Mayor says ‘protocols are being followed’

City 'won't rush' probe into suspect fatality

The City of Gilroy, in its first comment in a month, this week reminded the public that the investigation into the death of Steven Juarez, who died in Gilroy police custody Feb. 25, is still in process.

“This investigation is complex and will not be rushed to a conclusion,” Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco said in a March 26 press release. “At the same time, I am also confident that all proper protocols are being followed regarding this tragic incident.”

The comment was the mayor’s first and only statement since the fatal incident in Old Gilroy.

The Gilroy Police Department, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office and the county Medical Examiner’s Office are investigating the death of Juarez, who was 42 years old and a lifelong resident of Gilroy. City staff and Gilroy police say they cannot release more details about the investigation until it is concluded.

The March 26 press release from the Gilroy City Administrator’s office adds, “the protocols being followed in this comprehensive investigation are the same that are employed in any city within Santa Clara County when there is a death of a person in police custody.”

Specifically, authorities are investigating the cause and manner of Juarez’ death, and whether officers acted lawfully in trying to detain him on the 7400 block of Chestnut Street the night of Feb. 25. Police have reported that officers responded to that area about 10pm, in response to a call from a resident who reported a man was trespassing in her backyard.

When officers arrived, Juarez ran away when he saw them, and police pursued him, according to the Gilroy Police Department. While running away on foot, Juarez jumped over some residential fences and onto rooftops.

Police said a witness told them at one point during the pursuit that a sound was heard similar to someone falling from a higher point onto the ground. When officers located Juarez lying on the ground in front of a home on Chestnut Street, they approached him in an effort to detain him.

However, Juarez began to struggle with officers, police said. The officers used force to attempt to subdue him, including a Taser and a sleeper hold, according to police.

During the confrontation, Juarez fell into “medical distress,” and paramedics were dispatched to the area from the Gilroy Fire Department, according to authorities. He was transported to a hospital in San Jose, where he was pronounced dead.

The in-custody death has sparked outrage from Juarez’ family, as well as his many friends, former neighbors and acquaintances in Gilroy. Some have argued that the officers used excessive force on Juarez, leading to his death.

On March 10, activists and friends of Juarez marched in protest to the Gilroy Police station, demanding that Chief Scott Smithee meet with family members and release more information about the Feb. 25 incident. This march kicked off the Old Gilroy community’s “Justice For Stevie” campaign, organized by Community Agency for Resources, Advocacy and Services (CARAS). Juarez’ cousins, Reymundo and Rebeca Armendariz, are affiliated with CARAS.

So far, police and city officials have not released any police reports, 911 calls, officers’ body camera footage or any other documentation of their description of the incident that ended in Juarez’ death.

The March 26 statement from the city was released less than a week after the Dispatch sent each city councilmember an email seeking comments on Juarez’ death or on the impact it has had on the community. Only the mayor responded.

In response to a Dispatch request for the city’s written policies on the use of a carotid restraint or sleeper hold and how the police department deals with officers involved in an in-custody death, city staff sent the Dispatch a copy of the Santa Clara County Police Chiefs’ Association’s “Officer-Involved Incident Guidelines,” a 21-page document last updated Oct. 12, 2017.

“Investigations of Officer-Involved Incidents are frequently more complex and demanding than other incidents which do not involve peace officers or custodial officers,” reads the document’s first sentence. The document “represents the consensus of member agencies as to how such cases are to be investigated.”

The guidelines apply to all police departments within Santa Clara County, as well as California Highway Patrol and the sheriff’s office.

The document notes that “the primary agency” in an officer-involved death “has responsibility for the preservation and security of the scene, collection of evidence at the scene and from the involved officer(s), including their equipment and/or vehicles, when appropriate.” In this case, the primary agency appears to be the Gilroy Police Department.

The DA’s role in such investigations includes a responsibility to “ultimately determine if criminal liability exists,” according to the county guidelines.

The document adds that the police and DA’s investigators of officer-involved deaths “should review all available audio/video recordings from police vehicle in-car cameras, personal body-worn cameras by responding officers and/or an involved officer, independent third parties and independent sources.” Interviews with officers and witnesses should be video recorded, and interviews with involved officers should be conducted before the officers have had a chance to review any audio or video recordings of the incident.

Furthermore, the county medical examiner’s office must be provided with the following items when conducting its investigation into the cause and manner of an officer-involved death, according to the county guidelines: 911 recordings, photos of the incident scene, body-worn camera and dash-cam footage, recordings of interviews with the involved officer or officers and any other video that shows the incident.

The protocols also specify limits on what information about the investigation can be released to the public before it is complete.

Officer-involved investigations should be completed within 90 days, according to the protocols. After the investigation is concluded, the DA reviews the evidence to determine whether the officer or officers acted lawfully.

“The crime-charging standards are the same for civilians and peace officers,” the document notes.

Juarez’ family has retained attorney Alfredo Morales to represent them as they continue to seek more answers about how Juarez died. Morales said he could not talk about the case when the Dispatch called him Tuesday because he was busy preparing for an unrelated trial.