When San Mateo County sheriff's Deputy Menh Trieu shot and killed Yanira Serrano-Garcia in June as the mentally ill teen approached him brandishing a knife, he acted lawfully, according to District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.
While no criminal charges will be filed against the deputy, 18-year-old Serrano-Garcia's family has sued the county, alleging negligence and civil-rights violations. Sheriff's Office officials say they want all their deputies to complete a training program on handling incidents involving persons with mental illness that could prevent similar tragedies, but it may be a long time before all personnel have received the training.
The June 3 shooting occurred after Tony Serrano-Garcia phoned 911 requesting medical intervention for his sister, Yanira, saying her schizophrenia was causing her to act erratically. When Trieu approached the family's Half Moon Bay apartment, a knife-wielding Yanira Serrano-Garcia chased the deputy 157 feet before he fatally shot her, according to Wagstaffe's investigation.
Although Wagstaffe determined that Trieu acted in justifiable self-defense and within Sheriff's Office policy, the district attorney noted that his conclusion would be inadmissible in the pending civil suit.
The family's attorney, Arnoldo Casillas, claims negligence was a factor before Trieu arrived at the scene. Casillas claims the emergency dispatcher who fielded Tony Serrano-Garcia's call was a trainee, and that a recording of the call reveals somebody was whispering questions to the dispatcher while he spoke to the brother.
In the recording, which was provided to The San Francisco Examiner, the dispatcher asks Tony Serrano-Garcia if his sister is being violent, and he answers “yes.” The dispatcher later asks for clarification, and Tony Serrano-Garcia explains that by “violent,” he meant his sister was yelling at his parents.
Casillas said the dispatcher asked for that clarification only after one of two patrol units that were lost and trying to find the Serrano-Garcia residence used the in-car messaging system to ask the dispatcher what type of violence was occurring. The family attorney alleges that the dispatcher's failure to seek clarification earlier in the call was a beginner's mistake that resulted in Trieu arriving on the scene with incorrect information that influenced his actions.
“It is negligence to have this guy train and get experience in such a fluid situation,” Casillas said. “He sent this out as a violent call when there wasn't any.”
Half Moon Bay is one of several Peninsula cities that recently closed their police departments and outsourced services to the Sheriff's Office, which has typically hired those cities' cops as deputies. Casillas said the Sheriff's Office acquired Trieu after the Millbrae Police Department's closure, and may have assumed Trieu was adequately trained for mental health emergencies without looking too closely at his qualifications.
Sheriff Greg Munks is pushing for all of his deputies to receive crisis intervention training so they will be better able to defuse mental health emergencies without the use of force. Training coordinator Jim Coffman noted 175 deputies have completed the training, but he expects it will be a while before Munks' goal is met because just 30 of the roughly 75 first responders he trains each year are sheriff's deputies.
Coffman said the training not only helps reduce the likelihood of deputies having to use force, but also enables them to do early interventions that help people stay out of jail.
“Most of us want to be cops because we want to help people, and this is just another way,” Coffman said.