For 61-year-old David Phillips, the small northern California city of Chico is the ideal place to live – except for the racism and the police, two things he says are inseparable.
Founded an hour and a half drive north of Sacramento, Chico is stained with a violent past; like many of the state’s cities in the
19th century, it was a sundown town, and early in the 20th, the Ku Klux Klan had a float in the local parade. It has stayed mostly white for more than a century, including 82% of the population today.
Phillips, who is Black, vividly remembers his first encounter with Chico police as a teenager in the 1970s. The officers mostly ignored him while asking his white girlfriend in the passenger seat if she was safe. “I was hoping she wouldn’t say I was her boyfriend,” Phillips recalled. “I thought they would harm me in some kind of way for being with a white girl.”
Other more recent events – including the unsolved 2014 murder of Phillips’ nephew, the social justice activist
Marc Thompson, under suspicious circumstances – fueled his disillusionment with local law enforcement.
Then four years ago, in March 2017, officers with the Chico police department killed his son, 25-year-old Desmond Phillips, in the middle of a mental health crisis, in front of his eyes. “He was so terrified of cops, I can’t even imagine how he felt the night they murdered him,” Phillips said of his son.
In the aftermath, Phillips unexpectedly became the passionate voice of a
local movement calling for police reform and broader acknowledgment of local racism. Phillips’s raw memory of what took place – as well as his frustrations seeking justice for his son – motivated others to start organizing, too. By the time Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and ignited a nationwide uprising, Chico organizers had laid the groundwork for others to join a local movement. The momentum impelled the city’s former mayor to convene a committee purportedly as a starting point for police reform.
Nearly a year later, however, the city is further away from this goal than ever. In fact, the process wound up granting more power to the police. (The Chico police department didn’t respond to a list of questions sent by the Guardian. Neither did the city’s current mayor.)
For activists and reformers, Chico is a cautionary tale of what can happen when earnest appeals for reform are co-opted by the police themselves, particularly in small cities defined by racial politics for more than a century. Yet for Phillips, who maintains there has never been a full accounting of his son’s killing, the struggle for change isn’t contained to election cycles – it will encompass a lifetime.
Chico State students were active in local demonstrations against racist police violence last summer. Photograph: Marissa Leshnov/The Guardian
A cement mason by trade, Phillips still lives in the apartment where police killed his son. Desmond, the second youngest of six, had been living with his father after being on his own in Sacramento, and Phillips was enjoying their time together.
“He was a kicked-back kid,” Phillips said. “We’d always hang out, every day we’d say to each other, ‘What are we eating tonight?’ It was mostly fast food. We did everything together.”
But Desmond’s mind seemed to be unraveling. On the night police killed him, Phillips called 911 requesting medical assistance as his son fell into a mental health episode. When Desmond picked up a knife and made threatening motions at his father, Phillips hid in a room and requested the police intervene, as they had before.
The decision turned out to be lethal. Police did not announce themselves to Desmond before breaking open the front door; emergency dispatch recordings reveal officers tased and then fired at least 16 bullets at him within 10 seconds of entering. Desmond was shot in the face, neck, chest and abdomen mostly at a downward angle 12 times, according to an autopsy report – Phillips maintains he saw police shoot him after he’d fallen from being tasered. Police fired so wildly that bullet holes were found in a neighboring apartment.
To this day, Phillips has preserved the bullet holes in his home as evidence.
“I walk over the spot where Desmond fell to his death every day,” Phillips said. “As crazy as it sounds, I thank God he did allow me to be here as a witness, because for the simple fact that I am not going to let them lie their way out of this.”
Heightening the tragedy was that Desmond, who was Black as well as Miwok and Latino, was living with his father after an encounter with police months earlier in Sacramento. Video of that incident shows officers piling on to his thin, contorted frame, blood pouring from his face on to the concrete. In subsequent medical records, Desmond referenced the event as a traumatic episode, and his father had hoped to keep him safe in Chico.
Soon after he was killed, Phillips spoke at a rally outside the Chico police station. One attendee, a community organizer named Rain Scher, was moved by his words and approached Phillips.
“From the moment I heard of Desmond’s killing, there was no question in my mind that I was going to offer my support in whatever way the family wanted or needed it,” Scher, 34, said.
Community organizer Rain Scher is a founding member of the Justice 4 Desmond Phillips group. Photograph: Marissa Leshnov/The Guardian
Scher became a founding member of the Justice 4 Desmond Phillips group, whose five core members started researching Desmond’s killing and medical history. After the longtime Butte county district attorney, Michael Ramsey, declared the killing justified less than a month after, the group’s work exposed
inconsistencies in officers’ accounts of events that night, including whether Desmond held a weapon. An expert witness hired by the family’s legal team concluded that “officers were never in danger.”
Even so, the California attorney general
declined to review the case, and a year later, a federal judge dismissed the family’s civil rights lawsuit against the city, determining that officers acted reasonably based on their court testimony. The city spent more than $101,000 fighting the case.
After Chico officers killed 34-year-old
Tyler Rushing – who was tased by one of the officers who killed Desmond – Phillips’ group began researching killings by various law enforcement agencies in Butte county. Since 1997, 35 people have been shot and killed by officers and another nine people were injured, according to Ramsey. Only one shooting resulted in a criminal charge for an officer, after the DA initially declined to press charges.
In emailed comments to the Guardian, Ramsey stated that each shooting is assessed for potential criminal charging by investigators from different local and state police agencies. Ramsey then reviews the results of the “unbiased and uncompromised” investigation before deciding whether to file charges. They have
never recommended filing charges.
