By Joe Livernois
Mel Mason always looked forward to his annual May 19 celebration with Charles Vaughn. The date is the anniversary of Malcolm X’s birthday and Mel and Chuck made a point to observe it appropriately.
They were old friends, and Chuck was older, the big brother Mel never had. But they had so much in common. They were both big men, physically, with outsized personalities. Chuck had been an All-American football player at Monterey Peninsula College and Mel had been a star on the Lobos basketball team. They were both military veterans and they were both African-American professionals in Seaside; Mel was working as a mental health counselor and Chuck had been a teacher.
After serving in the U.S. Army, Vaughn settled in Seaside and worked his way through college, with a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz and a master’s from the Monterey Institute for International Studies. He had been married twice, and had a son and two daughters. He was working on a doctorate degree in education administration, but he started hearing the voices, started to act irrationally. Schizophrenia.
And on the morning of May 19, 1998 — on what would have been Malcolm X’s 73rd birthday — police officers in Seaside pumped at least four bullets into Charles Vaughn Sr. while he was standing on the roof of his apartment building and holding a corkscrew. Vaughn was 60.
Mason learned of the shooting from a mutual friend. “The cops shot Chuck.”
In the context of the late 1990s in Seaside, relations between cops and the community were already strained. And Mason was known as a vocal leader, the sort of leader who didn’t take shit from anyone. Among some in the community, he was regarded as a radical, with revolutionary leanings. He had lost a basketball scholarship at Oregon State University after complaining too loudly about the treatment of black athletes at the school. He had been a member of the Black Panther Party. And in 1984 he had run for President of the United States as the nominee of the Socialist Workers Party, after running for California governor two years earlier.
Mason already held strong convictions about police officers and believed they held antipathy against people of color. So the death of his friend at the hands of cops sparked immediate rage. After getting the phone call, he sped to Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula’s, storming into the emergency room and demanding to see his friend. It was there that he learned that Vaughn had died of his injuries. Mason thought of it as a murder.
Blind with anger, he drove to the police department and demanded to see the chief of police, who had apparently been advised of his approach and who disappeared out the back door. Mason went upstairs to City Hall to demand an audience with the city manager, who he did manage to collar before he could escape. The conversation went nowhere; Mason was angry, loud and vulgar.
Alade Djehuti-Mes was at his job at UC Berkeley, where he was director of an international internship program, when he got the call from his mother. Djehuti-Mes had recently changed his name, after a trip he made to Africa. He had been Charles Vaughn Jr., and even now his old friends still call him Charles.
His mother knew that Chuck had been shot, but didn’t know the details. He rushed back to Seaside — he even got a speeding ticket on the way into town — and eventually learned what happened.
“My dad had always been a hero to me,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine any reason for him to be shot.” He was consumed by anger and confusion, and the more he learned the more angry he became. One of the officers had been a family friend. Nothing about the shooting made sense. “To lose someone is always hard,” Djehuti-Mes said. “But when it happens at the hands of someone who is supposed to protect and serve? It hurts even more.”
Over a period of months, Mason and Djehuti-Mes organized protests at City Hall. They demanded that the officers involved in the shooting be terminated and prosecuted as murderers. They established a community organization called the Charles Vaughn Sr. Mental Health Task Force. Dozens of other community groups joined in.
A retired police chief from out of town offered to conduct his own investigation of the shooting. The District Attorney’s office, which is called in to investigate officer-involved shootings, absolved all the officers of wrongdoing. Twenty years later, Mason is still bitter that the officers were not prosecuted.
Djuhuti-Mes staged a hunger strike that extended 19 days to bring attention to the shooting. He was in pain. Several high-profile local activists — including Bill Monning, who would eventually become a state senator — joined the hunger strike. The events surrounding Vaughn’s death were covered with in-depth stories by a colorful investigative reporter named John DeSantis, then with the Monterey County Herald. The Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote a letter to Janet Reno, the attorney general at the time, demanding a federal investigation into the shooting.
Dick Gregory, the African-American activist comedian that Djehuti-Mes had come to know at Cal, came to visit during the hunger strike. “He told me you need to find a way to find peace,” Djehuti-Mes said. “You have to work this out. I had to come to terms with this. So I prayed for the officers, prayed that they’d find peace. I also prayed that we would find justice. I knew I couldn’t just be an angry person anymore.”
Over time, Mason and Djehuti-Mes learned of a unique police-training program in Memphis, Tenn., called Crisis Intervention Training. It hadn’t been around long, but residents in Memphis reported that many fewer residents of Memphis with mental health issues were getting killed by police officers.
It had been a problem there, but the program appeared to have changed the way officers responded to reports of someone having a mental health crisis. They learned how to defuse situations, learned what it was like for a schizophrenic person to be approached by menacing uniformed officers who showed up with guns drawn.
Mason, who is now the executive director and co-founder of a counseling agency in Seaside called The Village Project, believed something like that could work in Monterey County. The community groups Mason organized were on board. Trouble was, Seaside was not the only police agency that seemed to embrace hair-trigger policies when it comes to encountering people with mental health issues. In fact, it was happening more often in Salinas.
