Steven Vargas—will anyone be held accountable for his death?

No More Stolen Lives

By Mike Rhodes

Editor’s note: An important trial, particularly for those interested in police accountability issues, will begin on Dec. 6 in federal court in Fresno. The trial will look into the shooting of Steven Vargas by Fresno Police Sgt. Mike Palomino. Much of the information below is from the plaintiff’s trial brief.

Most police officers never pull out their gun and shoot at a fellow human being in their entire career. Fresno Police Sgt. Mike Palomino has done it nine times. He always gets back to duty three days later as though nothing happened.

Steven Anthony Vargas was shot to death by Palomino as Vargas sat stopped, contained in his vehicle, seat-belted in and oblivious to his surroundings on a sunny mid-afternoon in the fall of 2009. Palomino escalated a non-emergency into a police shooting within moments of arriving at the scene on East McKinley Avenue where Vargas had coasted slowly off the road and into the side of a Dodge van in a driveway. Vargas sat immobilized for minutes.

Within seconds of when Palomino arrived, he unloaded a clip of bullets on Vargas, then reloaded and shot him some more. Vargas was unarmed. His driving could have been a relatively minor incident. But it turned into a killing because a habitual shooter, who was fully aware that his department delayed “investigations” of officer-involved shootings for years and never disciplined officers for shootings—even shootings of unarmed suspects—used deadly force without justification.

When he shot Vargas, Palomino knew the following:

  • He would not be punished because he never had been before. Moreover, in his entire career, he had never heard of a Fresno police officer being disciplined for a shooting.
  • The shooting would not be investigated on a timely basis because his shootings and those of other officers never had been before.
  • He would not be inconvenienced with training or retraining, modified duty or any extended leave because he never had been before.
  • In three days, he would be back on the streets, as he had been eight times before, including earlier that year.

In the more than two years since Vargas’ death, Palomino has not been disciplined for the shooting and the Fresno Police Department has not decided whether the shooting of Vargas was justified. This shooting and these problems are going to trial at the Federal Courthouse beginning on Dec. 6 before Chief Judge Anthony W. Ishii in Courtroom 2.

*****

Mike Rhodes is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at editor@fresnoalliance.com.

  • Mike Rhodes is the executive director of theCommunity Alliance newspaper and author of the book Dispatches from the War Zone, about homelessness in Fresno. www.mikerhodes.us is his website. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.

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