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A police officer shot a fleeing teen. It was his second on-duty killing in less than a year.

Officer Ross Bays of California's Ceres Police Department was involved in fatal incidents in 2017 and 2018. (Video: The Washington Post)

A teenage boy stumbles out of a car and sprints into an orchard as a police officer pulls up, emerges from his vehicle and, without issuing any warning, opens fire, body camera footage shows.

By the time it is over, 15-year-old Carmen Spencer Mendez is dead, and Ceres, Calif., police officer Ross Bays has participated in his second fatal officer-involved shooting in less than a year.

Mendez’s death took place on Aug. 18, 2018. On Oct. 22, 2017, Bays and another officer were involved in the fatal shooting of 27-year-old Nicholas Pimentel, who had attempted to flee a vehicle stop. The body camera footage of both incidents, first obtained by the Modesto Bee through public information requests in late November and early December, was released to The Washington Post by the city of Ceres on Dec. 6.

Nearly 1,000 people were fatally shot by police in the United States in both 2017 and 2018, according to a years-long Post analysis. These incidents have drawn increased scrutiny of police actions and nationwide calls for police reform over the past five years.

An officer was charged with assault on a bystander. Then prosecutors took a closer look at his past.

Generally, police officers are allowed to use deadly force if they have a reasonable belief that they are facing a threat of deadly force to either themselves or a member of the public, said David Harris, an expert on police use of force at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. In both cases, Bays believed the suspects posed a safety threat, documents from internal affairs investigations showed. Reports stated that Mendez had a handgun when he ran away, and a firearm was found a few feet from his body.

But Harris said the proximity of the shootings should concern any police department, even if they were ultimately ruled justified.

“Most police officers can get through an entire career without firing their weapon,” Harris said. For a person to be involved in officer-involved shootings in consecutive years, he said, “calls for attention of the most serious kind."

The Ceres Police Department conducted internal affairs investigations of each incident, and Bays was exonerated of wrongdoing in both.

Bays and his colleague, Sgt. Darren Venn, were cleared of wrongdoing in the 2017 incident in an investigation by the Stanislaus County district attorney’s office. The 2018 incident remains under investigation by the district attorney.

Bays is on medical leave and has moved to Idaho, according to Sgt. Greg Yotsuya, Ceres Police Department spokesman. He declined to comment further, citing the active investigation.

The Post was unable to reach Bays by phone or email, but he told the Idaho Statesman he could not comment.

“Unfortunately, as much as I might like to do that,” Bays said, “we have a policy against me commenting because I am still a city employee.”

The city of Ceres has paid a total of $4.1 million to settle two lawsuits brought by the two men’s families, the Ceres Courier reported.

A fleeing suspect, and shots fired

The sequence of events that led to Mendez’s August 2018 death began with a car chase.

According to an internal affairs investigation report obtained by The Post, Ceres officers were alerted at 4:15 p.m. to reports of a black Lexus whose driver, reportedly wearing a black shirt, allegedly had brandished a chrome handgun at a person in a skate park. As officers converged on the area, they received reports that the car had been involved in a hit-and-run collision and was fleeing south. Bays, who had a police dog with him, joined the pursuit. The Lexus ran stop signs before eventually slowing to a stop near the orchard.

It was at this point that Mendez exited the car, with the report stating that he was carrying a handgun, which he dropped and picked up before taking off.

Bays’s body camera footage shows that Mendez stumbled away from the black Lexus before getting back up and sprinting into the orchard. Bays gets out of his vehicle, raises his firearm, and begins shooting as Mendez runs away. He gives no warning that he is about to fire, and no instruction to stop. Bays told an officer at the scene, and later, internal investigators, that he saw Mendez had been holding a gun.

The video shows Bays firing 16 rounds and reloading as he pursues Mendez. A few moments later, Mendez comes into the frame again: This time, he is lying facedown in the grass, not moving. Bays yells at Mendez, “Do not move, I will shoot you again,” and the 15-year-old remains still. Two other officers arrive at the scene and kneel to detain Mendez, who remains unresponsive.