A Monterey County grand jury issued a report after its investigation of officer-involved fatal shootings throughout the county over a 20-year period. That report concluded that each of those shootings could have been avoided if responding officers had acted appropriately. “In each case, the officers had very clear opportunities when they could have actually de-escalated the situations,” Mason said. “But they escalated the problem instead.”
Instead of establishing Crisis Intervention Training programs in each jurisdiction in the county, Mason and Vaughn Jr. lobbied and promoted a county-wide CIT Academy, to be administered by the Monterey County Mental Health Department, which is now known as the Behavioral Health. Mason, who is a mental health counselor, helped write the curriculum. It took two years to get it up and running — police chiefs were adamantly against it. Only one police administrator stepped forward; Michael Klein, chief of the tiny police force in Sand City, eventually convinced his colleagues to participate. (See accompanying story.)
Among the strongest advocates for CIT in Monterey County is Kontrena McPheter, program coordinator for Success Over Stigma at Interim Inc., a housing program for those with mental-health issues in the county. McPheter said she got involved in CIT because of Charles Vaughn.
“I knew Mr. Vaughn and I grew up with his children,” she said. “I’ve known them all my life. The officers involved were also friends of mine. It was such an injustice. People were saying to the officers that he wasn’t going to harm anyone.”
McPheter has been a participant of CIT for about a dozen years, asking officers to readjust their thinking when they are dealing with someone in a mental health crisis. “I knew I wanted to stop that type of thing from happening to anyone else,” she said. “It could have happened to me.”
Over time, both Mason and Djehuti-Mes continued to seek justice. With two other families with loved ones who had been killed by police officers in the Bay Area, Djehuti-Mes founded an organization called Families Against Murder by Law Enforcement. He served as its director for four years and guided it as a national organization.
Mason continued his mission to seek justice for his friend’s death. The DA’s decision not to prosecute only validated the public’s suspicion that prosecutors will allow police officers to get away with murder. But the findings of a private investigation were released in 2000.
The investigation, by Protection and Advocacy Inc., was led by the retired police chief Mason and the group had hired to investigate Vaughn’s shooting. The findings were devastating, and they found fault with both the police and the Mental Health Department. Soon after the report was released, Charles Vaughn Sr.’s children settled claims against both the Mental Health Department and the city for undisclosed amounts.
The report is the most complete public document that describes the events that led to the shooting.
According to the report, Vaughn believed that he was on the road to recovery and he didn’t want to continue the treatment he was being provided by the Mental Health Department. But officials for the county didn’t believe he was ready to be off his medications. They pursued him daily and the fact that they couldn’t find him heightened their concerns.
They wanted to take him in for a mental-health evaluation pursuant to the California Welfare & Institutions Code Section 5150, which allows agents of the state to take people against their will if they are considered a threat to themselves or others. The staff at Mental Health were aware that Mason, a mental health counselor, was a good friend, that he could work with Vaughn when he was having episodes. They had reached out to Mason for help in the past.
But, for unexplained reasons, the staff never contacted Mason in May 1998 to seek his help in finding Vaughn.
According to the report, two mental health workers showed up at Vaughn’s door the morning of May 19. When they identified themselves, Vaughn told them to go away, told them he didn’t need their help anymore. The workers drove around the block, summoning police and an ambulance on their phones. The workers returned to the door, accompanied by the police. Officers were adamant that Vaughn come out of his apartment.
Vaughn grabbed the corkscrew and went out the back door. He then made his way to the roof of the single-story apartment. One of the officers climbed up after him. He talked to Vaughn for about 15 minutes. Then he shot pepper spray into Vaughn’s face. When that didn’t work, the officer returned to the ground to get more pepper spray from a fellow officer.
The report describes a chaotic scene in which officers and mental health workers were screaming at Vaughn to surrender from the ground while another aggressive cop was climbing up and down the house, spraying caustic liquid in his face. When the officer tried to spray the substance at Vaughn a second time, Vaughn appeared to lunge at him. Officers on the ground started shooting up at him. The shooting started only 22 minutes after police arrived on the scene.
“Instead of considering other alternatives, there appeared to have been an unnecessary rush to get on the roof to apprehend Mr. Vaughn,” according to the independent report. “These actions only escalated an already dangerous confrontation.”
Part of the problem is that Seaside police didn’t have any sort of protocol about how officers should respond to calls involving people with mental health issues. And officers had virtually no training in crisis intervention. In fact, Seaside police had previously refused an offer from organizations to train their officers in techniques to defuse such situations, according to the independent report.
Today, countywide Crisis Intervention Training programs are held at least twice a year and more than 1,000 officers have received at least 40 hours of instruction. Some departments in the county have had 100 percent participation.
Last year, on the 93rd anniversary of Malcolm X’s birth and the 20th anniversary of Charles Vaughn Sr.’s death, Mason and Djehuti-Mes showed up at the Seaside City Hall compound with some metal polish and a handful of rags. The two of them still get together once in a while — Mason is Djehuti-Mes’s godfather, after all. When they do, they talk specifically about Chuck’s death, but they also discuss other officer-involved shootings, from Sacramento to Salinas, and they describe those incidents in detail.
But last year, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Chuck’s death, they got together to clean a plaque that has been hanging on the Monterey Free Library’s exterior wall in Seaside for many years now. The plaque reads:
CHARLES VAUGHN, SR.
Beloved Father and Educator
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