Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua cleared two sheriff's deputies of wrongdoing in the shooting death a year ago of a 16-year-old Sebastopol boy suffering a mental health crisis.
"This was a heart-wrenching experience for everyone involved," Passalacqua said Thursday. "There's no greater loss than the loss of a son or daughter. At the same time, the last thing a sworn peace officer wants to do is use lethal force."
Jeremiah Chass, an Analy High School student, was shot seven times after, authorities said, he battled with deputies inside a mini-van parked outside his family's home, kicking them violently as he was pepper-sprayed and hit with a baton.
His parents had phoned the Sebastopol Fire Department for help after he resisted their efforts to take him for evaluation for his delusional behavior. His father described him as "psychotic" and "violent," according to a written statement issued by the district attorney.
The Fire Department contacted Sebastopol police, who in turn contacted the Sheriff's Department. The statement also said sheriff's dispatchers received a 911 call from the Chass residence.
Passalacqua said that after examining all of the facts, prosecutors determined that Deputies John Misita and James Ryan acted lawfully during the 10-minute encounter. Autopsy results released Thursday said Chass was shot seven times, one fewer than authorities previously reported.
"The deputies tried to disarm Jeremiah, who refused to release his knife," Passalacqua said in his statement. "He also assaulted both deputies. Both deputies were becoming dangerously exhausted and Ryan thought Misita had been seriously wounded."
Passalacqua's report said Mark Chass, Jeremiah's father, struck his son and tried to restrain him with handcuffs handed to him by Ryan.
An attorney for Chass' family disputed the district attorney's version of events, including an allegation that Chass held his 6-year-old brother with one hand while wielding a knife in the other.
"He never got the knife anywhere near his brother," attorney Patrick Emery said.
He said that account is based on observations made by Mark and Yvette Chass, who were nearby during the confrontation.
Emery said the district attorney's decision not to seek criminal charges against the deputies has no bearing on the family's civil rights lawsuit pending in federal court.
"The burden of proof and the type of analysis is completely different," he said, "and to that extent Mr. Passalacqua's decision not to prosecute doesn't have any relevance to the civil case."
Chass' death ignited a storm of criticism against the Sheriff's Department and ongoing debate and discussion about improving crisis intervention training for law enforcement officials.
Sonoma County Sheriff Bill Cogbill on Thursday said he was "pleased" by the district attorney's decision. But he said it does not change the outcome of the case.
"While it could have been worse, it resulted in a tragic loss for the Chass family, and we have said before our sympathies go out to them," Cogbill said.
Cogbill said the district attorney's decision also has no bearing on an ongoing internal investigation to determine whether the deputies followed proper protocol and procedures during the incident.
He said the results of that investigation could lead to disciplinary action against Misita and Ryan, who have since returned to patrol beats.
Passalacqua emphasized that his task was not to review police tactics. Instead, he said the decision was made based on whether prosecutors felt there was sufficient evidence to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the deputies committed a crime as a result of their actions.
"Our role is not to consider twenty-twenty hindsight or engage in speculation," Passalacqua said. "We have to take a candid assessment of the facts, apply the law to the facts and reach our decision."
He said the analysis was not biased in favor of the deputies as some critics of officer-involved shooting investigations claim.
Santa Rosa police initially investigated Chass' shooting before turning their reports over to prosecutors.
"There is literally no other county in the state that has such a comprehensive review process in place," Passalacqua said. "There's many larger cities, such as Los Angeles and Oakland, where they don't have any outside agency do any review."
Critics of police use of force have scheduled a vigil at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Sebastopol Plaza to mark the anniversary of Chass' death. The event was scheduled before Passalacqua's decision was made public.
Passalacqua said 911 tapes, physical evidence and witness statements support the deputies' version of events.