Early Sunday morning at 3:30 a.m., four Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) officers responded to a call about a disturbance on the 200 block of Chace Street on the Westside. The resident called 911 saying someone, later identified as Sean Arlt, was pounding on his front and back door and yelling threats to the people inside.
“There was no exchange between the officers and [the suspect]. Sean approached them at a very fast pace wielding a large rake, a bow-headed rake, and when the officers gave commands, an excess of eight,” said SCPD Deputy Chief Rick Martinez, “there was no response and [Arlt] was totally uncommunicative.” Martinez is serving as stand-in chief while SCPD Chief Kevin Vogel is out of the country.
The caller also said that Arlt had a history of mental illness, and the officers who responded were aware of his history of mental illness. When the officers arrived, they found Arlt near the backyard holding a metal gardening rake.
Officers issued numerous commands to stop and drop the rake, according to a press release issued by the SCPD. Arlt continued to walk toward them, holding the rake in a “threatening manner,” and got within 10 feet of the officers. After three stun gun deployments were ineffective in stopping him, an officer fired two rounds, one in chest and the other in the head, according to the Santa Cruz County Coroner’s Report, killing Arlt at the scene.
“Sean was loved by his family and many friends and will be greatly missed by those of us who knew him, including his 4-year-old son who he loved more than anyone,” Arlt’s family said in a public statement.
The family confirmed Arlt’s struggle with mental illness and said he was “loving, caring, kind and greatly inspired by social justice issues.” Arlt attended Santa Cruz city public schools and after graduating, spent a year in Seattle as an Americorp volunteer working with inner-city children.
Five days prior to the incident, Arlt was placed on a 5150 involuntary mental health hold after a separate confrontation and received medical care after the incident, said SCPD Deputy Chief Rick Martinez.
“He was clearly a person in crisis,” Martinez said. “There was no opportunity for the officers to engage in any dialogue to de-escalate him.”
SCPD officers are trained to engage with a suspect who appears mentally unstable or displays erratic behavior, Martinez said. Usual protocol involves de-escalation tactics, including establishing communication and rapport with the individual and getting them into a system of care without any violence.
All four officers will be placed on administrative leave while the investigation is pending, and “it’s a roll of the dice,” Martinez said whether the officer who shot the bullets that killed Arlt will return to work. The names of the officers were not released but will most likely be after the investigation is complete.
Despite the SCPD officers’ efforts to engage in dialogue, the confrontation between Arlt and police only involved direct commands, according to a SCPD press release. The entire interaction lasted no more than 20 seconds before an officer used lethal force. Arlt’s death marks the fifth homicide in Santa Cruz this year.
“I, along with the entire city council, mourn the loss of a Santa Cruz community member,” Mayor Cynthia Mathews said in a public statement. “Regardless of the circumstances, or if we personally knew or did not know the individual, it is tragedy to lose a fellow community member.”
Arlt was a “charming, respectful community person,” said Food Not Bombs founder and Westside resident Keith McHenry, who knew Arlt through mutual friends. McHenry is coordinating a vigil for Arlt that will take place this Saturday.
“It was so tragic,” McHenry said. “Why couldn’t there be a nonviolent way to resolve the crisis?”
McHenry has protested against police violence and is disappointed in the officers who didn’t attempt to de-escalate Arlt in a more peaceful way. In a post on Facebook, McHenry said Arlt’s death is “emblematic of the national pattern of the police using deadly force when addressing people in mental distress or being of color.”
There are many SCPD officers who effectively de-escalate conflicts with suspects who suffer from mental illness, McHenry said, and Arlt’s death was unnecessary.
“It’s really unfortunate that just getting treatment might have solved the whole problem,” McHenry said.
The district attorney is conducting an independent investigation of Arlt’s case, upon request by the SCPD and in line with internal protocol, to determine if there was an unlawful use of force, according to a statement made by SCPD Chief Kevin Vogel. There will also be an administrative review done internally.
“The information that has been released so far is not telling the whole story,” Arlt’s family said in a public statement. “We are hopeful that with a more independent investigation, the entire truth will come out and justice will be done.”