THREE PERFECT STORMS
Scared cops and unruly young men prove a lethal combination
By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. One can only imagine what was going through officers’ minds when, at the conclusion of a wild freeway pursuit, they were confronted by a youthful driver who repeatedly pointed at them as though he was holding a gun. By the time it was all over LAPD’s finest had fired as many as 90 rounds, killing Abdul Arian, 19.
A one-time police Explorer scout who was reportedly dropped for “disciplinary reasons”, Arian was driving a Crown Vic, a recycled cop car. Relatives described him as a law-abiding youth who wasn’t into guns or drugs. Yet his Facebook page mentioned a trip to a shooting range. Arian had also been expressing strong fears of the LAPD. One of his Facebook postings, captioned “just always after me,” depicts a police car in his rear view-mirror, its red lights on. Another post reads “done crying...tired of trying...yeah im smiling...but inside im dying.” During the April 12 chase Arian warned the 911 operator that he was armed and ready to shoot it out. “I have been arrested before for possession of destructive devices, I’m not afraid of the cops. If they pull their guns, I'm going to have to pull my gun out on them.”
As it turns out Arian was unarmed. A relative who watched the tape says that what the disturbed youth “pulled” was a cell phone.
When the plainclothes NYPD officer confronted Ramarley Graham inside the teen’s apartment he had no search warrant. Neither had he been invited into the residence. Nor was he there to rescue anyone from an imminent threat.
Earlier that day, February 2, an NYPD street narcotics unit watched Graham and two companions exit a Bronx bodega that was apparently a hot-spot for drug dealing. Officers followed Graham to a nearby residence, where he remained for a brief period. A cop who saw him leave radioed that a gun butt was sticking out from his waistline. Police tailed Graham to the apartment building where he lived (as it turns out, with his parents and grandmother.) Officers couldn’t get to the outside door in time to keep it from locking behind the youth. They unsuccessfully tried to kick it in. They were eventually let in by another resident.
As we mentioned in “Too Much of a Good Thing?” NYPD has been on stop-and-frisk binge for years. Given the observation of a “gun butt” there was enough for a stop-and-frisk. But there was a delay and Graham was no longer in a public place. Whether “hot pursuit” or probable cause/search warrant rules now applied are something that lawyers are still debating. Either way, officers rushed Graham’s second-floor apartment and kicked in the door. (If this seems surprising, you’re not alone. Your blogger went, “huh?”) One cop dashed to the bathroom, where he encountered Graham trying to flush the evil weed. For reasons that are presently unclear, the cop fired, killing the youth.
A baggie of marijuana was in the toilet bowl. And no, there was no gun.
Three things are known for sure. Here are two. On March 24 Pasadena, Calif. resident Oscar Carrillo called 911 to report that he was just robbed by two armed men. Moments later, police shot one of the suspects dead.
According to the 911 tape (click here for the audio) Carrillo told the dispatcher that two young African-American men accosted him and took his laptop and backpack. Both, he said, were armed. Officers quickly responded and spotted two youths running away. During the chase, one of the suspects, Kendrec McDade, 19 approached a police car and, according to an officer, reached for his waistband. The cop fired, mortally wounding the youth. Other officers arrested his 17-year old companion nearby.
It turned out that neither suspect was armed. And while the backpack was recovered, no laptop was found. Police chief Phillip Sanchez said that the 911 caller lied. As Carrillo himself later conceded, and as a security camera reportedly confirmed, the younger teen snatched a backpack from his vehicle while McDade allegedly acted as a lookout. It wasn’t a stickup but a theft. Carrillo didn’t have a laptop and he never saw a gun. Why he told 911 otherwise is hard to say – maybe he thought an armed robbery would merit a quicker response – but as the chief pointed out, the mention of firearms undoubtedly “set the platform for the mindset of the responding officers.”
These episodes are fundamentally alike. Each was precipitated by petty offending involving immature and in one instance possibly disturbed teens. In the case of Arian, it was reckless driving; for Graham it was marijuana; and for McDade and his companion, theft. What made these events “perfect storms” was that police were forewarned that their adversaries were armed. That information came once from the suspect’s own lips, once from a cop’s mistaken observation, and once from a victim’s lie.
