San Bernardino County sheriff's race: DA, Harris spar over shootings by deputies

·11 min read
Criticism over past deputy shootings by Sheriff candidate Clifton Lee Harris, right, has prompted a counter-punch by DA Jason Anderson, left.
Criticism over past deputy shootings by Sheriff candidate Clifton Lee Harris, right, has prompted a counter-punch by DA Jason Anderson, left.

District Attorney Jason Anderson is running unopposed for his seat as chief prosecutor of San Bernardino County in the June primary election, but he’s not shying away from a hot-button issue in another race intimately connected to his job: officer shootings.

Early voting began earlier this month for the June 7 primary, and one race pits two starkly different visions head-to-head for the combined roles of sheriff, coroner and public administrator. Sheriff Shannon Dicus, who took over by appointment after former Sheriff John McMahon retired last year, is facing a challenge from retired deputy-turned-private investigator Clifton Lee Harris, who also vied for the appointment last year.

In interviews with the Daily Press earlier this month, Dicus and Harris made their cases for why voters should elect them. In regard to uses of force by officers, Harris — who says he’s been a licensed PI since 2007 “working high-profile officer-involved shootings of unarmed citizens” — argues that too many deputies in the county have been let off the hook for fatal shootings despite expensive court cases and public scrutiny.

The number of officer-involved shootings countywide since 2021 is tough to pin down in current federal and state data, but the Daily Press found at least 12 fatal police shootings in the county between May last year and the current month, based on agency disclosures and media reports.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department reported to the California Department of Justice a total of 16 instances of “severe force” by officers using firearms against civilians in 2020. That's down from 21 firearm discharges in 2019, but twice the level of 2016, when there were 8. The county did slightly exceed neighboring departments in 2020 as the sheriff agencies of Riverside and Kern counties each reported 15 “severe force” discharges.

The Officer-Involved Shooting Response Team housed under the office of the DA, Anderson, has released 42 Use of Force reviews of law enforcement agencies in the county since August 2020, according to its website: 16 reviews of shootings from 2020, 14 from 2019, 10 from 2018, one from 2016 and one from 2009.

Harris’ critical comments on deputy shootings in his bid for San Bernardino County sheriff have prompted a counter-punch by Anderson, the county’s elected DA since 2018.

Anderson, who has endorsed Dicus, reached out to the Daily Press this week to argue that the sheriff’s electoral challenger is misframing instances of lethal force in the county for “politicized” means.

Harris is doubling down, expanding his criticism to the DA’s office — which he would soon be working alongside if he wins election.

The DA pushes back

Harris says if elected, he will review the sheriff’s training, discipline and shooting policies. “Changes must be made to hold those accountable who violate the department's policies,” he told the Daily Press this month.

He cited three controversial killings of High Desert residents by sheriff’s deputies that he looked into as a private investigator in recent years:

  • Barstow resident Nathanael Harris Pickett Jr., fatally shot by a deputy in 2015 in the parking lot of El Rancho Motel, where he'd recently moved, with a jury and motel footage later refuting sheriff's claims that he'd fought the deputy.

  • Helendale resident Lajuana Phillips, fatally shot by a deputy in 2018 in a Victorville car dealership lot after she allegedly began fighting people and allegedly tried to hit the deputy with her car, though the latter point has been called into question

  • Adelanto resident Darrell Allen, fatally shot by a deputy in 2019 after a domestic abuse call involving his girlfriend, with the primary point of dispute being allegations by responding officers that Allen threatened them with a knife

“The officer involved in the killing of (Pickett) was never disciplined. That deputy is still on the job,” Harris said, referencing Deputy Kyle Woods, who was cleared of wrongdoing by the DA’s office a year after fatally shooting Pickett. He also noted that two months after being cleared of wrongdoing in Pickett's death, Woods shot another man. That person survived.

According to public records gathered by Transparent California, Woods received more than $190,000 in pay and benefits in 2021.

