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Santa Maria Police Say Incident Circumstances Help Guide Use Of Force Options

Police explain procedures for use of force, less-lethal weapons following the fatal officer-involved-shooting of a Santa Maria man on July 20

Sgt. Mark Streker of the Santa Maria Police Department shows the weapon to fire 40mm sponge rounds, one of the less lethal options available to officers.
Sgt. Mark Streker of the Santa Maria Police Department shows the weapon to fire 40mm sponge rounds, one of the less lethal options available to officers. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

When Santa Maria police face off with an uncooperative suspects, officers have a number of less-lethal weapons available to keep the public — and themselves — safe.

Before last week’s officer-involved shooting at the corner of South Broadway and Enos Drive, Chief Ralph Martin said police fired several less-lethal weapons in an attempt to subdue the knife-wielding man, later identified as Javier Gaona, 31, of Santa Maria.

Specifically, officers fired several beanbag rounds plus 40mm sponge rounds at Gaona during the July 20 incident.

When he allegedly charged toward them, still holding the knife, three of them pulled their handguns and fired.

Gaona was transported to Marian Regional Medical Center with gunshot wounds and later died. 

While police declined to talk about specifics involving the  confrontation now being investigated by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, they did discuss less-lethal weapons available to use.

Those options include the weapons used last week, such as a rifle that fires rounds with small bean bags and and the 40mm weapon to launch sponge rounds, likened to a tennis ball.

Sgt. Mark Streker shows what the stun gun darts look like. Click to view larger
Sgt. Mark Streker shows what the stun gun darts look like. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Beanbag shotguns are painted a distinctive orange color with the words “less lethal” on the handle.

Many of the spectators watching last week’s incident claimed officers employed a stun gun, but police sources said none was used. 

“We are trained to make an attempt to resolve all of these volatile scenarios with any type of less lethal means that we can,” Sgt. Mark Streker said. “But at the end of the day, we have to go home safely and we have to make sure that those who we are protecting go home safely as well.”

Many of the less-lethal weapons fit inside a backpack deployed on each shift.

“These have been so incredibly effective,” Streker said.

What weapon is used, or not, depends on the circumstances of each situation. 

Stun guns, which are equipped with two darts at the end of long wire attached to electrical source, are best used when the officer is within 10 feet of the subject.

“When we are facing a threat that we need to keep safe standoff distance for both us and the person who’s a threat, the Taser is not effective because the distance is so great,” Streker said. 

A number of factors can make a stun gun less effective in a tense situation, including baggy clothing that keeps the darts from reaching the subject, distance between officers and the subject, and what weapon a subject may have.

“When we then find us in a scenario where we need distance as our friend, but not too much distance, that’s when one of these less lethal platforms becomes very effective,” he added. 

A rifle used to fire beanbag rounds is painted a distinctive orange. Click to view larger
A rifle used to fire beanbag rounds is painted a distinctive orange. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Maria police deploy less-lethal weapons regularly. In fact, hours after the fatal officer-involved shooting, a Santa Maria police officer who responded to a erratic subject off his medications used a Taser. 

The agency’s own data shows less-lethal weapons were used more than weekly in 2015, but most instances go unnoticed by the general public. 

Last year, Santa Maria police arrested 6,034 people, with use of force employed for 104 instances. One officer-involved shooting led to the death of an armed man who had fatally stabbed a woman in a domestic violence incident.

“I find it to be an interesting stat more than anything because it’s so compelling how effective it is,” Streker added.

“And basically what it does is it supports the argument that it’s very effective and it counters the argument that we don’t do enough to try to make sure we stop these from being a lethal encounter.”

Just over a week before the July 20 officer-involved shooting and in response to incidents across the nation, Santa Maria’s police chief gave a report to the City Council about the agency’s use of force, noting the data available on its website

The 2015 data shows force of some sort was used in 1.7 percent of its cases, Martin said. The national average is around 2 percent, he added.

“Of the 104 incidents that we had, the vast majority of them were less than significant,” Martin said during the July 11 City Council meeting.

“In other words, no one had to see a doctor, nobody had to be hospitalized, it was a pain compliance hold. But nonetheless we still document that as a use of force.”

In 2013, use of force was reported in 90 Santa Maria cases, with 3,004 total arrests for the year. The following year, with 4,846 arrests, use of force was involved in 70 instances. 

Martin says he has a force severity chart, ranging from verbal commands, hands-on encounters, various weapons and deadly force. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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