S. E. Williams
On Friday, March 19 at 9:00 a.m., a hearing was scheduled before Judge Jesus G. Bernal at the George E. Brown Federal Courthouse in downtown Riverside.
The matter involved a “civil rights and state tort action” seeking “compensatory and punitive damages” from Riverside County Sheriff Department Investigator Michael Hamilton and Deputy Rosa Calderon for violating various civil rights under the United States Constitution and state law in connection with the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Matthew Keith Tucker. The action was brought by his parents, Jenny and Shawn Tucker. Their beloved son, Matthew, was shot to death by the sheriffs at his home in Temecula on May 4, 2016.
After waiting nearly two years for justice, the Tuckers must now wait a few more weeks as Friday’s hearing did not occur. Instead, it was rescheduled by Judge Bernal.
The Tucker case did not garner much attention from the community in 2016, and today some question why. Was it because the press release issued by the Riverside Sheriff’s Department immediately following the incident provided selective details about the shooting? Or, because members of the media failed to perform due diligence in 2016? Whatever the reason(s), Matthew Tucker was shot and killed by local sheriffs and the community moved on.
Like scores of other young Black men shot to death by sheriffs and police around the country, regardless of circumstance, the death of young Matthew at the hands of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department faded too soon from the memories of most inland area residents, if many noticed at all.
Yet there are those who do remember young Tucker. His life mattered—especially to the loved ones he left behind, including his parents.
Matthew’s mother will never forget that fateful call to 911 at about 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. She sought help for her son who was distraught over a recent break-up with his girlfriend. Matthew said “he wanted to die,” as she told the 911 operator.
The Tucker family will never forget how, within minutes of that call, their son laid shot and grievously wounded by the very officers who were called to help calm and assist him.
The Tuckers will never forget how their seriously injured son was taken to the Inland Valley Medical Center where he expired at 8:01 p.m. that night.
Matthew’s death devastated those who knew and loved him. They described the young man as a natural comedian who, in addition to being gifted with the ability to makes others laugh, was also the kind of selfless individual who would give his last dollar to someone in need.
Matthew loved riding horses at his grandparent’s ranch in Wyoming, where he spent his summers. This passion and love for animals eventually led him to find work in a local feed store. By all accounts, Matthew’s future was bright and he had already made plans to take a role in the family’s successful business.
The fact that Matthew was distressed and wanted to die after a breakup with his girlfriend was not an aberration. Statistics indicate suicide among teens often happens after a stressful life event, such as a breakup. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds.” Also, the number of those having serious thoughts of suicide is highest among adults aged 18-25. On May 4, 2016, Matthew was described as “distraught, depressed, momentarily suicidal.”
Police incident reports reviewed by this reporter noted that around 5:22 p.m. on the early evening of May 4, 2016, Matthew entered his mother’s bedroom, picked up her cell phone and dialed 911. He then handed the telephone to her and said, “Call the cops. I’m about to commit suicide!” His mother later told officers, “I knew exactly what this meant. I knew what it meant.”
When Riverside County Sheriff Investigator Michael Hamilton and Deputy Rosa Calderon arrived at the Temecula home minutes later, Ms. Tucker met them out front and told the officers, “This is what he wants, he wants you guys to shoot him. Please don’t shoot him.” She continued, “This is what he is going to want, he wants this, don’t shoot him.” Yet, within minutes, her son would be shot several times by the officers.
Before the officers encountered Matthew in the family garage, however, they purportedly abandoned or disregarded established department protocol. The sheriffs had Ms. Tucker lead them into the home to locate her son. Not only was she potentially placed in harm’s way, her daughter and grandchild were also in the home, yet the officers made no attempt to clear the residence before they located and confronted Matthew.
Even more concerning, in light of his fragile state and emotional vulnerability, the sheriffs never called for backup, nor did they call for the assistance of a crisis intervention specialist.
Guided by Matthew’s mother, the officers located him in the garage. As they opened the door, the teenager grabbed a knife. He then made several movements back and forth toward the officers. Hamilton and Calderon drew their guns and were yelling commands to Matthew. At the same time, Matthew’s mother was yelling and begging the officers not to shoot him.
As is too often the case in regard to young Black men, the officers shot anyway—at least five times. One bullet pierced Matthews hand. An injury the coroner acknowledged during his deposition, may have caused the teen to drop or loosen his grip on the knife.
