Editorials

Grover Beach police shot dead a brain-damaged veteran. How can we prevent this?

Video captures fatal police shooting of Grover Beach man

Police officer body camera footage of the July 2017 fatal shooting of 58-year-old Grover Beach, California, man Kenneth Eustace was released to The Tribune following implementation of a new transparency law.
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Police officer body camera footage of the July 2017 fatal shooting of 58-year-old Grover Beach, California, man Kenneth Eustace was released to The Tribune following implementation of a new transparency law.

In 2017, Kenneth Alan Eustace’s life fell apart.

According to his brother, Eustace suffered a cerebral hemorrhage early in the year, and when he finally left the hospital, he was a changed man.

A retired military veteran who had been described as funny, friendly and easy-going — albeit one who had past struggles with illegal drug use — Eustace became increasingly angry and paranoid.

He had frequent run-ins with police for fighting, making threats and being drunk and belligerent. His social worker with the Veterans Administration worried he was abusing drugs, and Eustace talked about wanting to “die by cop.”

On July 12, 2017, that’s exactly what happened.

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Kenneth Alan Eustace, 58, of Grover Beach was fatally shot on July 12, 2017, by police responding to a disturbance outside a home in the 1000 block of Brighton Avenue. Marshall-Spoo Sunset Memorial Chapel

Disturbance turns deadly

Eustace, 58, was fatally shot by a police officer during a disturbance outside a Grover Beach residence. According to police reports, he had been trying to enter the home, apparently under the delusion that the woman who lived there was his girlfriend.

Eustace was armed with a metal pipe attached to a rope, which he swung as he shouted bizarre threats at the officers. When he refused to put down the weapon, one officer Tased him, but it had no effect. When Eustace continued to advance, he was shot twice, once in the stomach and once in the leg.

Sgt. Juan Leon, who fired both shots, was cleared by the Grover Beach Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office.

“Sgt. Leon believed his life was in danger and fired two shots,” the district attorney’s report says.

Unlike other police shootings, this one drew little attention when it occurred, and for the most part, was quickly forgotten by the general public.

It would likely have remained that way except for a new California law, Senate Bill 1421, that mandates release of documents and video in cases of officer-involved shootings.

We now know far more about the last moments of Eustace’s life, and we have video of the fatal confrontation.

But finding out what happened is just one step; using the information to prevent it from happening again is far more important.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Was deadly force absolutely necessary, or could a less lethal option have stopped Eustace?
  • Do police officers throughout California have adequate training to effectively deal with mentally unbalanced individuals, particularly when it comes to de-escalating a crisis?
  • Are small departments, such as Grover Beach, adequately staffed and equipped to deal with such emergencies. If not, what would it take to get them more resources?
  • Could mental health professionals, both at the Veterans Administration and San Luis Obispo County, have intervened in the weeks leading up to the shooting?

A troubled history

With Eustace, there were plenty of warning signs and opportunities for intervention, as shown by this timetable of significant events:

January 2017: Eustace suffers a cerebral hemorrhage that requires brain surgery. His brother told a district attorney’s investigator that Eustace spent several weeks in the hospital, then checked himself out in spite of needing additional treatment.

March 29, 2017: The Grover Beach Police Department receives the first of what would turn out to be many calls regarding Eustace. In this incident, a man reported that he had been in a fight with “Kenny” and required medical attention, but when officers arrived, the victim refused medical care and police concluded that it was a case of mutual combat.

June 4, 2017: Eustace is arrested on suspicion of battery after slapping a man, threatening him and knocking his hat off. On the way to jail, he becomes agitated and threatens the transporting officer.

June 12, 2017: Eustace’s neighbor reports that he was drunk and threatening to beat her; police arrest him for public intoxication and, on the way to County Jail, he challenges officers to fight.

June 13, 2017: Eustace’s Veterans Administration caseworker asks Grover Beach to check on his welfare; she was concerned about his safety and suspected he was using illegal drugs. (The autopsy report did find that Eustace had been using methamphetamine.)

July 7, 2017: Four officers respond to Eustace’s apartment on a report that he’s in a rage, knocking on doors and threatening people. They arrest him on suspicion of disturbing the peace. “As he was being handcuffed, he dropped to his knees and began to hit his head on the concrete sidewalk,” the district attorney’s report says. He continued to struggle until he was restrained in a WRAP device — a stiff blanket that is wrapped around the suspect and strapped in place.

