On Tuesday, October 5th, Phoenix police officers Richard Chrisman and Sergio Virgillo responded to a domestic disturbance call made by Elvira Fernandez. Ms. Fernandez was concerned that her son, Danny Frank Rodriguez, was throwing things against the wall and might hurt her. She left her home and went to a neighbor’s home to call the police, in hopes they would reason with him and deescalate the situation. She hoped they would teach him some “respect” and if that failed, at least get him to leave her home.
Ms. Fernandez would learn a very hard lesson about calling the police to resolve family disputes that day (if you don’t already know, DON’T DO IT! Chances are, it’ll only make things worse, and certainly more violent). Instead of teaching her son the lesson she hoped for, 15 minutes after police arrived, her son (and the family dog) would lay dead on the floor of her mobile home. In the aftermath of this tragic shooting, Officer Vergillo, would be instrumental in his partner Chrisman’s arrest for what transpired in the trailer that afternoon.
Less than an hour after the shooting, Officer Chrisman was arrested and charged with aggravated assault, though officials acknowledge the severity of the incident warrants more severe charges being filed. His partner’s allegations, outlined in an extensive police report, describe Chrisman as a loose cannon, like Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon character, immediately after initiating contact with the victim drawing his gun, holding it to Rodriguez’s head and shouting “I don’t need no warrant, motherfucker.”
Vergillo describes that afternoon as “the worst day of [his] life,” surely an understatement as far as the family of Danny Rodriguez is concerned. However, it goes to show just how egregious Chrisman’s behavior must have been. In his sworn statement, Vergillo states emphatically that there was never a threat to either officer that would justify deadly force, and that Rodriguez never displayed a weapon. He also asserted that the dog that Chrisman executed barked, but had never “attacked” them, and that Rodriguez was understandably upset when his dog was killed, so he tried to talk him down and de-escalate the situation. When Chrisman went “hands on” with Rodriguez, Vergillo attempted to assist him, going so far as to deploy his own Taser, after Chrisman had failed to subdue Rodriguez with his own. In a display of valiant defiance, Rodriguez removed the Taser probes and stood up, whereupon Chrisman shot him in the face with “OC” (pepper) spray. Finally, Rodriguez informed the officers of his intent to leave, grabbing his bicycle that had been leaning against the kitchen counter. Vergillo stood behind Chrisman as Rodriguez attempted to exit the trailer, both hands on the handlebars of his bike, stepping toward the door. Chrisman grasped the handlebars from the other side, and a physical struggle for control of the bike ensued, and finally, with his partner only a few feet away, Chrisman stepped back from the bicycle, drew his weapon, and fired repeatedly into Rodriguez’s chest, killing him almost instantly.
It was after this climactic end to what should have been a routine domestic disturbance call that Chrisman simply left the building, while his partner was left to tend to the victim. Vergillo immediately radioed in a “998,” the PPD code for an officer involved shooting and requested an ambulance, but that was to no avail. Soon after that, detectives arrived, and on the basis of Vergillo’s statement, Chrisman was arrested on the scene.
This horrific situation raises a number of questions. Obviously, if true, the allegations against Chrisman are an extremely egregious case of police brutality, excessive force, and abuse of authority. But, in addition, one must ask, what about Officer Vergillo? Why did he stand by while all this went down, in the course of what he knew was likely an unjustified entry, especially after the assault with a deadly weapon (Chrisman placing his gun against Rodriguez’s temple) committed by his partner? Why did it take witnessing a willful act of murder to bring out this officer’s sense of duty to protect the community from acts of violent criminality?
The Police Union has come out in support of Officer Chrisman, helping him post a $150,000 bond, despite him being accused of gross violations of civil rights, professional standards of behavior, and the most basic moral tenets of any human society, and not by a mere mundane, but by a fellow officer. It is telling that Chrisman is a member of PLEA (an ironic name, under the circumstances) the Phoenix police officers union, while Vergillo is not.
Examining the record on these two officers is very enlightening. Chrisman is on the Brady list, a national database available to prosecutors of officers whose credibility as witnesses have been thoroughly compromised, due to documented instances of official dishonesty. Of course, the specifics of the 2007 incident that landed him there are kept secret from the public, but the significance of this fact is obvious. That the state itself does not trust this man to proffer honest testimony in open court speaks volumes about his integrity, especially given the well known proclivity the boys in blue have for “creative” testimony on behalf of their government handlers. If a DA wont have him, whatever it was, it must have been BAD. In addition, he has built extensive files with personnel and internal affairs in his 9-year tenure with the force.
On the other hand, Vergillo is a 14-year PPD veteran, and while he’s not on the Brady list, and hasn’t had any previous public allegations of excessive force, it is alleged he was demoted from the Drug Enforcement Bureau on account of his wife’s criminal involvement with the cartels. Nonetheless, by comparison, he looks far more reliable and credible than his partner.
Which brings me to the crux of this conflict for the powers that be. While racial tensions and the political climate cannot be overlooked, what with Joe Arpaio’s war on brown folks, the recent payout of a large settlement by the neighboring City of Mesa for a police shooting that ended the life of a 15 year old Hispanic boy, the embarrassing arrest of African American city councilman and former police officer Michael Johnson, and statewide minority outrage against SB1070, which Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has publicly come out against, what is more interesting to me is the clash of cultures within the police community. Both accuser and accused are police officers. The union is firmly behind Officer Chrisman, whom they represent, but have so far refrained from openly criticizing his partner (the same cannot be said for Chrisman’s attorney, who is being paid for by PLEA). Meanwhile, Officer Vergillo and members of his family have already made statements to the press, and the Chief of the Phoenix Police Department has held a press conference that was unusual in it’s candor, wherein he seemed genuinely interested in seeing some kind of justice done, and highly critical of Chrisman’s behavior. He even went as far as thanking Vergillo for “telling the truth” about the matter, suggesting he believes the allegations to be accurate. However, the attitude of rank and file officers is not so supportive, and online comments identifying themselves as police personnel or their families have already referred to Vergillo as “the rat in the station” and suggested that he’s motivated by racial solidarity with the victim, despite the fact that he’s Italian, and not Hispanic.
In spite of the chief’s laudatory speeches and assurances to concerned community leaders that he’ll be protected from professional reprisal, I can tell you what is likely to happen to Officer Vergillo for speaking up. The same thing that happened to countless others who dared cross that “Thin Blue Line” in order to keep their “Brother Officers” honest, and to police their own. He’ll be frozen out, his performance reviews will suddenly become universally negative, he’ll get the worst shifts, in the worst neighborhoods, and he’ll get partnered with all the misfit rookies. They’ll harass him, threaten him and otherwise treat him like a pariah until he quits, or retires, or transfers elsewhere. In the worst case, he’ll be set up for a crime or even murdered (it has happened before). Within most police forces, officers value group loyalty over individual honesty, and betrayal of that loyalty is the one crime they will not look the other way on or cover up for another officer.
I’ll be following this story as it develops, and I’ll bring you updates as they become available. Should be very interesting to watch this play out. I can only hope that the resolution brings some level of justice to Elvira Fernandez, though I doubt it will do much to assuage the guilt she feels for calling the police that fateful day.