“He should have been fired and prosecuted,” Harris argues. “That is what accountability looks like.”

Following the publication of these remarks, the county’s chief prosecutor reached out to the Daily Press with a response.

Beyond his endorsement of the incumbent sheriff, Anderson has a stake in the discussion because his office’s duties include reviewing internal reports on uses of force by deputies and deciding if charges should be filed for such incidents.

The DA’s Office under Anderson has charged some sheriff’s deputies on this front. One is former Deputy Erdem Gorgulu, who allegedly beat a man with a baseball bat during a protest-turned-riot after the death of George Floyd. He was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, and fired from his job.

The office has also charged former Deputy Corie Smith last October, four months after TMZ published surveillance-cam footage showing Smith kicking 32-year-old Willie Jones in the head multiple times in Victorville as Jones laid on his stomach. He was charged with with felony assault.

Anderson provided an update on the latter case, saying Smith’s preliminary hearing was held April 27 where a judge denied a request to reduce his current felony case to a misdemeanor. His first pretrial hearing is set for June 17, court records show.

As for the specific criticisms of Harris, the DA didn’t focus on the 2015 Pickett shooting. The Barstow victim’s parents filed a wrongful death suit in that case and won $33.5 million from the county in a federal jury verdict in early 2018.

“Pickett was not decided on my watch,” he wrote in an email, referencing the call not to press charges against or fire the deputy in that shooting.

“I am curious if you asked Harris what he would have done as a peace officer in the Lajuana Phillips case,” Anderson wrote in regard to the Helendale resident who was shot in 2018. “She tried to run over the deputy with a 4000 pound SUV after he asked her 33 times to get out of the car and utilized non-lethal pepper spray to no avail.”

The DA also pushed back on Harris’ critique of the shooting of Darrell Allen in 2019.

“Darrell Allen rushed the deputy with a steak knife,” the DA wrote. “The deputies were aware from Allen’s girlfriend that Allen assaulted her and choked her just before he hid in an adjoining apartment before ambushing the deputy.”

Anderson capped his points with a question: “I wonder how Harris could articulate that lethal force was inappropriate in those instances?”

The challenger doubles down

Harris responded in length to Anderson’s counter-points in an email this week.

On the Pickett shooting, Harris said: “I beg to differ because he is still the District Attorney with a responsibility.”

“First, maybe he needs to remember that there is no statute of limitation on murder,” the sheriff’s challenger wrote.

He argued further action should’ve been taken against Woods after the jury’s ruling in the Pickett case, which the Sheriff’s Department said it strongly disagreed with at the time.

Harris cited various details presented to the jury in court including that Pickett was effectively at home, exercising his rights as a tenant, when he was shot; that he fell, hit his head, and wasn’t resisting before being shot; and that he was unarmed.

Harris capped this point with a personal shot at Anderson, arguing that the DA “seems to misquote and appears confused about the facts concerning Mr. Pickett’s case.”

“ALL THIS IS IN THE TRANSCRIPT OF THE FEDERAL TRIAL--OBVIOUSLY, Mr. Anderson does not READ FEDERAL TESTIMONY so he can participate in the ongoing coverups,” Harris alleged. “I query, how does a deputy continue to work for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and escape criminal liability when the facts and evidence are so clear.”

As for the 2018 shooting of Phillips, the Helendale resident, Harris challenged Anderson’s framing of the events that took place a few months before he took office as DA.

“Ms. Phillips, to my knowledge, was driving a Mercedes sedan, not an SUV,” Harris wrote. “I am not sure how Mr. Anderson came up with the Deputy asking Ms. Phillips to get out of her car 33 times unless he (the deputy) was taping the incident.”

Harris says his information on Phillips’ interaction with the deputy comes from speaking to her brother as a private investigator. The brother was on the phone with Phillips “and could hear the Deputy yelling at her as she cried over the phone out of fear,” Harris said. He challenged the idea that the officer used non-lethal pepper spray prior to the shooting.