July 11, 2017: At 5:30 a.m., Grover Beach police dispatch receive a report from a Brighton Avenue resident about a man pounding on his neighbor’s door. A series of confrontations with police follows, ending in Eustace’s arrest. As he was transported to jail, he claimed to be Jesus Christ and said the transporting officer would be beaten in prison.

That last incident happened the day before Eustace was shot dead — which means that even after fighting with police and making delusional statements, he was released from custody in time to make it back to Brighton Avenue the following night.

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Kenneth Alan Eustace yells at police officers while swinging a metal pipe attached to a rope, moments before he was fatally shot on July 12, 2017. Grover Beach Police Department

How the events unfolded

Here’s a summary of what happened, based on reports from the District Attorney’s Office:

At 10:17 p.m., police were called on a report of a disturbance.

Officer Matthew Montiero arrived first, followed by Leon. The officers repeatedly ordered Eustace to drop the pipe. When he refused, Montiero attempted to subdue him with a Taser, but Eustace’s swinging weapon disabled the wires.

Officers then called for backup from other agencies, but circumstances quickly changed: Eustace broke a window and attempted to enter the house, and Sgt. Leon said he feared Eustace would go in through the window and assault the woman, who could be heard screaming inside. He also worried there were other people inside, which turned out to be correct — two others were in the house.

Body-cam video shows what happened next.

Sgt. Leon moves toward Eustace in an attempt to draw him away from the home. Eustace then starts advancing toward Leon, who backs up “to create distance and to give time for additional units to arrive so they could try to deploy a bean bag gun or a K-9.”

The video shows Eustace yelling and cursing at officers as they attempt to defuse the situation.

“Get the f--- out of my presence, Satan. ... You wanna die?” he hollers.

Eustace continues to advance and swing the pipe aggressively while issuing threats.

“Get the f--- off my block, pal. Get the f--- off my goddamn block now,” he yells while striking the hood of a car parked in the driveway and smashing its windshield, ignoring officers’ orders to drop the stick.

“Who’s the man here, boy?” Eustace says, before raising the weapon above his head, advancing toward Leon and warning the officer ominously: “Your last f------ chance.”

Leon then fires twice in quick succession, and Eustace falls to the ground, moaning in pain and cursing the officers.

As Eustace lay dying, he “said things like ‘thank you’ and ‘good,’” according to Montiero’s statement.

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Kenneth Alan Eustace smashed the windshield of a car in the driveway, moments before he was fatally shot on July 12, 2017, in Grover Beach. Grover Beach Police Department

What else could have been done?

There’s no doubt that Eustace was a troubled soul bent on self-destruction.

But could there have been a different outcome, if, for example, a mental health clinician had been available to respond to previous calls, as happens in the city of San Luis Obispo?

What if Eustace had undergone a psychiatric evaluation the day before the fatal standoff, given that he was obviously a danger to himself and others?

Or what if at least one additional officer had been on duty in Grover Beach that night. Would that have made it possible to use a less lethal option?

Bean bag shotguns, for example, have been effective in similar situations in other jurisdictions. All Grover Beach police units are equipped with the less-lethal shotguns, but the officers did not use them.

“In this case, the officers were not aware of Mr. Eustace being armed until after they started walking up to him,” Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters explained via email. “Without that prior knowledge of Mr. Eustace being armed, the officers had no reason to take a bean bag shotgun with them.”

The chief also confirmed that the two officers had training in subjects such as crisis intervention, de-escalation techniques and conflict communications, though he wrote that he wasn’t at liberty to discuss specifics.

And he declined to respond to any “what if” if queries: “... The department does not respond to hypothetical questions that call for speculation.”

Perhaps nothing would have saved Kenneth Eustace from “dying by cop,” but accepting deadly force as a too-often inevitable outcome in such situations will only guarantee more deaths.

Mentally disturbed people deserve to be treated with care, competence and dignity, whether they live in Grover Beach, San Luis Obispo or San Francisco.

It’s beyond time for all California police and sheriff’s departments to be adequately staffed and outfitted with the best tools and training to de-escalate situations in a way that will keep them safe, while minimizing harm to others.

Details about the fatal police shooting on Brighton Avenue in Grover Beach on Wednesday, July 12, 2017, began to emerge Thursday. A man was shot and killed by Grover Beach police officers after he charged at them with a weapon, police say. Here's

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