(CN) – A jury will decide whether a Fresno police officer used excessive force when he shot and killed a 45-year-old father of five, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
Officer Trevor Shipman shot Casimero Casillas in September 2015 after he fled from a traffic stop. Police chased Casillas after attempting to pull him over because a passenger in his car wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Shipman claims he feared for his life because Casillas menaced him with a 2-foot-long metal pipe.
That the cops would chase Casillas for his passenger’s failure to wear a seatbelt – “as minor a crime as there is,” as U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii put it in his ruling – plants this case firmly in the realm of the bizarre.
According to a complaint filed in 2016 by Casillas’ wife, Cheryl Casillas; daughter Alani Casillas; and close friends Robert Verduzco and Jamila Lindsey, officers attempted to pull Casillas over on September 7, 2015.
Instead of stopping, Casillas allegedly drove, “while largely following traffic laws,” to Verduzco’s and Lindsey’s house. The complaint says the officer pursued him with sirens blaring, and even requested a helicopter for the chase.
Once Casillas got to his friends’ house on Saginaw Way, he went inside, where Shipman entered and fatally shot him, according to the lawsuit.
In a quite different version of events, officers claim Casillas drove recklessly, violently swerving and nearly causing a collision when he ran a red light. At the Saginaw residence, officers say they set up a perimeter and dispatched K-9 units to search for Casillas, who was found in the backyard brandishing a metal pipe.
Shipman says Casillas moved toward him and raised the pipe in a “pre-assaultive” motion, ignoring Shipman’s command to “stop, stop, get on the ground!” Shipman says he thought Casillas was going to hit him and that without time to deploy his Taser, he had no choice but to fire his gun.
“If these were the sum of all the facts, it would be the height of second guessing for the court to determine Officer Shipman acted unreasonably, given the immediate threat Casillas posed, his active evasion of the officers, and the unavailability of the taser to halt Casillas’s attack on Officer Shipman,” Ishii wrote. “If these were the facts, summary judgment would surely issue in defendants’ favor.”
However, judges are required to look at the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Ishii noted that the Casillas family vigorously challenges Shipman’s version of the facts.
“The court cannot ignore the possibility that Officer Shipman’s testimony may be self-serving, requiring a fact-finder to adjudge his credibility,” Ishii wrote in his 15-page ruling.
Ishii said that if Casillas did not rush at Shipman with the pipe and if Shipman gave no verbal warning to Casillas and did not use his Taser, then Shipman’s use of force could be deemed “greater than is reasonable.”
In their complaint, Casillas’ loved ones cited an analysis of Fresno Police Department shootings by retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s Lieutenant Roger Clark, who wrote, “I am of the opinion that there are at least 22 shootings by the FPD in the past 10 years that were not reasonable and thus unjustified.”
His report, published in November 2015, found 54 police shootings between 2005 and 2010 and 33 shootings between 2011 and March 7, 2014. The “vast majority of the victims in these 22 unreasonable shootings were unarmed,” Clark wrote.
Clark counted the Casillas shooting among those 22.
The Fresno City Attorney’s Office did not respond to a phone call Wednesday, nor did the family’s attorney William Schmidt respond to an email seeking comment on Ishii’s ruling.