A STITCH IN TIME
Could early intervention save officer and citizen lives?
By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Consider a well-known, chronic offender who habitually gathered with other like-minded souls to sell contraband. Then take into account the reprobate’s criminal record, which included three open criminal cases and about thirty arrests in as many years for offenses including assault, resisting arrest, grand larceny and, most recently, selling contraband cigarettes.
We’re referring, of course, to Eric Garner. During the first six months of 2014 his favorite place for selling loosies was the site of 98 arrests, 100 summonses and hundreds of complaints from citizens, merchants and the landlord of the apartment building where he and his buds gathered to peddle their wares. Two of those arrests were of Garner himself. When, in July, the cops moved in for a third time he tried to fight them off. At six-feet three and 350 pounds, the 43-year old scoundrel suffered from obesity, asthma and circulatory problems, so when an overexcited cop applied a chokehold the outcome seemed all too predictable.
Our second story, also from the Big Apple, reached its equally lethal conclusion last month. On October 18 officers were called to the apartment of Deborah Danner, a 66-year old schizophrenic. Over the years police had repeatedly responded to complaints from other tenants about Danner’s behavior. Although Danner was estranged from her family and lived alone, her sister would usually show up and accompany everyone to the E.R.
This time things turned out differently. Danner, naked and agitated, flashed a pair of scissors at the sergeant who entered her bedroom. Although he convinced her to put the scissors down, she then rushed him swinging a baseball bat. He drew his gun and fired twice, killing her. His tactics were quickly criticized by the police chief and, most significantly, by Mayor de Blasio, who wondered why a Taser wasn’t used. Hizzoner later lamented that Danner’s sister had also been there:
She said she'd seen it done the right way and expected it to be done that way this time as well. You can only imagine the pain she feels having had to stand there and hear the shots fired and the recognition coming over her that she had lost her sister.
You’ve guessed it – our third account is also from New York. But this time a cop died.
Manuel Rosales was a violent, deeply troubled youth. His father would later complain that despite the boy’s behavior police and school authorities – he dropped out when he was seventeen – repeatedly let him slide by. By the time that Rosales turned thirty-five the self-professed gang member had been arrested seventeen times and served two prison terms for theft. His violent outbursts led his wife to leave him last year and secure a protective order, which Rosales evidently ignored.
On November 3, while out on bail for a July assault on his estranged spouse, Rosales broke into her Bronx apartment and took her and three others hostage. He was armed with a reportedly stolen .45 caliber pistol. Rosales left several hours later. Responding officers spotted his vehicle and gave chase. Rosales crashed his Jeep, and as his pursuers stepped from their vehicles he unexpectedly opened fire, killing Sgt. Paul Tuozzolo and seriously wounding Sgt. Emmanuel Kwo. Rosales was shot and killed.
Rosales had preciously declared his intention to commit suicide by cop. He posted “this nightmare is coming to an end…goodbye” on Facebook one day before his rampage.
When confrontations turn lethal, tactics often draw blame. Except for the chokehold, Eric Garner would still be alive. Maybe, as Mayor de Blasio suggested, Deborah Danner could have been Tased. Yet a New York grand jury refused to indict the officer who allegedly choked Garner (he testified that he struggled to avoid being thrown through a plate glass window.) A full-page ad in the New York Times , placed by the NYPD Sergeants Benevolent Association (November 25, p. A-5) suggested that had Danner’s bat struck the cop one might be asking why he didn’t use his pistol.
Really, one can quibble about tactics until the cows come home. But here our focus is on prevention. And one thing is certain: while the motivations and mental states of Garner, Danner and Rosales were different, each had been a prodigious consumer of police services. And the consequences weren’t always what one might expect:
- As the Big Apple roiled in the aftermath of Garner’s death, an exasperated NYPD supervisor pointed to his kid-gloves treatment in the past: “We chased him; we arrested him. But once you’ve chased a guy, what’s a warning going to do?”