There were four gunshot wounds in Matthew’s body, however, and it was the bullet that entered his back that, according to Riverside County’s Chief Forensic Pathologist Mark A. Fajardo, M.D., led to his death.
As Fajardo clarified during his June 7, 2017, deposition, the fatal “gunshot entered from the top [of Matthew’s back] going downward entering at the back right shoulder blade of Mr. Tucker and proceeding on trajectory toward the lower right front of his abdomen but not actually exiting the abdomen.”
The family’s attorney, Darryl Exum, confirmed, “Neither officer testified they shot him [Matthew] while he was bent over,” and yet he was shot in the back. “Their expert, [Fajardo] said, Matthew may have bent over at a 45-degree angle when this bullet entered his body or he was seated on the ground or close to the ground or on the ground prone” when he was shot in the back.
Exum added, “Matthew faced the deputies at the time of the shots. He fell forward, dropping the knife, as per the deputies’ sworn statements. Yet he ended up with a fatal shot in the back. His [Fajardo’s] statement supports what the evidence shows.”
Yet the county has argued in opposition to its own forensic expert. According to Exum, they dispute Fajardo’s expertise and his opinion that Matthew may have been on the ground, leaning or falling forward for the bullet to have entered through his back.
One of the officers admitted having a taser at the time of the shooting. So, questions remain as to why the officers elected to use such deadly force when another, non-lethal option was readily available.
There was no indication in the incident reports and Exum stressed the point Hamilton and Calderon never made any attempts to de-escalate the situation,” he stated. “They ignored all procedures they are supposed to follow when responding to a suicide crisis.” In addition, Matthew had not threatened anyone in the home and was not guilty of any crime.
According to Exum, the officers claimed they did not have time to react any differently, even though Matthew had “walked toward them and backed away four or five times from a distance of about 15 to 18 feet.”
“They could have secured him in the garage but by not clearing the scene and having the mother in the house, they destroyed their option to retreat [from the garage] into the house,” Exum added.
Beginning with the 911 call, Matthew’s mother repeatedly cautioned authorities that her son was “depressed and wanted to die.” But, instead of the officers providing the crisis intervention she had hoped for, her depressed 18-year-old was shot down before her eyes. Reports indicate the officers spent no more than twenty seconds warning Matthew before they shot him at least five times.
Sadly, Matthew became another statistic. He was counted among dozens of other Black men shot to death by police in America in 2016. That year, Black men once again fell victims to the highest rate of police killing in the country. In 2016, Black men between the ages of 15 and 34 were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed under the color of authority—regardless of circumstance.
When “a suicidal individual provokes a law enforcement officer into killing him or her, this is known in the law enforcement vernacular as ‘suicide by cop,’” according to a January 2017 assessment by the American Journal of Psychiatry. This psychiatric phenomenon has been called by other names, including copicide, law enforcement-assisted suicide, victim-precipitated homicide, hetero-suicide, and suicide by proxy.
When the “phenomenon of suicide by cop” is added to the complex relationship between Black men and police in this country, it is easy to see how situations like the one that led to the death of Matthew quickly turn lethal. Yet, an in-depth report by Guardian News identified “suicide by cop,” as an often “contested and loosely fraught response to killings by police.”
According to the Guardian report, such classifications run contrary to guidelines established by the National Association of Medical Examiners regarding “how to classify a manner of death.” Some criminologists, hold the position that such classifications can pre-empt “criminal inquiries by effectively exonerating officers of wrongdoing and removing their actions from consideration.”
The Voice/Black Voice News reached out to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department seeking answers to a list of questions about the officers’ actions the day of the incident and to provide the department an opportunity to respond to other concerns and criticisms triggered by renewed focus on this case, owed to the upcoming hearing of the Civil Rights lawsuit. The inquiry also gave the department an opening to further explain the Matthew Tucker shooting from its perspective.
Sergeant Chris Willison provided the following response to the paper’s request, “Thank you for the opportunity to comment on a story you are working; however, the Sheriff’s Department will not be providing comment on a case pending ongoing litigation. Thank you for your understanding.”
A hearing on the Civil Rights lawsuit against Hamilton and Calderon resulting from the death of Matthew Tucker is now scheduled for Monday, May 14.
The Guardian report on the issue of suicide-by-cop, Forced to Fire, is available online at www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/06/suicide-by-cop-the-counted.