The San Diego City Council on March 24 agreed to pay the family of Jacob Faust $325,000 to settle a civil lawsuit stemming from Faust's April 4, 2005, shooting death at the hands of a San Diego Police officer. The settlement ends a painful, four-year-long episode, but it answered no questions about the awful incident and accomplished little.
Answers were what Lynne Faust, Jacob's mother, wanted most—of course, so did his father, Richard, who died in September 2007. More than anything, the Fausts wanted to know why Jacob, who was 25, had to die. Often, the only way to find out is to file a lawsuit that compels the city to turn over investigative documents such as witness statements.
It was those statements that raised questions about two officers' version of events. For example, witness accounts contradict the officers' claim that Faust was shot after a struggle. Also unclear is whether Faust ever reached for what turned out to be a toy gun and whether an officer used pepper spray to subdue the young man. Like the family, CityBeat, which covered the case extensively (thanks to the work of associate editor Kelly Davis), would like to have seen a trial produce answers, but we have nothing but respect for Lynne Faust's decision to settle. A city lawyer told the Union-Tribune that the settlement offer was a “business decision” meant to avoid the potential for a court defeat.The Faust killing stands in stark contrast to the much more recent death of 87-year-old Guadalupe Zavala, who succumbed last September to injuries sustained about a month earlier when a San Diego Police officer shot him with bean bags, which are supposed to be non-lethal. (CityBeat's Davis wrote about Zavala in our March 25 issue.) Because
Faust was popular in the arts and music communities, and because his family and friends organized public events each year after his death, his case drew loads of media attention. But few people outside of CityBeat readers know about Zavala, whose long life was coming to a close amid poor physical and mental health and, judging from appearances, loneliness.
That's ironic, because it can be argued that the Zavala incident was a much clearer case of poor police decision-making. Zavala, who had been diagnosed with dementia, had allegedly threatened his caretaker with bodily injury because she wouldn't give him a cigarette, and she called the police after locking the elderly man in his house. Police say Zavala, wearing only an adult diaper, broke a window and brandished a glass shard at them when they entered the house. Within minutes, police had fired four bean-bag rounds at Zavala from relatively close range and also attempted to subdue him with a Taser before he was cuffed and taken to the hospital, where he died of complications stemming from the penetration of the projectiles into his body.
This was a man who obviously had issues. He'd freaked out over access to cigarettes, was wearing only a diaper and, police say, expressed a desire to die. Experts recommend patience when dealing with agitated, mentally ill people, but only 17 minutes elapsed between the cops' arrival and the arrival of an ambulance. Also, the police department has its own Crisis Intervention Team, and it contracts with the county's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), but neither was called in. By policy, PERT isn't called when a subject is armed or poses a threat, even though that would seem to be when the team is needed most.
It's easy to second-guess officers who have to make quick, life-or-death decisions on the scene. But this was clearly an old man in poor health. One option would have been to back out of the house and communicate with Zavala through a door. It's possible that a simple cigarette would have done the trick. It's also important to note that other police agencies have policies discouraging the use of non-lethal force from short distances and using a Taser on elderly people.
In addition to answers, Lynne Faust was hoping for police policy alterations that might help avoid a repeat of the terrible fate that befell her son. Just as it's hard for the public to know exactly what goes on with cops out in the field, it's hard to know what's going on at police headquarters. Perhaps the top brass is right now reviewing what went on at Zavala's house and considering policy changes. That's certainly what we hope happens after every officer-involved death. Write to email@example.com.