- Official reluctance to commit Deborah Danner for mental health treatment left her grieving cousin, himself a retired cop, deeply frustrated: “They [police] have been here numerous, numerous times over the years. Debbie was sick since she was in college. They have to do a better job of handling mental illness.”
- Even Rosales, a twice-convicted felon, kept getting breaks. After his arrest earlier this year for assaulting his ex-spouse (and ignoring a protective order, to boot) he was released on a measly $1,000 bond, far below the $25,000 recommended by prosecutors.
A stiff sentence early on might have helped extinguish a pattern of behavior that repeatedly brought Garner into conflict with police. Danner, who had clearly presented a threat to herself and others for over a decade, could have been forcibly hospitalized years earlier. Harsh, perhaps, but far preferable to getting shot. Had the judge acceded to the D.A.’s request for a stiff bond, Rosales would have likely remained locked up, and both he and Sgt. Tuozzolo would still be alive.
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Acting decisively when it matters can make a difference. No, we’re not suggesting a return to “broken windows” policing, which has a well-earned reputation for needlessly provoking conflict. Neither is our approach a version of “predictive policing,” which uses crime data to identify “hot spots” where offending is likely to occur. Instead, our focus is on individuals, specifically those whose documented behavior indicates they are at great risk of harming themselves or others.
In an era where the tendency has been to ease punishments, acting pre-emptively may be a hard sell for budgetary reasons alone. Making good decisions may also require information that’s not readily available. Officers don’t consistently acquire – and police records systems don’t consistently store and catalog for ready retrieval – the quantity and quality of information necessary for making reasonably accurate predictions of violent behavior.
Assume that officers and record systems are brought up to the task. What then?
- First, there must be a process for filtering out persons who most need special attention from an admittedly noisy background. This would at a minimum include a substantial history of contacts and, most importantly, input from field officers, who are in the best position to decide whether (and to what extent) the admittedly subjective threshold of dangerousness has been breached.
- Secondly, there should be a non-nuclear option. “Crisis intervention teams” comprised of officers and medical specialists are widely used to respond to active incidents. Conceptually similar teams could be used proactively to visit and counsel individuals whose behavioral pattern, if left unchecked, might lead to tragedy.
- Finally, there must be a process for selecting individuals whose behavior resists less coercive means, including pre-identifying available options. Mentally ill persons such as Deborah Danner could be flagged for formal commitment, while offenders such as Eric Garner might be “scheduled” for an arrest instead of a citation or warning.
To be sure, deciding just who merits special attention, and of what kind, invokes substantial liberty concerns. Of course, so does shooting someone, or being shot.
UPDATE (5/14/18): According to the L.A. Times nine states now have “red flag” laws that authorize courts to order the seizure of guns from persons who are at risk of hurting themselves or others. Five of these laws were passed since the Florida school shooting.
UPDATE (2/16/18): At a bench trial, a judge acquitted NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry of all charges, including murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide, in the killing of Deborah Danner. Sgt. Barry is still subject to department discipline.
UPDATE (9/10/17): New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board ruled that officer Daniel Pantaleo caused Eric Garner’s death by placing him in a prohibited chokehold. But action against Pantaleo and other officers awaits DOJ’s decision whether to prosecute them for civil rights violations.
UPDATE (6/23/07): James T. Hodgkinson, the shooter at the June 14 Congressional baseball game, had several recent gun-related run-ins, including a dispute where he allegedly struck a man with the butt of a shotgun and fired a round. He was arrested but charges were dropped because the victims didn’t show up in court.
UPDATE (12/3/16): On November 15 a man clearly suffering from long-standing mental problems was “banned for life” from a Tacoma shopping mall for bizarre, hostile behavior. Police found a shotgun in his vehicle and issued an “officer safety bulletin.” Two weeks later he shot and killed a Tacoma officer during a domestic disturbance call. Neither the victim nor other officers who responded to the scene knew that the assailant was the subject of the earlier warning.
