In May, 36-year-old Nicholas Bils was fatally shot by a San Diego police officer while he was fleeing police custody. Bils—who has a history of severe mental illness—was unarmed when police officers gave chase. On Monday, prosecutors announced that the officer who shot and killed Bils has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The arrest and charge only happened due to a law put in place in California last August sparked by the shooting death of Stephon Clark.
Last year, The Root reported that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 392 into law. Also known as the “Stephon Clark Law,” the law requires that police officers use deadly force only when “necessary” as opposed to the previous law, which allowed the use of deadly force whenever officers thought it “reasonable.”
The change in policy was inspired by an incident in 2018 when Clark, 22, was shot and killed by Sacramento police officers while standing in the backyard of his grandmother’s house because officers claimed they mistook his cell phone for a gun.
According to the Washington Post, the charges against the officer who shot Bils, Aaron Russell, are among the first filed in California against a police officer since the new law went into effect. According to KNSD, it’s the first time ever that a San Diego police officer has been charged with murder over an on-duty shooting.
From the Post:
Bils had been arrested on May 1 after a confrontation with park rangers at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, where he had been putting a golf ball while walking with his dog. When the rangers told him the park was closed, he “brandished a putter” at one of them, Bils’s mother, Kathleen Bils, told KNSD.
Bils had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, his mother said, and probably didn’t understand the restrictions at the park related to the coronavirus pandemic. He was also afraid of police, she said, and had escaped from custody in the past.
The rangers handcuffed Bils and drove him downtown. Just outside the San Diego Central Jail, Bils managed to slip one hand free from the handcuffs, reach out the window of the ranger’s cruiser and open the door, police said. Russell, who worked as a detentions deputy in the jail, and another officer saw Bils fleeing on foot and gave chase. Russell then opened fire, killing Bils.
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said in a statement that her office “reached the decision to file criminal charges following a thorough review of all the objective facts and evidence in this case by specialized prosecutors and investigators in our Special Operations Division.”
“When a life is taken, we must make decisions based in facts and law, and not ones that are influenced by the status of the accused as a peace officer nor the status of the victim,” Stephan said. “These decisions must be made solely in the interest of justice and not based on favoritism nor public opinion. Every person must be accountable under the law.”
According to San Diego Union-Tribune, Russell—who had been a deputy for about 18 months and resigned days after the shooting—was booked into the county jail and is currently being held on $1 million bail.