Attorney Jonathan Melrod (left) joins Yanira Serrano-Garcia's family to announce a civil rights lawsuit on Sept. 9 against San Mateo County alleging excessive force in a fatal officer-involved shooting on June 3. (Alex Emslie/KQED)
Attorney Jonathan Melrod (left) joins Yanira Serrano-Garcia’s family to announce a civil rights lawsuit on Sept. 9 against San Mateo County alleging excessive force in a fatal officer-involved shooting on June 3. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Family members of an 18-year-old woman shot and killed by a San Mateo County sheriff’s deputy in June filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on Tuesday over the shooting.

The lawsuit (see below) alleges excessive force and deliberate indifference in the county’s training of law enforcement to safely respond to calls involving mental illness. It stems from the June 3 fatal shooting of Yanira Serrano-Garcia and names San Mateo County and sheriff’s Deputy Menh Trieu as defendants.

“They not only killed Yanira, they killed the entire family,” Serrano-Garcia’s mother, Carmen Garcia, told reporters in Spanish as tears fell down her face. “The goal is to prevent any other family from suffering this kind of pain.”

Serrano-Garcia was diagnosed with schizophrenia for the last three years of her life, according to her family and documents summarizing the San Mateo County district attorney’s investigation of the shooting. Both Serrano-Garcia’s supporters and the DA agree her illness played a role in the fatal incident.

Serrano-Garcia’s brother, Lorenzo “Anthony” Garcia, called 911 shortly after 9:20 p.m. on June 3, seeking paramedics to help get his sister to take medication she had refused that day.

“This is not really an emergency,” he said. “I’m calling because my sister has schizophrenia … she’s not taking the medications, she’s acting out and she’s yelling at my parents.”

A little more than 10 minutes later, Trieu fatally shot Serrano-Garcia in the torso after she chased him with a knife.

The whole incident plays out over the 13-minute recording of the 911 call below. The family’s attorney said no internal edits to the audio had been made. KQED removed Lorenzo Garcia’s phone number. The audio is graphic.

Serrano-Garcia’s family said Trieu escalated a situation that had started to calm down.

“The sheriff and the sheriff’s department does not care about the safety of mentally ill persons,” said attorney Arnoldo Casillas, who is representing Serrano-Garcia’s family in the lawsuit.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe found the shooting was legally justified in August.

From Wagstaffe’s Aug. 18 letter to Sheriff Greg Munks:

“The investigation into this shooting revealed that Ms. Serrano-Garcia suffered from schizophrenia. Her four year history with mental illness is well documented. It is undeniable that Ms. Serrano-Garcia’s knife attack on the deputy was a product of her mental illness. Although Deputy Trieu was aware from dispatch that Ms. Serrano-Garcia suffered from mental illness, his life was no less in danger. The swiftness of her potentially lethal attack on the deputy precluded any possibility of handling the threat in a less lethal manner.”

But Casillas said Trieu created the danger by a cavalier response to the call. And he’s doesn’t believe that the approximately 6-inch blade Serrano-Garcia was chasing Trieu with was a lethal threat.

The knife District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe says Yanira Garcia-Serrano held while she chased San Mateo sheriff's Deputy Menh Trieu on June 3, 2014. (Courtesy Steve Wagstaffe)
The knife District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe says Yanira Garcia-Serrano held while she chased San Mateo sheriff’s Deputy Menh Trieu on June 3, 2014. It’s been described as a butter knife, a 5-inch paring knife and a 10.5-inch kitchen knife. The knife is just less than 11 inches in total length. Its blade is approximately 6 inches long. (Courtesy Steve Wagstaffe)

“Yanira Serrano was 5 feet tall,” he said. “She weighed 200 pounds. She had a congenital birth defect, essentially a club foot. There was no meaningful threat to the officer.”

The district attorney’s letter said Trieu backed up but was unable to get away from Serrano-Garcia. Trieu didn’t have time to pull his Taser, the letter says, and he wasn’t sure it would work anyway because the teen was wearing a thick sweater.

The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department directed inquiries about the lawsuit to the county counsel, John Beiers, who said in a written statement that the death was a tragedy. Beiers said it was too soon to comment on the lawsuit.

In the wake of the shooting, the sheriff’s department announced a pilot program with the county’s behavioral health department that will provide specially trained personnel to respond to mental health crises.

Read the lawsuit below, and read District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe’s letter to Sheriff Greg Munks below that:

Yanira Serrano-Garcia Federal Lawsuit 9.9.2014


San Mateo District Attorney 2014-08-18 OIS Letter Sheriff Munks


Lawsuit Claims Excessive Force in Fatal Police Shooting Near Half Moon Bay 28 October,2014Alex Emslie

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Alex Emslie

Alex Emslie is a criminal justice reporter at KQED. He covers policing policy, crime and the courts.

He left Colorado and a career as a carpenter in 2008 to study journalism at City College of San Francisco. He then graduated from San Francisco State University's journalism program with a minor in criminal justice studies. Prior to joining KQED in 2013, Alex freelanced for various news outlets including the Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Bay Guardian.

Alex is proud of his work at KQED on a spike in fatal officer-involved shootings in Vallejo, which uncovered that a single officer shot and killed three suspects over the course of five months. Alex's work with a team at KQED on police encounters with people in psychiatric crisis was cited in amicus briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court. He received the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists Best Scoop award in 2015 for exposing a series of bigoted text messages swapped by San Francisco police officers. He was honored with 2010 San Francisco Peninsula Press Club and California Newspaper Publishers Association awards for breaking news reporting on the trial following the shooting of Oscar Grant. Email: aemslie@kqed.org. Twitter: @SFNewsReporter.

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