As the officers restrain Mendez, who was wearing a white top and red pants, Bays heads back toward the road to detain the other suspects who had been in the Lexus. A public safety officer, Sgt. Trenton Johnson, approaches Bays to take a statement.

“Who shot him?” Johnson asks.

“I did,” Bays replies.

Bays struck Mendez twice, according to the internal investigation report. Mendez had not returned fire.

In a police report, an officer who attempted to revive Mendez noted that he was bleeding from an open wound and had no detectable heartbeat. Mendez was pronounced dead at 4:36 p.m., according to a Ceres police report.

Mendez had been “armed with a handgun” when he fled the Lexus, according to the internal investigation. The report states that he lost his footing and dropped the handgun before recovering, grabbing the gun and running off into the field. A Ruger .357-caliber revolver was found near the spot where Mendez fell after Bays shot him, and officers found rifles and ammunition in the trunk of the Lexus.

Four other suspects, who had been in the Lexus with Mendez, were detained by police.

In November, Mendez’s family reached a settlement with the city of Ceres for $2.1 million.

The family’s lawyer, Adam Stewart, noted that Bays “never shouted commands for my client to stop, to give up. He simply got out and completely unloaded in the direction of my client about 38 yards away.” Stewart also contended that Bays should have released his K-9 rather than firing.

“He had a fully capable trained German shepherd, ready to be released. These animals are trained for these type of arrests,” Stewart said. “He could have let the dog go."

In an interview with police investigators, Bays said he had opened fire because he feared that Mendez was armed and posed a public-safety threat. He also said he had feared that he could lose sight of Mendez in the orchard and that the suspect would double back on him.

Database: 864 people have been shot and killed by police in 2019

A previous case ends with gunfire

Shortly after 1 a.m. on Oct. 22, 2017, Bays and Venn performed a traffic stop on a pickup truck driven by Pimentel, who sped off in his vehicle and led the officers on an eight-mile chase, according to an internal affairs investigation. Venn used a vehicular maneuver to stop him. Bays pinned Pimentel’s truck against his patrol car and another vehicle, and left his vehicle to avoid placing the passenger traveling with Pimentel in the line of fire.

The internal affairs report states that Pimentel attempted to reverse away from the officers, and at one point looked directly at Bays, turned the steering wheel toward him and accelerated the engine. At that point, Bays and Venn discharged their weapons, the report states.

Body-camera footage from officer Jessica Graham, who arrived shortly after Pimentel’s car was pinned, shows an officer with his gun drawn as the wheels of a trapped vehicle frantically spin. Moments later, numerous gunshots are heard as Venn and Bays fire into the vehicle. Video shows officers pulling Pimentel from the truck and performing lifesaving measures, but Pimentel died of his wounds after being transported to a hospital.

An investigation by the Stanislaus County district attorney said that Venn and Bays were justified in the shooting, the Modesto Bee reported, and had acted in “self-defense and-or in the defense of others and to prevent the escape of a dangerous suspect.”

An internal affairs investigation by the Ceres Police Department exonerated both officers for their use of force.

“Both officers feared for their lives based on the actions of Mr. Pimentel at the conclusion of the pursuit,” Capt. Rick Collins wrote. Collins did recommend that Venn receive a written reprimand for not wearing his body camera during the shooting. Bays’s camera had malfunctioned, so neither officer’s body camera captured the shooting.

The city settled with Pimentel’s family for $2 million, the Ceres Courier reported.

Harris, the use-of-force expert, said it is not unusual for cities to settle with families after deadly shootings, but the settlements in Bays’s cases struck him as high.

“It’s one thing to settle a case for $10,000 to get rid of it,” Harris said; "$2 million is not a getting-rid-of-a-nuisance-case payment.

“Nobody settles a case for millions of dollars unless there’s real legal jeopardy from the facts,” he said.

“For it to happen twice in two years still doesn’t mean the person is at fault in some way,” Harris said. “But it would definitely raise the kind of red flags that would cause most departments to say, ‘Okay, wait a minute, what’s going on here?' Any department that is using any kind of system to track telltale signs of problems would definitely notice this, ask hard questions and make sure that this individual was still fit to serve."

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