With killings of police a persistent problem (they rose substantially in 2011) it’s no wonder that some cops are quick on the draw. When dozens of hardy LAPD officers converge on a scene and stage a wild, and as it turns out completely one-sided firefight, one cannot but conclude that police are working scared.
What’s to be done? It’s not just about keeping guns from criminals. As we pointed out in “There’s No Escaping the Gun,” ordinary people regularly go on violent rampages. Meanwhile restrictions on gun possession and carry grow increasingly lax. As America’s gun makers continue flooding the streets with powerful, vest-penetrating handguns (more than 500,000 pistols in calibers exceeding 9mm. were manufactured in 2010 alone), cops are right to be wary.
One could trot out all the usual fix-its, from more realistic academy scenarios, to more and better in-service training, to educational campaigns that prod citizens to play nice with the police. But we won’t. Indeed, it’s only because most cops are highly risk-tolerant that dead citizens aren’t lining the streets. Still, drawing a weapon preventively used to be considered an overreaction; now it’s commonplace. And once a gun is in hand, pulling the trigger is far more likely. But when everyone that cops encounter is apt to be armed, who wants to be responsible for the possible consequences of advising restraint?
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Turn Off the Spigot There’s No Escaping the Gun Too Much of a Good Thing?
A DEAD MARINE, AND A LOT OF QUESTIONS
Failure to properly contain a situation can leave deadly force as the only option
By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Why do cops mistakenly shoot and kill? Sometimes the reason is simple. Fear and haste can lead them to confuse a cell phone for a gun, or to interpret an innocent motion as someone reaching for a weapon. Intoxicated and mentally disturbed persons often fail to follow directions and may behave inappropriately, increasing the risk that their behavior will be interpreted as hostile.
Such tragedies are often avoidable. In “First, Do No Harm” and in “Making Time” we emphasized that officers need not always intercede. Sometimes it’s best to do nothing. When they decide to act, even a slight delay can help clarify things and keep them from needlessly taking what might be an irreversible step.
Risk tolerance is an intrinsic aspect of policing. Cops take chances every hour of every day, from walking up to cars during a traffic stop, to wrestling with drunks and the mentally ill, to tracking a citizen’s hands to make sure that they’re pulling out a wallet instead of a gun. If cops insisted on absolute safety they’d be leaving behind a trail of dead civilians at the end of every watch.
Often the decision-making calculus is very complex.
About 4:30 am on February 7th., Marine Corps Sergeant Manuel Loggins, Jr. drove his personal SUV onto the grounds of San Clemente High School, a public secondary school in coastal Southern California. His two daughters, ages 9 and 14, were sitting in the back. An Orange County deputy sheriff happened to be parked nearby doing paperwork. According to the officer, the SUV was speeding and crashed through a locked gate. Its driver then exited and walked away. More deputies arrived. Several minutes later, Loggins returned. Ignoring the deputies’ commands, he got in the SUV and tried to drive away. A deputy then fatally shot him.
Sheriff’s officials defended the officer’s actions. They accused Loggins of “acting irrationally” and placing the girls at risk. Drugs and alcohol, they conceded, were not involved. Colleagues described Loggins as deeply religious and a “poster boy” for the Marines. A former military superior said that Loggins routinely took his daughters to the high school in the early morning to exercise and read the bible.
As one can imagine, the shooting drew a lot of flack in the blogosphere. It left especially bad feelings with the Marines, where Loggins was deeply admired. Criticism led the Orange County deputies’ union to issue a statement relating their version of events. Loggins, it said, ignored the deputy’s commands to stop and walked away. The deputy followed for a short distance but returned to the SUV when he heard the girls screaming. He also heard Loggins “yelling irrational statements” from the field. Other deputies arrived and comforted the girls. Loggins then unexpectedly returned, climbed back in the vehicle against deputies’ orders and began driving away. That’s when a deputy fired, an action that “clearly prevented serious harm from coming to Loggins’ two children and anyone else on the road that morning.” AOCSD’s report concludes by describing the deputy as a USMC veteran with 15 years of service in the sheriff’s department.
