The day after his officers combined to fire more than 40 shots on the streets of downtown Eureka shortly before 5 p.m. on a Tuesday amid a chaotic pursuit in 2016, then Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills held a press conference and pledged a thorough investigation.
"Each officer is personally accountable for every round that they discharge and where that round ends up," Mills said, adding that he would report back to the community when the investigation was complete and the department had determined where each round was discharged, as well as where they ended up.
Five and a half years later, Mills is gone, working as the police chief in Palm Springs, following several years in Santa Cruz after he left EPD in 2017. Mills' successor as chief, Steve Watson, who was on scene that day as the suspect, 26-year-old Clayton Lee Lasinski, collapsed on Fifth Street, retired last year. And Stephen Linfoot — the first officer to open fire during that Dec. 6, 2016, chase — is also gone, working for the Riverside County Sheriff's Office, while another of the four officers who shot that day has retired.
Last month, some three and a half years after the Journal submitted a California Public Records Act request for documents related to the shooting pursuant to a law that took effect in 2019, the city released its internal affairs investigation into the incident. The delay, according to the department, was due first to the need to wait for Lasinski's criminal case to resolve, which it did in May of 2020 when he was sentenced to serve 11 years in prison after pleading guilty to assault with a firearm, exhibiting a weapon at a peace officer and other charges, and chronic short staffing in the department's records unit.
The recently released records — which span more than 900 pages — shed new light on the shooting, illustrating how a series of decisions and assumptions repeatedly escalated an already tense situation, leading to officers firing 42 rounds at Lasinski over the course of just three minutes and 19 seconds as he fled through three and a half blocks of downtown Eureka without returning fire. The records also indicate an investigating officer, Sgt. Mike Guy, determined one of the officers who opened fire on Lasinski that day violated policy, though they include no indication of whether the department made any effort to pursue disciplinary or corrective action against him.
EPD Records Manager Amanda O'Neill initially indicated disciplinary records were purged by the chief's office at some point prior to Senate Bill 1421, the police records transparency bill, taking effect in 2019. After multiple follow-up inquiries, City Attorney Autumn Luna said "the city has no further documents or information to disclose related to this case."
Interim EPD Chief Todd Jarvis, who stepped into the role in December, said he doesn't know whether any disciplinary action was taken as a result of the investigation. But Jarvis said he's reviewed all the documents released to the Journal in the case, and debriefed with Capt. Brian Stephens, and feels that the incident was reviewed "thoroughly," resulting in some changes to training and protocols.
"I honestly believe that if a similar situation happened today, it would be handled differently," Jarvis said, before being asked why.
"The whole nature of policing has changed [since December of 2016]," Jarvis continued. "There's probably a lot more thought behind pressing that trigger in the minds of every officer. I think that, in and of itself, might have created a different outcome."
Asked if he found anything concerning in his review of the incident, Jarvis didn't pause: "The sheer amount of rounds that were fired. I think everyone was fortunate there was no collateral damage."
The incident began after a California Highway Patrol officer attempted to pull Lasinski's Dodge pickup truck over after he allegedly rolled through a stop sign when turning westbound on Fourth Street in Eureka shortly before 5 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2016. Lasinski then pulled the truck into the parking lot of the Best Western, where he bailed on foot, leaving two female passengers in the car. Lasinski was wanted on a warrant at the time, which Mills said he believed was why he fled, but the suspect would later tell investigators he feared pursuing officers weren't really cops but people in disguise after him for an outstanding debt.
No matter the reason, Lasinski was fleeing on foot and CHP asked EPD to assist in canvassing the area for Lasinski, who was in possession of a handgun and had allegedly brandished it at a Best Western employee who tried to detain him while he fled the property.
Linfoot was then the first officer to spot Lasinski, telling dispatch he saw him running southbound in the alley between Sixth and Seventh streets. Shortly after spotting him, Linfoot decided to pursue the armed suspect on foot. EPD policy on foot pursuits recognizes they are inherently dangerous to officers and the public, so much so the policy explicitly states "no officer or supervisor shall be criticized or disciplined for deciding not to engage" in one and that "surveillance and containment are generally the safest tactics for apprehending fleeing persons," where circumstances permit. EPD's internal investigation, however, did not seem to question Linfoot's decision in this case.
Linfoot pursued Lasinski as the suspect ran across A Street and onto the Sole Savers car lot on Seventh Street, chasing him as Lasinski ran into a covered driveway portion of the business and climbed into the passenger side door of a running red Mazda, which had been recently detailed and was left running for its upholstery to dry. As Linfoot approached the car, coming within 6 feet of its front bumper, he said he saw Lasinski raise a handgun over the dashboard, though investigators were unable to determine if the suspect intentionally pointed the weapon at him or simply had it in his right hand as he slid from the vehicle's passenger seat to its driver's side.
"I see a black handgun ... pointing directly at me ... as he continues to get into the driver's seat," Linfoot told investigators. "So, I get my gun out and I start to try to put some distance between myself and him ... and I fire into the car."
The exact sequence of events here is a bit jumbled, but Linfoot told investigators that he tripped while trying to create space and ended up on his back on the driver's side of the Mazda. He said two things led him to believe Lasinski continued to pose a lethal threat: He could see Lasinski continuing to move inside the vehicle and he saw a bullet hole in the vehicle's driver's side window, which he thought Lasinski had put there by firing at him from inside the vehicle. Investigators later determined the bullet hole was Linfoot's, created in his initial volley of shots fired into the vehicle. But Linfoot said he believed he was being fired upon.
