The city of Half Moon Bay will ask the state attorney general to review the San Mateo County District Attorney’s investigation into a fatal shooting by local law enforcement in May.
The decision followed District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe’s explanation of his findings at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. Some residents and council members expressed concern at the meeting over the district attorney’s investigation into the death of Sandra Harmon.
Among the questions that lingered were whether a San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputy fired first and whether Harmon's hands were over her head when she was shot.
“Just because someone says it’s true doesn’t mean it is true,” said county resident Michael Stogner during public comment. “I know we want to trust law enforcement…. but there is a time and this is the time. This doesn’t pass.”
“He or his team will absolutely get to these answers,” Stogner said of the attorney general.
Councilmember Deborah Penrose supported the elevation of Harmon’s case to the attorney general as a way to mitigate suspicion in the community.
“The problem is not the information we received from you tonight,” Penrose said to Wagstaffe. “The problem, as I see it, is the perception that there may be something going on other than what you said…. This perception is very disabling in this community.”
Mayor Adam Eisen countered that he wanted to elevate the case to state authorities because consequential questions about the case remain.
The city attorney and city manager will work with members of the newly formed public safety subcommittee to draft a letter to Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office asking him to review the district attorney’s investigation. That investigation found that deputies acted reasonably when they shot Harmon at least eight times, including in the back and side of her body. Harmon was armed and had reportedly warned a bystander of a coming race war.
The city’s letter will ask for a general review of the district attorney’s process of investigation, but councilmember Debbie Ruddock, who is part of the public safety subcommittee, said she wants the letter to be written in a way that does not preclude the possibility of a new investigation by the attorney general.
On the evening of May 5, sheriff deputies David Dominguez and John Baba encountered Harmon at a parking lot in downtown Half Moon Bay. Dominguez fired 11 rounds and Baba fired three more at Harmon. They told investigators the shots were necessary to defend themselves.. Three of the eight shots that hit Harmon were fatal, according to the autopsy report.
The autopsy report also found high levels of methamphetamine in Harmon’s system. Wagstaffe highlighted that fact, stating in his report how “sad it is that Ms. Harmon combined serious mental illness with a potentially lethal dose of drugs and alcohol and the possession of a loaded shotgun to create a situation ultimately leading to her death.”
Wagstaffe’s appearance before the City Council came a week after his office concluded a separate use of force in another officer-involved shooting was also justified. The district attorney concluded the use of force by a San Mateo police officer on Sept. 28, 2019, which left one of the robbery suspect paralyzed, did not constitute a crime. He could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the police officer committed a crime, Wagstaffe said, but still he expressed concern about the officer’s decision to fire at a fleeing vehicle.
In the Harmon case, however, Wagstaffe didn’t have that same doubt.
Citing the trajectory of the deputies’ bullets from forensic evidence, Wagstaffe believed the deputies shot Harmon in a moment when she appeared to be hunched over, reaching for her gun. His team’s assessment of the timing in between the deputies’ shots gave him additional reason to believe that there was no time to deescalate the situation.
There were three volleys of shots fired, Wagstaffe explained. And while he was fairly confident about the course of events on the second and third volleys, the first remains a mystery. The footage from deputy Dominguez’s body camera, which was turned off in what was reportedly a moment of oversight, could have helped answer the question of who fired first.
“We just don’t know,” he said.
Wagstaffe joined others in saying how much more difficult the investigation was without the footage from Dominguez’s body camera.
When the district attorney released his report on Aug. 28, a freeze on an internal sheriff’s investigation into Dominguez’s failure to activate his body camera was lifted. Sheriff’s Office policy requires deputies to activate their body cameras for the duration of any call. Wagstaffe said any disciplinary action against the deputy for a policy violation would be entirely up to the Sheriff’s Office.