Lodi's police chief, meeting privately last week with a small group of residents about a case that has roiled the town and its Sikh community, strongly defended the two officers who shot and killed a mentally ill Army veteran as he walked toward his mother's home on a Saturday morning in January.
"You know, I have two very, very good police officers that are having a lot of trouble with this," Chief Mark Helms said in an audio recording of the meeting that The Sacramento Bee obtained from a source. "And nobody's thinking about them, either."
Helms asked for the meeting with Sikh leaders, according to those in attendance. He spoke for nearly two hours at the April 17 gathering, giving his first detailed public comments about the killing of Parminder Singh Shergill, a Sikh whose family has deep roots in Northern California.
During the session, Helms described the lengthy investigative process, and suggested that Shergill, 43, was "troubled" and had been violent in the past. Helms also spoke of the need for more services for mentally ill people, especially veterans, in San Joaquin County.
But the chief offered little new information about the events that led to the fatal shooting. Family members have said Shergill suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from his military service during the Gulf War.
"I would love to share with you details about the investigation," Helms said. "I can't right now." He said the key information would be made public only upon conclusion of the probe being conducted by the Lodi Police Department, the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office, the county coroner and the California Department of Justice.
Family members said the meeting did nothing to reassure them that the investigation would be fair and unbiased.
"I've lost faith," said Shergill's nephew Aman Sohota, who attended the meeting. "They keep telling us that they are going to release information, but they don't do it. I think the process is corrupt. I think the DA is going to somehow end up justifying this."
Kuldeep Dhatt, president of Lodi's Sikh Temple, also attended the meeting and came away with a different perspective.
"It's not the Lodi police who let this young man down," she said. "It's the country. He was a veteran, and he didn't receive proper treatment. A young man's life is lost. It's a wrongful death however you look at it. But we have to move forward and start looking for solutions, and that was what we hoped this meeting would accomplish."
In a brief interview Wednesday evening, Helms said he was "disappointed" that the meeting was recorded and leaked to The Bee.
"We brought leaders of the Sikh community into our conference room to have an open dialogue. It's disappointing that someone violated the trust of everyone else at the table by secretly recording the meeting," he said.
Nevertheless, "I thought it was a great meeting. It was fantastic," Helms said.
On the day of the shooting, according to family members, Shergill woke up anxious and upset. He left home visibly agitated and began walking. Concerned relatives called Lodi police in hopes officers could locate Shergill and bring him home. The department had helped the family several times in recent years when they asked for assistance in getting him treatment.
Shortly after the family's call, two veteran officers shot and killed Shergill, just a few houses from where he lived with his mother and brother. The department has said that Shergill charged officers with a knife and that they had no choice but to open fire. Relatives said they counted 14 bullet holes in Shergill's body and questioned why police had fired so many shots.
At the meeting, Helms said, "I can't get into details" about that matter. But in general "you never have an officer who was in a potentially deadly encounter try and use a lesser level of deadly force, like a bean bag or Taser," he said. "It just can't happen, because we would have a whole lot more dead and injured police officers."
The officers who shot Shergill were back to work in a week, a time frame some family members have taken issue with. Helms said at the meeting that the decision "was my call," based on the initial investigation of what occurred that day and psychological evaluations of the two officers. "I was absolutely comfortable to bring them back to work," he said.
The case has sparked town hall meetings, an online petition demanding "Justice For Parminder Singh Shergill" and a civil rights lawsuit against the city and its Police Department, filed by Sacramento attorney Mark Merin. Lodi has hired two private attorneys with experience in civil rights and police liability cases to defend the city.
Helms said in the recording that he called the meeting, attended by about a dozen people, to start "a dialogue because we're not bad people, and you're not bad people, and things are going sideways."
"I just ask that you give us a chance," he said, "and let us do our jobs."
The chief said that in the near future he plans to make public disclosures about the case and "it's not going to be pleasant." He mentioned Shergill's previous arrests several years ago, which court records show include threats against his former wife and having a concealed weapon in his car. Both cases were dismissed, according to records.
Helms said he also plans to release a photo of the "tactical" knife that Shergill allegedly used to threaten officers, a transcript of the 911 call made from Shergill's home to police on the day he was killed, and recordings of police radio transmissions related to the call. "It tells a different story than what's out there already," he said. "I want to prepare you for that."
Once all of the agencies complete their reports, the DA's office will decide "what laws, if any, were broken," Helms told the group. Such investigations typically take a year, he said.
In the future, Helms said, his department "is going to have a conversation" about handling a growing number of mentally ill people, including veterans. Services are inadequate, and police increasingly have to intervene when people present a danger to themselves or others, he said.
Shergill, he said, "had a lot going on and the question that I would ask is, "Were mental health providers helping him? Was he on the right medication? Should he have been living somewhere else besides home? You know, what was his family doing for him? What was the community doing for him? What was the VA doing for him?"
Merin, the Sacramento lawyer, was not present at the meeting but said he had read a transcript. He called it "an attempt to get control of the dialogue and assassinate the character of the deceased, while at the same time building up the reputation and integrity of his officers."
"It was a tactic to try to sway public opinion," Merin said, "while at the same time refusing to produce the evidence that would allow the public to judge for itself."
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