David Phillips’ grandchildren Dejuan Allen, Leilanni Allen, and Donnell Allen eat dinner at Phillips’ home in Chico. Bullet holes are still visible in the walls and furniture in his living room. Photograph: Marissa Leshnov/The Guardian
“Every case is a tragedy and should be viewed as such,” Ramsey wrote. The fact that the vast majority of killings by officers since 1997 were not charged “is a testament to the restraint shown in our local community”.
Yet for activists alongside Phillips, these figures don’t indicate restraint, but a deadly lack of accountability. During city council meetings, activists raised these findings and unsuccessfully asked the city to institute reforms, including implicit bias training and
updated crisis intervention training. They also held events honoring Desmond and others killed by police. By June 2019, Justice 4 Desmond Phillips was calling for a total halt to funding for police, which accounted for half the city budget.
“We demand that no more money be given to the police department until they address these very serious issues that continue to make our community unsafe because of police conduct,” the group said in a press release at the time.
The demand wasn’t taken seriously by city leadership or even some other reform activists, but if it seemed outlandish then, a year later it would be prescient.
As protests against racist police violence roiled the US, students from California State University, Chico, helped swell local
demonstrations last summer. Days after a Juneteenth vigil in which Phillips gave an emotional account of his son’s death, the city council approved a request from Mayor Ann Schwab to form an ad hoc committee to review the department’s use of force policies.
Some claim to have been skeptical of the gesture from the start, including the city’s vice-mayor at the time, Alex Brown.
The committee “was made up of the police chief and two members of the Chico police officers’ union, as well as three council members and their appointees,” Brown told the Guardian. “So right from the get go, it looked like the deck was stacked against real human engagement participation in the process.”
Brown’s appointee was Cory Hunt, a member of the newly formed
Defund Chico PD group. The committee met virtually once a week. Almost immediately, the meetings became a sounding board for the police and their allies to tout the department’s own glowing self-assessment.
“The structure of the committee was so biased,” Hunt recalled. “Any true questions I presented were met with hostility.”
Activist Cory Hunt is a founding member of Justice 4 Desmond Phillips, as well as the newly formed Defund Chico PD group. Photograph: Marissa Leshnov/The Guardian
At one climactic meeting, Hunt brought up his own heart-stopping encounter with a Chico officer who nearly pulled a gun on him during a traffic stop. Hunt mentioned the anecdote to convey the need for implicit bias training for officers. He was brushed off.
“That was the only nugget of realness that occurred in the process,” Brown said of the incident. “You saw these displays of power and privilege play out in this very public setting.”
Margaret Swick, a third member of the committee and a founding member of another local police reform group Concerned Citizens for Justice, remembered the experience similarly. She had hoped to review the department’s use-of-force policies, which is supplied to the city by Lexipol, the
largest private supplier of police policy in the country run by a prominent police-defending lawyer.
“We did not look at the use of force policy. We did not reform the use of force policy. We did not accomplish the mission,” Swick said.
In an October report, Mayor Schwab told the city council that Chico police were “really looked upon as the leader in training” in northern California, and appeared to suggest that funding for the department be increased to purchase drones, less-lethal rounds, and
lassos to fire at people from a distance. She also suggested travel reimbursements for officer training be routed to the police budget instead of the general fund.
Schwab, who is no longer mayor, didn’t answer the Guardian’s questions when reached by email.
Activists say that Chico police have co-opted the movement for local police reform. Photograph: Marissa Leshnov/The Guardian
In addition to being co-opted by police, the committee wound up sapping energy from the already-fraying local reform coalition just as the city council took a turn to the right, according to Hunt.
“Police reform in Chico is looking abysmal,” said Hunt. “It’s been a lot of splintering of different groups, and the other side is unifying.”
The new mayor, Andrew Coolidge, was elected on a platform to hire
more officers and enforce vagrancy laws as historic wildfires in Butte county have significantly increased the local homeless population. Officers have been granted broad discretion when conducting homeless sweeps – cheered on by a pro-police civic group.
More than a dozen statewide bills to reform the police in California went nowhere last year, in part because of
aggressive lobbying by police unions.
For Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology and the author of
The End of Policing , Chico’s abortive attempt at reform trotted a well-worn path of communities attempting to further “professionalize” the police without taking a critical look at their core functions.
“In a place like Chico, where you have the criminalization of the homeless, police in charge of mental health responses, police doing traffic enforcement, harassing kids on street corners – doing all that in a more professional manner is besides the point,” Vitale said. “Police shouldn’t be doing those things.”
Members of the original Justice 4 Desmond Phillips group say they have experienced harassment by officers and their sympathizers. In 2018, David Phillips
recorded a tense interaction with eight Chico police officers who stopped him for driving with a suspended license, his car emblazoned with “Justice 4 Desmond Phillips.” He has lost faith in the city and the county securing justice for his son, but he’s still hoping for an independent investigation of the killing.
David Phillips reads a Bible verse while visiting the grave of his son, Desmond Phillips, at Saint Mary Cemetery. Photograph: Marissa Leshnov/The Guardian
“I’m marching on,” Phillips said. “I have all the faith in the world that they will get their day in court.”
Last October, Chico police killed another person,
30-year-old Stephen Vest, during a mental health crisis. Officers shot Vest as he advanced on them and after he’d crumpled to the ground; the district attorney declined to file charges.