The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office declined to file criminal charges against a veteran Morgan Hill Police sergeant who accidentally fired his handgun on duty in April 2018, injuring a teenage girl.
The girl who was shot had been riding in a stolen van that led officers on a high-speed chase through town just before the incident.
The shooting occurred April 29, 2018, after several Morgan Hill police officers responded to a sighting of the van, which had been reported stolen earlier in the day from Live Oak High School. The van, driven by a 15-year-old male, ultimately crashed into a light pole and fire hydrant near Llagas Road and Del Monte Avenue while attempting to evade officers, according to the DA’s report compiled by Assistant DA Brian Welch.
After the van came to a stop due to the collision, officers surrounded the vehicle to conduct a high-risk felony car stop, defined in the DA’s report as “when an officer executes a car stop that poses a significant risk to the safety of the officer when dealing with the occupants of a vehicle.” As Sgt. Bill Norman approached the passenger’s side of the vehicle from the sidewalk, with the broken fire hydrant gushing water into the air between Norman and the van, two teenage females exited the van.
With his department-issued handgun in his left hand, Norman ordered both teens to the ground as they walked slowly toward him, with their hands up. He used his right hand to “push” one of the girls to the ground, the DA’s report says. At the same time, Norman went to holster his firearm with his left hand, and accidentally fired a round into the ground near the sidewalk. A bullet fragment bounced off the ground and struck one of the teens in the area of her right eye. This fragment was broken into two small pieces when an MHPD officer retrieved the evidence from Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital, where the girl was transported and treated. The metallic fragments had been removed from her eyelid at the hospital. The injured teen is identified only as 14-year-old “M. Doe” in the DA’s report.
The girl was released from the hospital the next day, according to the DA’s report. Welch described her injury as “slight” in a brief interview with this newspaper earlier this week. A photo of the teen, taken shortly after she was admitted at Stanford Hospital in April 2018, shows her right eye was swollen shut. The photo is included in the DA’s investigation report.
The other female passenger, a 15-year-old, and the driver were also treated for minor injuries—likely resulting from the collision that concluded the high-speed chase—at a nearby hospital. The male driver surrendered after crashing the van, and he was arrested on suspicion of evading police and possession of a stolen vehicle, according to the DA’s report.
The investigation by DA Jeff Rosen’s office relied on individual officers’ written reports of the incident, interviews with some of the officers, Norman’s body camera footage, statements from the teens and other witnesses, a crime lab analysis of Norman’s firearm and bullet fragments that struck the girl, as well as other physical evidence. MHPD officers began gathering evidence and documenting the scene the same evening Norman reported the accidental discharge, the DA’s report describes.
In Welch’s legal analysis of the incident, he determined that Norman “appropriately approached this vehicle stop as high risk” with his firearm drawn. Investigators determined the shooting was indeed accidental.
While M. Doe and the other female teen passenger of the van, identified as “Z. Doe,” told investigators that Norman “pushed” or “slammed” M. Doe to the ground before the firearm discharged, the DA’s report said this use of force by Norman was “reasonable.”
“The physical contact was…to gain her swift compliance to the command to get on the ground,” the DA’s report says.
“The fact that the firearm discharged and caused injury to M. Doe was an unfortunate accident that does not expose Sgt. Norman to criminal liability,” the DA’s report concludes.
Norman has been a police officer for 23 years. He has been a Morgan Hill officer since 2005, and was promoted to sergeant in 2008, the DA’s report reads. He currently serves as the department’s public information officer, in addition to his regular patrol and supervisory responsibilities. Norman declined to comment on the April 2018 incident or the DA’s conclusion.
Morgan Hill Police Chief David Swing said, “When any accident or unintentional act occurs that results in injury, we clearly are regretful for what happened. We certainly are grateful that the teenager’s injuries were not more severe.”
Swing added that the department conducted an internal administrative review of the April 2018 incident, with the help of an outside firm. Swing declined to specify the results of that review, including any disciplinary decisions, but said MHPD will be implementing some of the firm’s recommendations.
The chief added that Norman is “an integral part of our team,” and he is “highly regarded in our department and in our community.”
“I have full faith and confidence in his abilities, as I do each and everyone else in our department, and that’s an unwavering statement of confidence,” Swing continued.
The DA’s 27-page report of the events culminating in the accidental shooting describes a tense, volatile situation that started with M. Doe’s parents reporting the teen missing April 28, 2018. She and Z. Doe had apparently left a birthday party at Guglielmo Winery that evening to hang out with a group of teens they knew.
About 2pm April 29, Officer Sara Alanis investigated a report of a burglary and stolen van at Live Oak High School on East Main Avenue, reads the DA’s report. Someone had broken into a building on campus and stolen the van keys before taking off with the vehicle.
Over the next few hours, officers learned that the two teen girls reported missing were riding around in the stolen van with the 15-year-old male and two other juvenile females, according to the DA’s report. The 15-year-old male had recently been involved in a burglary in which a firearm was stolen, according to authorities.
Police Cpl. Scott Martin saw the van traveling southbound on Butterfield Boulevard near Jarvis Drive about 7:20pm, and attempted to make a traffic stop, according to the DA’s office. The driver refused to stop, leading Martin and other officers on a high-speed chase across to the west side of town, and north up Del Monte Avenue.
The van repeatedly ran stop signs and red lights, and ignored obstructions in the roadway in the driver’s effort to evade police, authorities said. Martin used a PIT collision technique to force the van to lose control in the area of Llagas Road and Del Monte Avenue. By that time, Norman and other officers were chasing the van. Norman had begun his shift as watch commander just before 6pm April 29.
The van spun around due to the PIT technique, and the driver tried to accelerate toward Norman’s patrol vehicle. But the driver lost control again and crashed into the light pole and fire hydrant.
That was when officers and patrol cars surrounded the van and crash scene. The DA’s report describes the surprise exhibited by Norman and other officers when they learned he had accidentally discharged his firearm.
When Martin heard the firearm go off at the scene, he “looked at Sgt. Norman’s face and saw that he appeared to have been startled by the gunshot,” reads the report. Norman stated in surprise, “Jesus Christ,” after the firearm discharged, according to the DA’s description of Norman’s body camera footage of the incident. Both officers then checked for injuries on themselves and the teens. M. Doe was the only person injured by the gunshot.
The body camera footage was not released with the DA’s report, and Swing said the department is not planning to release the video.
The DA’s office investigates all officer-involved shootings that result in injury or death, including accidents, in Santa Clara County.