Apparently, it is a crime, punishable by death, to have anything in your hands when stopped by a police officer. In this case, that anything was a crucifix. On Monday morning, police in Bakersfield, California fatally shot 73-year-old Francisco Serna seven times. No gun was found on the scene. Instead, Serna, who suffered from mild dementia, was clutching a crucifix.
The recent history of law enforcement in the United States is filled with cases of police shooting unarmed civilians. In many of those cases, the civilian was carrying an object in their hands. Police, who must make a snap life-or-death decision, often shoot first.
This seems to be what happened in Bakersfield, California at 12:30 a.m. on Monday. Francisco Serna, a retired, 73-year-old man with mild dementia, decided to take a walk before bed. According to his family, this was his way of unwinding.
While walking, he approached a woman in her driveway, unpacking her car. He strangely asked if he could get into her car. During the brief encounter, he had his hand in his coat pocket, and she said noticed a brown or black object in his pocket, which she presumed to be a pistol.
She told her boyfriend who dialed 911.
Police released audio which has two voices. First, a boy says “There’s a man outside my house with a gun.” Then an adult voice refers to Serna as “a Mexican gentleman” and refers to that man having a revolver.
A dispatcher also notified the officers that Serna was “reported as having dementia.”
Within minutes, Officer Reagan Selman, who has been with the Bakersfield Police Department for less than 18 months, arrived on scene with another officer. The couple pointed out Serna’s house to them.
Police then approached the house, which was Serna’s residence. Serna exited the house with his hands in his pockets.
According to the police, Selman asked him to remove his hands from his pockets and stop walking towards them. Serna did not comply.
Officer Selman fired seven shots and the incident was over as quickly as it began, but with tragic consequences. A subsequent search of the scene revealed that Serna was clutching a black, wooden crucifix.
Police have said there is no video footage of the incident, the officers did not have body cameras of dash cams.
Serna’s family said that he never owned a gun, and the family does not have guns in their home. His son, Rogelio Serna, told the L.A. Times, “He should have been surrounded by family at old age, not surrounded by bullets.”
The shooting has inflamed passions in Bakersfield where police have been dubbed the deadliest in the nation by outsiders such as The Guardian newspaper. All week demonstrators have gathered outside Serna’s house to protest the shooting and call for justice. The officers have been put in administrative leave.
It should also be noted that Serna committed no crime.
Could they have handled the situation differently? Could they have used non-lethal force? Should the fact he had dementia, and the fact officers were made aware, have changed their response?
The officers might not face discipline because Serna did not comply with their orders. There were at least two witnesses who claim they saw a firearm. Police therefore had a plausible belief that Serna was armed. This belief, combined with his non-compliance has resulted in a tragedy.
Police have an unenviable task. They must make a life or death, kill or be killed decision usually based on imperfect information. Any hesitation on their part could result in their death, or the loss of innocent life. But this is why we consider officers heroes. An officer is a person who vows to exchange their life for the lives of others, at any moment. Any officer who is unwilling to make this exchange has no business being an officer, and should not expect to be regarded as a hero deserving respect. A hero is a person who offers their life for something greater than themselves. This is what separates officers from armed civilians.
As a nation, we must ask ourselves what level of risk we expect officers to tolerate. Should an officer hesitate and hold fire for another second or two as they try to make out what could be in a person’s hand? If we ask this of our officers, we can expect civilian casualties to drop, but police fatalities to rise. And since the job is more dangerous, we should compensate our officers for participating in a literal game of Russian roulette with potential criminals.
If we are not prepared to make this exchange, then we must accept that innocent people who fail to comply with reasonable orders may be shot.
About five percent of people shot by police are unarmed.
Serna had showed early signs of dementia prior to the incident. Could it be he was not himself that night? It’s difficult to see how police could have acted different in this case. A black Crucifix could be mistaken for a gun, particularly at night after the brain has been primed to accept the idea that a person is armed. Did they have a non-lethal option at their disposal? Where they exposed to possible fire or behind cover? Investigators will have to sort this out.
To make our country safer, a few things are needed. Civilians must understand that police are compelled to make a life or death decision within seconds. To have anything in your hands, is dangerous. To fail to comply only escalates the situation and exacerbates the danger. Police need to do all they can to ensure they are responding appropriately in each situation. They must be trained to recognize mental illnesses and be prepared to moderate their response. Non-lethal options should come first. Body cameras and dash cams can also help.
Mutual respect is essential. Public trust is essential. This is a terrible and divisive incident, and it will only serve to further erode trust between citizens and the officers who lay their lives on the line to protect them.
This is not the relationship that should exist.