FREMONT POLICE SAID A MAN WIELDED A DEADLY WEAPON WHEN THEY SHOT HIM. BUT RECORDS REVEAL HE WAVED A TENT POLE.

By Darwin BondGraham, The Appeal

A still from Fremont Police in-car video taken during the shooting of Rolonte Simril on May 29, 2017.

A still from Fremont Police in-car video taken during the shooting of Rolonte Simril on May 29, 2017.

On May 29, 2017, Rolonte Simril was wandering the parking lot of a busy shopping center in Fremont, California, waving what witnesses and police described as a “metal pipe.”

As Simril muttered to himself, he swung the object as if he was playing baseball, or sword fighting an invisible opponent. It was behavior that unnerved several shoppers. One witness described him as a “San Francisco crackhead,” while another called him a “typical Fremont crazy person.” A third person said Simril was “threatening to hurt people,” and flagged down a Fremont police officer.

The officer, William Gourley, got out of his patrol vehicle and chased Simril through the shopping center parking lot. A private citizen, meanwhile, followed them in his car and cut off Simril’s path of escape, which caused him to collide with the hood of the vehicle. Cornered, Simril turned and faced Gourley. Gourley then ordered Simril to drop the “weapon” and shot him three times, twice in his abdomen and once in his right thigh.

Simril recovered after undergoing surgery on his gunshot wounds, and Fremont police recommended that he be charged with resisting arrest and brandishing a deadly weapon.

Months later, two separate Fremont police investigations concluded that Gourley’s actions were lawful and within the department’s use of force policy. But crucial details about the incident, including investigative records and witness interviews, were kept secret.

This month, in response to a public records request from The Appeal, the city of Fremont released its investigative reports about the shooting. The documents show that although some people perceived Simril as a possible danger, no one said he attacked anyone before the shooting.

The “pipe” that Simril allegedly brandished was not a deadly weapon but instead a hollow aluminum tent pole. Simril, a 27-year-old Oakland resident, was homeless; after he was shot, police found in his backpack a copy of a May 26 order from the city of Oakland to vacate an encampment.

Although Gourley said in his interview with police investigators that Simril confronted him in a “fighting stance” while holding up the “pipe,” most witnesses said Simril was standing “frozen” still with his arms at his sides when Gourley shot him. There’s no indication in the investigative record that detectives attempted to resolve this inconsistency.

New transparency

Police in Fremont, a midsize city of about 200,000 residents in the San Francisco Bay Area, have historically avoided the intense scrutiny that much larger police departments experience after incidents involving deadly force. But shootings by the city’s officers over the past few years, including the killing of a pregnant 16-year-old in 2017, have led to calls for greater transparency from families of slain people and civil rights attorneys. A new California law that went into effect Jan. 1 made police misconduct records public for the first time, which forced the Fremont police to disclose more information.

Last month, Fremont unveiled a “transparency portal” website that features information about officer-involved shootings. But the department’s website doesn’t include links to actual investigative reports. Instead, the police department posts press releasesedited videos, and investigative summaries.  The day it launched, David Snyder, an attorney who leads the pro-transparency First Amendment Coalition, told KQED that the website was “spin.”

In Simril’s case, the police posted only an “investigative summary” that publicized his criminal record, including drug and burglary charges. The department also posted a press release and a short, edited surveillance video showing Simril in the parking lot before he was shot, and officers responding to the scene afterward. The portal also displayed Simril’s mugshot, and photos of the tent pole, as well as of Simril lying wounded on the pavement.

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Olivia McDowellComment