Police in Bakersfield, California, on Monday fatally shot an elderly man named Francisco Serna outside his home.
The 73-year-old great-grandfather suffered from dementia. After watching some television with his wife of 51 years, he wandered out of the house to take a walk around his neighborhood, something he had a habit of doing to help himself sleep better. Serna was unarmed but holding a wooden crucifix, which a neighbor who called the cops believed was a firearm.
When the police arrived, the neighbor pointed to Serna, and in less than a minute the cops killed him:
Serna kept both hands in his jacket and continued walking toward police, who ordered him to stop and show his hands. Serna ignored the officers’ commands, police said.
When Serna was about 20 feet away, after ignoring commands to stop, Officer Reagan Selman fired seven rounds at Serna, Martin said. Serna was struck and fell in the driveway. He was pronounced dead, just across the street from his home.
Officials said that about 30 seconds had elapsed between the woman identifying Serna and the officer opening fire.
30 seconds! This is truly unconscionable, especially because the police dispatcher told the officers Serna might have dementia. Here is a picture of Francisco Serna:
He is clearly an elderly man who would not have moved very quickly. Even if the officers sincerely believed the crucifix he held was a gun — though frankly, shooting people based on any random person’s assessment that they are armed is an appalling excuse for police work — this is still a wildly unjustified escalation of force.
Needless to say, Serna’s family is angry and demanding justice.
“My dad did not own a gun. He was a 73-year-old retired grandpa, just living life,” said Rogelio Serna, Francisco’s son. “He should have been surrounded by family at old age, not surrounded by bullets.”
He’s right. Though some may argue the police officers had cause to fear for their lives, there is no justifying this incident. There is risk inherent in police work, and anyone who cannot deal with an elderly, unarmed, senile man without killing him in half a minute is not capable of “protecting and serving” the public.
Police officers must be better trained to deal with the mentally ill, who are dramatically, disproportionately subject to police brutality. It is not acceptable for cops to shoot people like Francisco Serna on sight. They should be taught to recognize that behavior like his may be due to mental illness, not aggression, something these officers seem to have never considered.
But there’s also a lesson here for those of us who are not police: none of this would have happened if the woman who called the cops knew her neighbors.
There’s an elderly man on my block who also suffers from dementia. I don’t know his name and I’m fairly sure he doesn’t speak English fluently, but I know him by sight, and if I saw him wandering like Serna was, my concern would be to tell his family, not the cops.
The fact is that police are the primary responders to mental health crises in America, and they really shouldn’t be. It’s not a crime to have dementia. Our first instinct when observing unusual behavior should not be to bring in the government. We can handle a lot of this stuff ourselves.
Something as simple as recognizing our neighbors is an incredibly easy way to avoid tragedies like these. It doesn’t take a lot of effort, and if these neighbors knew each other even a little, Francisco Serna would probably be alive today.
We desperately need criminal justice reform, and though I have real hope it will happen, I have no illusions that it will happen quickly. In the meantime, precautions as basic as knowing our neighbors are a necessary protection for our communities.