of the incident.

Mullins’ family says the head of the department is an “outspoken critic” of the state’s recent attempt to reign in law enforcement’s use of deadly force and increase de-escalation training. It claims Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims gave “lip service to the idea of revamping training” prior to the shooting. The family presented statistics in court that conclude Fresno Sheriff’s deputies killed three civilians per every 10,000 arrests between 2013-2019, a higher rate than 80% of the state’s other 57 sheriff’s departments.

“The county of Fresno’s supervisory and policy making personnel have recklessly and with deliberate indifference taken no effective steps to end the policies and practices that led to Mr. Mullins’ death,” states the complaint originally filed in state court.

While Ishii allowed the Monell and negligent training claims to survive, he ruled Mullins’ mother doesn’t have standing to pursue wrongful death damages. He also dismissed the plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief with prejudice and dismissed the sheriff’s department from the case.

The county tried to have the Monell liability claim dismissed, arguing Mullin's family didn't identify a specific training policy to match allegations that the department was promoting the widespread use of deadly force. It also pushed back on the plaintiffs' claim that deputies were hired without being thoroughly vetted. Notably, the county doesn't confirm or deny whether the deputies that shot Mullens were reserve or volunteer employees.

"In effect, plaintiffs are not alleging that county deputies did not have any knowledge of how to use de-escalation tactics or less-lethal, but rather that such training did not live up to plaintiffs’ discerning standard of what represents proper or effective training," the county argued in its motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

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