Yale Daily News

Last month, Yan Li, a 47 year-old San Diego resident and doctoral graduate from the Yale School of Public Health, was fatally shot by a San Diego police officer and several San Diego County sheriff’s deputies when deputies served her with an eviction notice at her condo on W Beech Street.

According to the body camera video released by the San Diego County sheriff’s Department, at around 12:30 p.m. on March 3, in the 400 block of W. Beech Street in Little Italy, San Diego County sheriff’s Deputy Jason Bunch served an eviction notice to Li. She opened the door with a knife, and the situation escalated as she refused to put it down and the deputy called for backup. Three San Diego County sheriff’s deputies and an officer with the San Diego Police Department opened fire on her after she allegedly stabbed a SDPD K-9 officer in the chest. Li died at the scene. Her death sent shockwaves around the School of Public Health, Asian American Students Alliance at Yale and Alliance of Chinese Americans San Diego, prompting a discussion on the excessive use of police force, especially against non-white civilians.

“We at the Yale School of Public Health were deeply saddened to learn of the March 3 fatal shooting of Dr. Yan Li by a San Diego police officer and several San Diego County sheriff’s deputies,” School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund, professor Heping Zhang, and Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Mayur Desai wrote in an op-ed to The San Diego Union-Tribune. “Dr. Li was a talented scientist who received her doctorate in biostatistics from our school, winning one of our most prestigious student awards. It is heartbreaking to see a colleague’s life end violently in footage from police body cameras. Our hearts go out to everyone scarred by this tragedy, none of whom began their day expecting such trauma. It is wise, then, to seek to learn about the origin of events that led both to the stabbing of a police officer and that cost the life of a 47-year-old scientist and mother of a UC Berkeley student.”

In September 2003, Li co-authored the paper “Analyzing Multiply Matched Cohort Studies with Two Different Comparison Groups: Application to Pregnancy Rates among HIV+ Women” with professors Daniel Zelterman and Brian Forsyth.

Forsyth wrote to the News that he was sad to hear of her death but that he did not know Li personally. Zelterman declined to speak.

On April 3, the Asian Americans Students Alliance at Yale released a statement on Li’s death.

“AASA reaffirmed its commitment to abolition,” AASA wrote. “Countless examples of police brutality, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities, confirm that our current criminal justice system operates on racist, violent, and militant tactics that sees human life as disposable when presented with inconvenient situations.”

What happened on March 3

The body camera video shows that when Bunch handed the eviction notice to Li and noticed she was holding a knife, he said, “Put the knife down or I’m going to f***ing shoot you.” Bunch held the gun against Li while repeatedly commanding her to put the knife down, and Li refused and shouted back: “Put your gun down. How do I know you are not an intruder?”

Bunch did not respond to Li’s request to show his badge.

After Li threw away the paperwork and shut the door, Bunch called for additional deputies and resources. The law enforcement personnel returning to the apartment brought a police dog and both non-lethal — a “bean-bag” gun — and lethal weapons.

Lt. Matt Dobbs from the Homicide Division said at a press conference that the deputies tried to communicate with Li for the next 45 minutes before they went inside her condo, and a supervisor attempted to speak with Li through the door.

According to Dobbs, Li threatened a custodial worker at the building a day before. 

Bunch was the first officer to enter Li’s apartment. The deputies and officer shot Li with bean bags when she was hiding in her bedroom and refused to come out. The situation quickly escalated to chaotic shouting and Li allegedly stabbed the K-9 officer, prompting Officer Rogelio Medina, Sheriff’s Sgt. Daniel Nickel and deputies Javier Medina and David Williams to open fire.

The deputies provided around 10 minutes of first-aid to Li before paramedics arrived. Li died at the scene.

The injured K-9 officer was treated at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center and released.

The San Diego Police Department homicide detectives are investigating the events surrounding Li’s death. A decision on the legitimacy of the shooting will be determined when the investigations have concluded.

