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Sean Arlt Police Shooting: Father Says Santa Cruz Should Keep Its Word

Santa Cruz police officer shot and killed Sean Arlt, who suffered from mental illness, in 2016

Sean Arlt had a four-year-old son when a Santa Cruz Police officer shot and killed him in 2016.

Next month will mark the four-year anniversary of the night a Santa Cruz Police officer shot and killed Sean Arlt when Arlt was in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Sean Arlt’s father Jeffrey says he’s still waiting for the city of Santa Cruz to make good on two promises city officials made to him. And the process of repeatedly following up with the city only forces him to relive the trauma all over again, he explains.

“It’s been four years, and you tend to think we can move on with our lives, but this is unsettled, and so going back to it is kind of re-traumatizing,” Jeffrey says.

At 3am on Oct. 16, 2016, Sean was screaming and pounding on the front door of the house of a family friend, who called the police. Sean, the father of a then-four-year-old boy, had been taken by police to the county’s Mental Health Services Center five days earlier during a separate call.

When officers arrived on the 16th, Sean walked out of the yard wielding a rake over his head and approached the officers. An investigation by the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office found that two Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) officers deployed Tasers, but Sean kept advancing. When Sean got within 10 feet of the officers, Officer Erik Bailey fired two gunshots, hitting Sean in the head and the chest and killing him, according to the investigation. The DA “found no legal wrongdoing on” Bailey’s part.

In the aftermath, the Arlt family sued the city of Santa Cruz, and the two parties settled. Although it acknowledged no wrongdoing on Santa Cruz’s part, the City Council voted in November 2018 to pay the Artl family $1.6 million, as announced in a press release at the time. What the press release did not mention, however, was that the city also agreed to consider changes to policy, procedures and use-of-force protocols. This includes requiring that all SCPD officers attend a minimum of two hours of training every two years on appropriate tactics for interacting with mentally ill people and finalizing changes to the city’s force policy—only allowing officers to deploy deadly force in the face of an “immediate threat,” as opposed to simply an “imminent threat.”

Jeffrey says Police Chief Andy Mills confirms that his department has implemented those changes.

But there were other changes that the city agreed to in its 2018 settlement. The city promised to review data and consider adjusting the hours of its mental health practitioners, who work 7am-5pm seven days a week. Additionally, the city agreed to research funding sources to explore the possibility of increasing the total number of hours mental health workers are available. In recent months, Jeffrey was trying to learn more about the status of those items. He says he was having a hard time getting through to the city, and it wasn’t clear who he should be talking to.

Since speaking with GT, Jeffrey has heard again from Mills, who told Jeffrey via email that, based on Santa Cruz’s data, “it does seem like a good idea to have additional coverage extended past the time when the mental health liaisons leave.”

Mills said he’s watching for state and federal grants to fund a possible expansion of hours, although he didn’t offer further elaboration about any funding opportunities. In a later email, City Manager Martín Bernal told Jeffrey that the city has fulfilled its end of the settlement agreement; technically, the agreement doesn’t say that the city has to fully implement those final steps—only that it has to look at the data, consider making adjustments and seek funding.

Also, Mills told Jeffrey that city staff has been busy dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, budget cuts and civil unrest protesting systemic racism.

Seeking comment, GT reached out to Santa Cruz spokesperson Elizabeth Smith, who wasn’t with the city at the time of the shooting or at the time of the settlement. In response, Smith forwarded Mills’ message to Jeffrey and reiterated some background information.

Jeffrey does not want to see anyone else go through the grief that he and his family dealt with after the death of his son. He says these kinds of shootings are not just hard on the victims’ families. The tragedies, Jeffrey explains, also put an immense burden on the officers involved, who—even when they’ve completed their Crisis Intervention Training—simply don’t have the same skill set as an unarmed mental health expert.

“It’s traumatizing for them also,” he says.

Update Sept. 19 8:50pm: A previous version of this story misattributed the sources of two emails that Jeffrey Arlt received from city of Santa Cruz officials.

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