Colonel Nicholas Marano, Camp Pendleton’s commander, was dismayed. In an unusual public statement he expressed dissatisfaction “with the official response from the city of San Clemente and Orange County” and anger over suggestions by the sheriff’s department and the deputies’ union that Loggins, who was unarmed, posed a threat to either the officers or his daughters: “Many of the statements made concerning Manny Loggins’ character over the past few days are incorrect and deeply hurtful to an already grieving family.” Colonel Marano was especially steamed over AOCSD’s account, which “did not shed any light on the decision-making process that deputy went through on the scene.”
There is no question that speeding in a high school parking lot and smashing through a gate are sufficient cause for a stop. It’s also beyond dispute that such actions cannot justify a shooting even should children be onboard. Cops would otherwise be opening fire on reckless drivers every day. On the other hand, the sequence of unusual events, Loggins’ indisputably odd behavior, and his alleged noncompliance are such that one can understand, without necessarily agreeing, why a deputy might reasonably feel that the girls were at risk.
Whether that risk was sufficient to justify using deadly force we’ll leave to the lawyers. Here we’re more interested in why Loggins wasn’t kept from reentering the vehicle, a move that many commentators thought obvious. Our suspicion – and at this point that’s all it can be – is that after checking on the girls the deputies repositioned themselves too far away. We say so because of a remark in the AOCSD’s statement to the effect that Loggins “unexpectedly and quickly returned to his Yukon.”
Lacking more facts one cannot grasp the rationale of a decision that left occupants in the vehicle. Whatever the deputies’ reason for leaving them – a sheriff’s spokesperson said they set up a “perimeter” – if the girlswere at risk they should have been removed. Perhaps the deputies were in a hurry or didn’t want more tears and screaming. Maybe they were certain that Loggins couldn’t get past them.
But he did.
In “Sometimes a Drunk is Just That” and in “Making Time” we pointed out that once cops leave the academy they learn that the complexities of the real world go far and beyond what’s possible during simulation exercises. That’s why many agencies require that officers participate in ride-alongs during initial training. It’s also, we think, a compelling reason for creating rich training scenarios with open-ended conclusions.
Unfortunately, much police training continues to be dominated by the military “stress” model, which emphasizes obedience and following orders and, at least in this writer’s opinion, discourages critical thinking and innovation. Both the Los Angeles County and Orange County sheriff’s academies are of this type. But the issues go far beyond that. Academy tactical training tends to be preoccupied with the minutiae of containment and clearing, emphasizing fixed, choreographed responses and ignoring the complexities of incidents, such as in San Clemente, where concepts such as “perimeter” seem absurdly beyond the point.
Training issues aside, why a deputy didn’t grab the kids while the others, say, jammed the SUV with their patrol cars we’ll never know. If Loggins was considered too dangerous to approach they could have Tased him, then if necessary apologized later.
But they didn’t.
Even good people can behave poorly. We expect officers to keep the peace and secure compliance while using as little force as possible. When they fail to contain a situation, allowing it to escalate to the point where the only available solution is to kill, we really must go back to the drawing board. It’s not to condemn the police. It’s to keep fallible citizens alive, and to help make cops better.
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Sheriff Baca’s “Police Academy”
Delivering a blow looks nasty, but it can be vastly preferable to the alternatives
By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Readers who follow this site know that we’re not shy about criticizing excessive force. Nor about calling a time-out when officers try to excuse egregious behavior with outrageous claims. And on first glance this incident seemed a perfect example.
Six days ago Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to a bus stop. A man had called 911 to complain that a woman was threatening riders. “She’s trying to pick a fight with anybody, she almost hit an old man. She was talking about how she got out of prison and ‘I’ll beat up all you guys’.” (Click here to hear the 911 call in its entirety.)