“For unknown reasons, the Deputy pulled his weapon and fired more than once,” he wrote, citing photos of bullet holes in Phillips’ driver-side door and window as compared to her fatal injuries. Perhaps Mr. Anderson should release the video from U.S. Bank that captured the incident and we can all see for certain that Ms. Phillips never tried to run over the Deputy with her vehicle.”

He closed this point with a question directed at Anderson. “Why did the County of San Bernardino settle this case for $2.1 million if the deputy had such justifiable reason to use deadly force on Ms. Philips(?) The sheriff's department has a representative who is consulted before a case like this is settled.”

Harris used this point to emphasize another issue that both he and Dicus say they’ll tackle: a lack of body-worn cameras on deputies in the field or in jails under the sheriff’s purview.

“The public needs to be able to have trust and believe that there is transparency from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department,” he wrote. “What better way to do that than through video proof.”

As to the 2019 shooting of Darryl Allen, the Adelanto resident, Harris says he “personally interviewed at least six eyewitnesses (including) his nephew.”

Harris’ recounting of the incident is that Allen’s girlfriend called the sheriff to report a fight between the couple when “there was no fight, just an argument, according to the nephew.”

The nephew allegedly watched deputies arrive and “heard them yelling at Darryl as he came out of the laundry room and he was compliant,” according to Harris, who says “for some unknown reason, the officers started shooting Darryl in the back.”

“Darryl had a plastic lighter, and a small butter knife used to open the laundry room door due to it jamming and was difficult to open once it was closed,” Harris continued, saying none of his witnesses recalled Allen holding a steak knife or ambushing deputies.

“I suggest Mr. Anderson read the autopsy report on Darryl Allen,” he added. “Again, Mr. Anderson, please address why, if Sheriff Deputies had no other choice than to kill Mr. Allen why the case settled for $1.6 million, which the Sheriff’s department gave its approval.”

Different facts and framings

Anderson responded to Harris’ counter-points in an email Friday. He first rejected the idea that financial settlements in civil suits should be drivers for internal action against the deputies in such shootings.

“I take no position on the County and/or Sheriff’s Department settling cases,” the DA wrote. “I deal in criminal law standards, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment. Not risk management issues or low civil court proof standards.”

As to Harris’ recounting of the Phillips shooting in 2018, Anderson said the incident “was videoed by one of the victims and two bystanders.”

“I watched the videos numerous times and counted the number of times the deputy asked Miss Phillips to get out of the car,” he wrote. “I may be incorrect on the car model, but sedans and SUVs are considered deadly weapons when used the way Miss Phillips used hers.”

Anderson also disputed the details that Harris says he gathered on the shooting of Allen in 2019.

He said the witness accounts described by Harris “are inconsistent with” the findings of homicide investigators in a report the DA’s Office considered when investigating the shooting. “Mr. Harris minimizes the nature of the call,” Anderson added regarding Allen’s compliance with deputies before he was shot.

The interaction demonstrates two inherently conflicting positions between the current DA and the man currently seeking to become sheriff on an issue of significance to both roles.

In closing his most recent email to the Daily Press, Harris framed each deputy shooting in the broader pitch of his campaign, saying the three cases are just a few examples of the county having to settle cases at taxpayer expense because of law enforcement misconduct.

Anderson closed by complimenting Harris as an experienced law enforcement officer and noting that “none of this personal.”

“I am tired of the death of people and the intricacies of balancing law enforcement, public safety, an innate right of self-defense for everyone, including peace officers, and personal responsibility (being) politicized in only certain instances.”

Charlie McGee covers California’s High Desert for the Daily Press, focusing on the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities. He is also a Report for America corps member with The GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or cmcgee@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.

This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: San Bernardino sheriff’s race: DA, Harris spar over deputy shootings