The department did not respond to the several requests for comment.

Experts discussed how police could respond to mental health crises amongst civilians

Questions soon arose about Li’s death, with several suggesting that the police could have better handled the situation.

“The video really was horrifying,” Vermund said. “Dr. Li seemed pretty paranoid on camera. … The sheriff’s deputy responded to her opening [the] door with a knife by drawing his gun, screaming at her, and screaming obscenities at her, which is not likely to reduce paranoia.”

Vermund also noted that eviction is one of the most anxiety provoking events.

There might have been an advantage to having a professional crisis counselor or experienced mental health social worker present to work with Li and potentially save her life, Vermund said.

“Best practices used in other law enforcement jurisdictions should be studied to see how persons experiencing a crisis can best be engaged with the assistance of trained mental health professionals.” the three School of Public Health professors wrote in the op-ed. “Such experts can be embedded within law enforcement personnel, and their deployment can be part of the standard procedures for emergency response when dealing with a potentially disturbed person.”

Vermund said that the op-ed was written to continue the discussion of the circumstances and how the San Diego Police Department — and every police department — can respond to persons with mental crises more effectively. He also pointed out that the number of individuals who suffer from mental illness and experience issues of police brutality or misuse of force is high, but often does not receive the same attention as victims may not have the same educational background as Li. 

John DeCarlo, professor and director of the master’s program in criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said that, looking at the video, when Li and the deputy seemed to be in an “excited condition,” it was “almost [irreversible] that there was going to be violence.”

According to DeCarlo, it is not uncommon to send a police officer to serve a civil service such as eviction, and such a move is not only a “poor use of resource,” but also less effective than a team effort that incorporates mental health professionals.

DeCarlo further added that, unlike law and medical fields where the American Bar Association and American Medical Association have a universal standard of training, police departments in different municipalities often have different use of force policies and training models with various degrees of effectiveness. 

“I would question if it is time in the United States to have a national set of standards for policing, for training … use of force … vetting.” DeCarlo said. “I think that it is time that we have to really take a look at these problems and not keep on trying to handle them in such granular fashion, I think that we have to come together as a country and come up with some meaningful, substantive solutions.”

Asian American and Chinese American communities demand justice for Li

The Alliance of Chinese Americans San Diego issued a statement on their website, with a series of questions on SDPD training and protocol as well as the deputies and officers’ practices in the incident.

“Why did the deputy escalate the situation after Dr. Li had already closed the door and the situation appeared to have returned to normal?” the ACA wrote. “Why was a K-9 Unit at the scene but not a mental health professional? … Under what pretense did police and deputies decide to enter Dr. Li’s residence without a warrant when Dr. Li appeared to pose no imminent danger to the public? Why did the police and deputies force their way into Dr. Li’s residence and forced a confrontation which led to her death before a mental health expert from the county’s PERT team (Psychiatric Emergency Response Team) arrived on the scene?”

ACA also questioned whether the proper training and procedures have been implemented by the sheriff’s department to carry out the eviction process.

According to the California Courts website, California law requires a two-step eviction process: delivering the eviction notice, and no less than five days later, performing a physical eviction if necessary. 

ACA claimed that Bunch should have left when he delivered the eviction notice, and the proper procedure would be to wait until the final eviction date before trying to forcibly remove Li.

In addition, ACA demanded an independent investigation into the police shooting death of Li, and the implementation of de-escalation training comparable to the best practices for all law enforcement officers. Additionally, the Alliance called for mandatory training for law enforcement officers to recognize and appropriately deal with people with mental health issues and for the San Diego Police and County Sheriff’s Department to host a town hall meeting to provide full account of the incident, answer community questions and explain the proper protocol and procedure when serving a notice to evict.

According to the San Diego Police Department Policy Manual, deadly force should be used only when all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or appear impractical.

Hannah Qu covers Cops and Courts. Originally from Jinan, China, she is a first year in Trumbull College.