It turns out that Julie Nelson had been convicted four times for assaulting cops. Homeless and mentally disturbed, the mordantly obese 42-year old woman had left on a bus. By the time that deputies hopped on board Nelson seemed friendly enough. Yet knowing her all too well, the officers asked Nelson to exit. She refused, and when they tried to force compliance Nelson resisted and uttered profanities.
That’s when the male deputy elbowed her in the face.
A rider recorded everything on a cell phone. He later told reporters that he was appalled at how deputies treated the woman. Sheriff Lee Baca seemed equally skeptical. “If the individual deputy who swung an elbow at the lady is looking at that as a sensible solution,” he told a radio host, “we need to retrain that individual.” But when asked whether the deputy did wrong, Baca demurred. “We have to look at what his threat level was when that occurred and then from there we can make that determination.” (Emphasis added.)
Taking Sheriff Baca to task is becoming a habit. We recently criticized his feeble attempts to distance himself from what seems to be a pattern of excessive use of force by jail deputies. Here we’re doing a one-eighty. Whatever threat Nelson might have posed to the male deputy is besides the point. He wasn’t acting to safeguard himself but others, who presumably didn’t know about Nelson’s assaultive propensities. As the Los Angeles County D.A. wrote in a different case:
A police officer is not analyzed from the standpoint of exercising self-defense against an aggressor, rather the “police officer is in the exercise of the privilege of protecting the public peace and order [and] he is entitled to the even greater use of force than might be in the same circumstances required for self defense.” Further, [Graham v. Connor’s] definition of reasonableness has been described by courts utilizing its analysis as, “comparatively generous to the police in cases where potential danger, emergency conditions or other exigent circumstances are present [thus affording] a fairly wide zone of protection in close cases.”
Assuming that deputies were justified in physically booting Nelson off the bus, was elbowing her in the face reasonable? Watch each version of the video carefully (click here, here and here.) All who have done police work – including your blogger – know that it can prove nearly impossible to handcuff a noncompliant person without causing injury. (If you don’t believe it, watch the video below.) In this case the deputies’ task was complicated by Nelson’s size. They didn’t want a protracted struggle or a tumble to the ground, where the woman could asphyxiate. Using a Taser or OC on someone as out of shape and mentally ill as Nelson can be dangerous. So the blow was an excellent choice. While causing no permanent injury it momentarily disoriented her, allowing deputies to push her onto a bench where she was contained and handcuffed.
As bad as it may look, punching and striking uncompliant persons – yes, women included– is occasionally necessary. This video, from our post “Dancing With Hooligans,” demonstrates what happens when a Seattle cop is beset by an aggressive woman. Pay notice to how the fracas began, and consider whether a second blow might not have resolved it more safely.
For reasons that become quite clear, we called that one for the cop. But that wasn’t our conclusion in the infamous episode of May 2009, when an El Monte (Calif.) police officer kicked a proned-out, by all appearances compliant suspect in the head. He had done so, the cop said, because the suspect swiveled his head, suggesting that he might flee or attack. We weren’t the only who thought this “distraction blow” story ridiculous. Although we’re unaware of any accepted protocols that endorse what the cop did, the D.A. bought the explanation and declined to prosecute.
LAPD has also tangled with “distraction strikes,” which it once officially recognized in its manual. Five years ago then-Chief Bratton ordered that officers cease using the term, as some had applied it “to describe strikes intended to cause the suspect to submit to arrest or stop an offensive action when there was no intent to transition to another technique.” His concern wasn’t about delivering blows, which can be appropriate, but about vague terms such as “distraction” that can misrepresent what takes place. That was apparently a problem in Portland, where cops who used a distraction blow technique learned at the State training academy were using the term to circumvent requirements that officers report all uses of force.
Given the ubiquity of video-enabled cell phones, the sausage-making qualities of street policing are more evident than ever. But until the day comes when people quit acting like Cro-Magnons, police will keep resorting to fists – and elbows – to get the job done safely while minimizing injuries to cops and citizens alike. To be sure, instances where excessive force is used will keep happening, and when they do we’ll say so.
But this wasn’t one of them.
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