"My thinking was,' I'm in a gun battle with this guy,'" Linfoot said, adding that he then fired until his clip was empty, fearing that Lasinski would either flee in the Mazda or shoot him.
It's unclear exactly when, but investigators determined one of these initial shots fired by Linfoot was the only bullet to hit Lasinski in the pursuit, piercing his upper left chest. Nonetheless, after Linfoot fired a total of 15 rounds at or into the Mazda, Lasinski put the car in gear and fled, turning right out of the parking lot toward Sixth Street, as officers Dustin Nantz and Abraham Jansen approached, with Nantz about 100 feet ahead of his fellow officer.
Nantz told investigators that he heard gunshots as he ran onto the Sole Savers lot and then saw a red Mazda come around the building at "an extremely high rate of speed." Nantz said he and the driver made eye contact as the vehicle accelerated straight at him.
"I didn't believe I was going to be able to actually get out of the way of the car ... fast enough," Nantz said, adding that as the vehicle approached, he drew his handgun and fired five times at the vehicle, stopping when it passed him. "Luckily, I was able to. I don't know if he swerved when I raised my gun or not ... but I did believe I was going to be ran over."
EPD policy at the time prohibited officers from firing at moving vehicles unless they "reasonably believe there are no other means available to avert the threat of the vehicle," an exception Guy deemed applicable in this case, finding Nantz acted within policy when he opened fire.
Jansen saw all this unfold as he approached and told investigators he'd heard so many shots fired in the initial exchange — which happened outside his line of sight — he assumed the suspect "just fired at officer Linfoot or they got into some kind of gunfight ... ugh, considering the number of shots, especially." Jansen said that when Nantz opened fire at the oncoming Mazda, he did as well, though he did not tell investigators he felt either officer was in the vehicle's path.
"I open fire as well, considering that this was the subject that we're looking for and I thought he just [got into] a gun battle with officer Linfoot," Jansen told investigators. "I opened fire on the subject. He traveled past me ... I continue shooting at him while he traveled past me until he got to Sixth Street, and at that point I ran out of ammo in the magazine."
Jansen then re-loaded and followed onto Sixth Street, which Lasinski had driven against one-way traffic up to the intersection of Sixth and B streets, where he abandoned the car. From about 30 yards away, Jansen then took aim and fired two more rounds at Lasinski up Sixth Street but missed.
In his report, Guy wrote that he believed the first three to five rounds Jansen fired as Lasinski approached him and Nantz in the Mazda were within departmental policy.
"However, considering officer Jansen's sustained rate of fire, lack of control and inaccuracy, the next 10 to 12 rounds he fired, as the vehicle was passed him, were not in compliance with this policy," Guy wrote, explaining his conclusion was based on Jansen's firing 15 rounds in approximately four seconds, with three stray rounds hitting a building on Sixth Street and a parked car.
After ditching the Mazda, Lasinski walked down B Street toward Fifth, as scores of EPD officers poured out of the department's headquarters nearby and continued to respond to Linfoot's call of shots fired and a "carjacking" at Soul Savers. Senior Detective Ron Harpham was among them, telling investigators he heard the shots fired call and walked out EPD's back door to hear two different types of gunshots followed by officers yelling, "Drop the gun! Drop the gun!" Harpham said he believed officers had been in a "full-on gun battle" with the suspect, who he saw walking northbound on B Street with ª pistol visible in his hand.
Harpham said he then raised his pistol and put Lasinski in his sights, stopping to quickly inventory what he knew about the situation. As he did so, Harpham said he saw a string of officers head down A street toward Fifth.
"And I kind of see that ... and then I notice headlight traffic on Fifth and I'm going, 'Ah, fuck. Gunfight? Gunfight. Citizens everywhere. And I go, 'Shit, I got to stop this guy.'"
Harpham said he fired a single round from about 40 yards away but missed Lasinski.
"So I was setting up to go on him again and I ... remember thinking, 'Yeah, that's right, just keep throwing rounds down range. ... You missed him the first time, stupid.' I mean, I didn't have all that internal dialogue but I had that perception — 'Don't do it again, right.'"
Harpham then pursued Lasinski on foot. As he did, and as the suspect moved past Hertz Car Rental and onto Fifth Street, Jansen fired three more times at Lasinski as he walked away from a distance of about 35 yards, with all bullets missing the suspect.
Those were the last of the 42 gunshots EPD fired during the pursuit, as Lasinski walked a ways down Fifth Street before stopping next to a parked car, where he ultimately collapsed due to blood loss and was taken into custody. While Lasinski never fired a round in the exchange, police found his gun's hammer was cocked back. Mills said at the time that he believed Lasinski had tried to fire on pursuing officers but did not know how to properly work the handgun.
A Department of Justice forensic report identified 34 bullet strikes on the Mazda, the Soul Savers building, a building on Sixth Street and a wall near Hertz. Another bullet hit Lasinski, which, according to the report, left the whereabouts of seven bullets fired by EPD officers unaccounted for.
Looking back on the incident as it was outlined in various reports and witness interviews contained in EPD's internal affairs investigation, Jarvis was reminded of his initial comment that he believed things would have played out differently today and asked if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
"Both," he said, adding that while police ultimately have to be responsible for their actions, he believes hesitancy to pull the trigger has probably cost some officers their lives because they're thinking about "being second guessed or being prosecuted" before doing what they were trained to do.
But ultimately, Jarvis said, the public expects its officers to be perfect.
"We have the responsibility," he said. "We have to be right every time, and that's a tough responsibility for everyone."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. He can be reached at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.