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A Catastrophic Failure with Tragic Results

Why Wasn’t More Done to Prevent the Isla Vista Tragedy?


Several media sources reported on June 20, 2014, that the parents of the first three victims of Elliot Rodger’s “murderous rampage” in Isla Vista are frustrated and angered by the authorities’ handling of the case. We completely agree. In the wake of the deadly rampage, many citizens are asking why more wasn’t done to prevent the bloodshed. It is not just a question of gun rights versus tight restrictions on firearms. It is not just a question of early treatment by mental health professionals. It is the unanswered question that must be asked whether the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office could have prevented this tragedy.

Without any doubt, the Sheriff’s department is staffed by dedicated professional peace officers who try to do the right thing every day. Our firm represented the Deputy Sheriff’s Association years ago and is proud to have done so. The Sheriff’s department is largely a rural/suburban force, spread out across a vast county of ranches, agricultural land, and vineyards. But it also has an intense urban function in Isla Vista, something the members of the department are not sufficiently trained to handle.

Rodger’s mother called law enforcement to warn about her son. The Sheriff conducted a woefully inadequate investigation of an imminent threat and missed the opportunity to prevent six deaths. A more thorough assessment of Rodger should have been done, based on available information, before he had a chance to kill. The Sheriff apparently was concerned enough about the threat to send multiple deputies to the killer’s apartment to interview him, yet they: 1) did not view the disturbing videos to which they had been alerted; 2) did not search the statewide gun registration database, which would have shown numerous weapons registered to him; and 3) apparently did not interview his roommates, who later were brutally murdered.

Had the Sheriff’s Office done these things, the deputies would have been in a better position to know that a search of the killer’s apartment was warranted. Instead, the Sherriff concluded there was no immediate threat, and no basis to search the apartment. That conclusion, of course, was proven horribly wrong. In the killer’s own chilling words, had the deputies “demanded to search my room … . That would have ended everything.”

There were many red flags that foretold this tragic incident, but the inadequate investigation left our community at grave risk. That risk was the result of poor leadership and deficient training of deputies. Unlike an appointed police chief, the County Sheriff is an elected official. The Sheriff spent a good deal of time on political matters, and he was in the midst of a reelection campaign during these events. He has denied any failures by his office.

We have seen this kind of “circle the wagons” reaction from this Sheriff before: In a case this office handled against the same department, the Sheriff refused even to consider that one of his deputies did something wrong in connection with a horrific head-on collision on the 101 Freeway in 2009. The poor training and negligence by the Sheriff’s Department ended up resulting in a multimillion-dollar settlement to the family.

The Sheriff should be standing up and taking responsibility for his department’s failures. The buck stops at his door.

A. Barry Cappello is managing partner of the Santa Barbara law firm Cappello & Noël LLP.

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