A 73-year-old man in the early stages of dementia was killed by a Bakersfield police officer after a neighbor called 911 and erroneously reported the man was carrying a revolver, authorities said Tuesday.
The officer fired seven rounds toward Francisco Serna, who died just feet from his home.
But when police searched Serna for a gun, they found only a dark, faux wood crucifix.
“My dad did not own a gun. He was a 73-year-old retired grandpa, just living life,” Serna’s son, Rogelio Serna, said. “He should have been surrounded by family at old age, not surrounded by bullets.”
The shooting early Monday has sparked anger and grief in the San Joaquin Valley and drawn questions about how police respond to the elderly and people with disabilities. It prompted Bakersfield’s newly named police chief, Lyle Martin, to address the criticism and reveal details about the incident.
“I cannot tell you enough that this community is affected by Mr. Serna losing his life,” Martin said. “This is a tragic incident.”
About 12:30 a.m., a woman arrived at her home in the 7900 block of Silver Birch Avenue, the same block as Serna’s home, and began removing items from a vehicle, Martin said. When Serna approached her, he was acting bizarrely and had one hand in his pocket, according to Martin. Police said she saw a black- or brown-handled object that she believed was a firearm.
The woman ran inside her home and told her husband to call police. The husband told a 911 dispatcher that a man outside had a revolver and had brandished the weapon.
Two police officers responded just after 12:40 a.m. As officers and the couple stood outside, the woman spotted Serna exiting his home across the street.
Martin said she pointed toward Serna, saying, “That’s him.”
The couple rushed inside their home and closed their doors. The officers took cover.
Serna kept both hands in his jacket and continued walking toward police, who ordered him to stop and show his hands. Serna ignored the officers’ commands, police said.
When Serna was about 20 feet away, after ignoring commands to stop, Officer Reagan Selman fired seven rounds at Serna, Martin said.
Serna was struck and fell in the driveway. He was pronounced dead, just across the street from his home.
Officials said that about 30 seconds had elapsed between the woman identifying Serna and the officer opening fire. By then, five more officers had responded and saw the shooting. None of the other officers fired any rounds, Martin said.
It was Selman’s first police shooting since joining the force in July 2015. He and the six other officers were placed on routine administrative leave.
The incident comes at a pivotal time for the Bakersfield Police Department, which was jolted by scandal when two detectives pleaded guilty this year to federal drug and corruption charges.
Martin, a 28-year department veteran, was tapped in December to become the new police chief and was scheduled to be sworn in Wednesday. He said his willingness to discuss a disputed police shooting so soon after the incident was a show of transparency.
“This is what the public can expect from their police chief. I’ll give you the facts as I know them,” Martin said. “When things are bad, I’ll be out front. When things are good, my employees will be out front.”
The shooting drew wide condemnation from Serna’s family and activists. The family scheduled a vigil late Tuesday where Serna was killed.
Rogelio Serna said his father had shown signs of dementia since 2015 and occasionally experienced delusions. His symptoms seemed more pronounced in the last month, his son said.
The elder Serna had worked at a cotton gin in McFarland, Calif., for years and retired in the early to mid-2000s, his son said. Rogelio Serna said his parents moved to Bakersfield about eight years ago, leaving the town of Wasco so they could be closer to their children. He lived with his wife and one of his daughters.
Bakersfield police had visited Francisco Serna’s home at least two times before because his father would become confused and activate a medical alarm, Rogelio Serna said.
A police spokesman confirmed officers had visited Francisco Serna’s home, but he could not provide any details.
About eight hours before the shooting, police said, there was a separate incident involving Serna in which a neighbor also believed the man may have been armed, Martin said.
Serna had reportedly banged on doors and windows and attempted to drag the neighbor outside for a fight. The neighbor said Serna also kept a hand in his pocket and acted as though he had a gun, police said. The neighbor did not report it to police.
Police officials said officers were trained to respond to a variety of situations, including a man in the early stages of dementia.
The Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for those with disabilities, said the shooting indicated police were ill-prepared.
“These tragedies are unnecessary and preventable,” said Jay Ruderman, the foundation’s president.