Police killing of unarmed, 73-year-old grandfather sparks anger, anguish
The tragic chain of events began early Monday morning when Bakersfield police received a 911 call saying a man had menaced two women with a gun.
Authorities arrived in the southwest Bakersfield neighborhood and came across Francisco Serna, 73, who was walking out of his home across the street from police. The woman immediately pointed and identified Serna as the threatening man.
Police said Serna refused an officer’s orders to take his hands out of his pocket. The officer eventually fired seven rounds, striking him five times, according to a coroner’s report.
When authorities searched Serna’s body, they did not find a weapon. Instead, they recovered a dark, faux wood crucifix. Family members later revealed Serna was suffering from the early stages of dementia.
The shooting has sparked anger and grief in Bakersfield and beyond and prompted calls for a federal investigation into the shooting.
Lyle Martin, who was recently named Bakersfield’s police chief, said police are aware of how deeply Serna’s death has shaken the city.
“This is a very tragic incident for their family, for this community as a whole and for the Police Department,” he said.
He should have been surrounded by family at old age, not surrounded by bullets.
Serna’s death is the latest in a series of high-profile incidents of police killing unarmed people this year across the United States. The case also comes at a time when law enforcement agencies are trying to improve the way they handle incidents involving those with mental illness or impairments.
Bakersfield police had visited Serna’s home eight times before Monday’s shooting, and half of the visits were false burglary alarms, a police spokesman said. His son, Rogelio Serna, told The Times that his father would become confused and activate a medical alarm, triggering the arrival of police.
Francisco Serna had shown signs of dementia since 2015 and occasionally experienced delusions, his son said. His symptoms seemed more pronounced in the last month, his son recalled.
About eight hours before the shooting, a neighbor told police that Serna was banging on the neighbor’s door and windows. The man said Serna grabbed his hand, then tried to drag him outside and challenged him to a fight, police said.
The neighbor said Serna also kept a hand in his pocket and acted as though he had a gun, although the neighbor never actually saw a weapon, police said.
Family members said they believe the shooting could have been avoided. With community groups, they called for better police training, greater transparency and broader diversity in the department.
“It is difficult to accept that our dad’s life ended so brutally, abruptly and with such excessive violence,” a family statement said. “We felt our dad was stolen from us at a time our family should be celebrating the holidays, birthdays and making happy family memories.”
Serna had worked at a cotton gin in McFarland, Calif., for years and retired in the early to mid-2000s, his son said. Rogelio Serna said his parents moved to Bakersfield about eight years ago, leaving the town of Wasco so they could be closer to their children. The elder Serna lived with his wife and one of his daughters.
“My dad did not own a gun. He was a 73-year-old retired grandpa, just living life,” Rogelio Serna said. “He should have been surrounded by family at old age, not surrounded by bullets.”
At a vigil Tuesday night, family spokeswoman Cyndi Imperial said Serna’s relatives had requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. They have also asked the California attorney general to appoint an independent investigator in the matter.
The episode began at 12:35 a.m., when a woman arrived at her home in the 7900 block of Silver Birch Avenue — the same block where Serna lived — and began removing items from a friend’s vehicle, the chief said.
Serna approached the woman, stood behind her and questioned her about the neighborhood. She told police he was acting strange. He then asked her if he could get inside her vehicle, the chief said.
During the exchange, Serna had one hand in his pocket, Martin said. The woman told police that she saw a black- or brown-handled object in his jacket and that she believed it was a firearm. That object may have been the crucifix later recovered by authorities.
The woman’s friend opened the car’s back door and allowed Serna to look inside. As the woman ran inside her home and told her husband to call police, her friend drove off. The husband told a 911 dispatcher that a man outside had a revolver and had brandished the weapon, the chief said.
Two police officers responded just after 12:40 a.m. As officers and the couple stood outside, the woman spotted Serna exiting his home across the street.
Martin said she pointed toward Serna, and said, “That’s him.”
The couple rushed inside their home and closed their doors. The officers took cover. Serna kept both hands in his jacket and continued walking toward police as they ordered him to stop and show his hands, Martin said.
Serna ignored the officers’ commands and walked toward Officer Reagan Selman. When Serna was 15 to 20 feet away, Selman fired seven rounds at Serna, he said.
Martin said Selman “made that decision” as Serna moved toward him.
Serna was struck and fell in the driveway.
“No lower levels of force were attempted by any officer,” Martin said.
Serna never lunged or threatened officers, he said.
Martin said 20 to 30 seconds had elapsed between the woman identifying Serna and the officer firing the first shot. By then, five more officers had responded and saw the shooting. None of the other officers fired any rounds, Martin said.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Serna’s family was prevented from seeing and comforting their mother for 14 hours as police investigated, according to Imperial.
“Family who asked to see their mother was told ... that if they crossed the police line they would be arrested,” she said.
The family said police prevented Serna’s wife and daughter from checking on him “even when they asked to be allowed to be next to him just to hold his hand.”
“Details were withheld from the Serna family and they learned from social media and the 5 o’clock news that their dad had passed away,” Imperial added.
Selman and the six other officers were placed on routine administrative leave. Selman joined the force in July 2015. It was his first police shooting.
“This is a tragedy,” Martin told reporters. “This is a very delicate situation.”
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