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Police officer charged with voluntary manslaughter in death of Bay Area man

Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy E. O'Malley in an undated photograph
Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy E. O’Malley in an undated photo. O’Malley’s office Wednesday charged a San Leandro policeman with involuntary manslaughter.
(Associated Press)

Alameda County prosecutors charged a police officer Wednesday with voluntary manslaughter, saying the man he killed in response to a shoplifting call had been subdued with a taser and posed no threat of killing or seriously injuring the officer or anyone else.

Dist. Atty. Nancy E. O’Malley said the decision to file charges against Jason Fletcher, an officer in the Oakland suburb of San Leandro, was based “solely on the facts and the current law.”

The case stems from an encounter that lasted just 40 seconds. On April 18, Steven Taylor, 33, walked into a Walmart in San Leandro, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat and a tent, and tried to walk out without paying, a district attorney’s inspector wrote in a declaration of probable cause. Taylor’s grandmother told The Times on Wednesday that he had been in the midst of a mental health crisis.

A security guard stopped Taylor, asked him to return the items and called the police.

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Fletcher, 49, arrived within minutes. He drew his service weapon with his right hand and grabbed the baseball bat with his left, trying to wrest it from Taylor, the inspector wrote. Taylor pulled the bat out of the officer’s grasp and stepped away.

About 17 feet from Taylor, Fletcher drew his taser, pointed it at Taylor and said, “Drop the bat man, drop the bat,” according to the inspector’s declaration. He advanced toward Taylor and shocked him with the taser twice, the inspector wrote.

Stumbling, struggling to remain upright, Taylor “clearly experienced the shock of the taser,” wrote the inspector, Robert Chenault, noting the bat was pointed toward the ground. Although Taylor “posed no threat of imminent deadly force or serious bodily injury” to the officer or any shoppers, Fletcher shot him fatally in the chest with his handgun, Chenault wrote. A backup officer arrived just as Fletcher fired the fatal shot.

Fletcher is expected to be arraigned Sept. 15 in an Alameda County courthouse, the district attorney’s office said. Fletcher’s lawyer, Michael Rains, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was “very, very disappointed” in the charges. He said they were “undeserved,” and expressed confidence that a jury would acquit the officer.

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The San Leandro police chief, Jeff Tudor, issued a statement in which he said: “I know the loss of Steven Taylor has deeply affected this community. Today, the district attorney has charged Officer Jason Fletcher with voluntary manslaughter. It is important that we allow the judicial process to take its course. I will refer all questions to the district attorney’s office.”

Taylor’s grandmother, Addie Kitchen, said she and other relatives were “stunned” the district attorney had filed charges. Not since a policeman was charged in 2009 with killing Oscar Grant at an Oakland train station has a police officer faced criminal liability in Alameda County for killing someone on duty, Kitchen said.

Johannes Mehserle, an officer with the Bay Area transit system, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for shooting Grant in the back as he lay facedown and unarmed. Grant, like Taylor, was Black. Mehserle, like Fletcher, is white.

“Just because [Fletcher] has been charged doesn’t mean he’s going to be convicted, and we understand that,” Kitchen said. “But we recognize that this is something that hasn’t happened in this county, not since Oscar Grant.”

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Kitchen described her grandson as a kind man who struggled with mental health issues and was homeless when he died. She wants police departments to stress de-escalation tactics in training new officers, tactics she believes could have averted her grandson’s death.

“There’s no reason he should have been murdered because he was having a mental crisis, because he was homeless,” she said. “He was not a threat to those officers.”


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