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A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
In an era of highly lethal firearms, keeping patrol informed is job #1
By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. On October 8, 2016 Palm Springs police officers Lesley Zerebny and Jose “Gil” Vega were shot and killed as they stood outside a residence to which they had been called over a “simple family disturbance.” (Another officer who responded to the scene was wounded but is doing well.) Only moments earlier the father of John Felix, a 26-year old ex-con, had frantically begged a neighbor for help. “My son is in the house, and he’s crazy. He has a gun. He’s ready to shoot all the police.” Tragically, the officers learned that Felix was armed only after they arrived. When they called on him to come out he opened fire with an AR-15 .223 caliber semi-automatic rifle, shooting multiple rounds through the home’s front door.
Officers Zerebny and Vega were wearing soft body armor. Given the weapon used, we can assume that it was ineffective. Due to their extreme velocity, .223 caliber (5.56 mm) and similar rifle ammunition readily penetrate the soft body armor that street cops typically wear. Specialized ceramic or hard metal inserts can stop these rounds, but vests so equipped are too heavy and uncomfortable to wear on patrol. (Felix reportedly used “armor-piercing” ammunition whose composition and construction is intended to pierce armor plates. But ordinary .223 rifle ammunition readily defeats soft body armor.)
And the bad news doesn’t stop there. Once high-velocity projectiles strike flesh they cause devastating wounds, creating temporary cavities that can be more than ten times the projectile’s diameter, affecting large areas of tissue and damaging or destroying nearby organs. (Gunshot Wounds, DiMaio, p. 152)
Felix’s weapon, the Colt AR-15, is specifically banned under California law. Enacted in 1989 after a deranged man used an AK-type rifle to kill five children and wound dozens more in a Stockton schoolyard, the State’s “assault weapon” ban prohibits the possession of certain enumerated weapons including the AR-15. More generally, the law bans any semi-automatic, centerfire rifle that has one or more of certain external features such as a handgrip, requires that ammunition magazines for semi-auto rifles be removable only with a tool, and limits magazine capacity of semi-auto pistols and rifles to ten rounds. (A similar but weaker Federal law was passed in 1994. For more about that statute, which expired in 2004, click here.)
Eager to safeguard their best-selling, most profitable products, gun manufacturers adjusted to the original bans and to every tweak thereafter, promptly renaming weapons on the “bad-gun” list, stripping rifles of external baubles such as handgrips and flash suppressors, and limiting magazine capacity to ten rounds. When California tried to impair quick reloading by requiring that magazines only be removable with a tool, savvy entrepreneurs quickly devised a simple add-on that uses a bullet tip to drop empties (hence, the infamous “bullet button.”) In time the state countered with an amendment, to be effective next year, that rifles be so configured that reload necessitates a partial “disassembly.” As one might expect, an easy workaround is already being marketed. Bottom line: citizens can select from a veritable cornucopia of “Federal” and “California legal” weapons that comply with every restriction that’s been imposed but are in most important aspects functionally identical to the bad old “assault rifles” they replaced. (For a taste simply Google “semi auto rifles California legal.” Here is one example.)
All through this decades-long struggle, the elephant in the room – ballistics – has been studiously ignored. Despite the carnage – in 2015 nearly as many deaths were caused by guns (33,736) as by motor vehicles (33,804) – America’s gun makers continue enthusiastically marketing firearms whose projectiles defeat protective garments worn by police and inflict potentially life-threatening wounds nearly anywhere they strike. While some States have addressed peripheral issues such as magazine capacity, Government experts are well aware of the lethality of .223 and similar projectiles, but the imperatives of politics and commerce apparently demand that lawmakers look the other way.
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We’ve had a lot to say about such things before (see, for example, “A Ban in Name Only” and “Cops Need More Than Body Armor”.) Here, our focus is on mitigating the risk. According to the FBI, between 2006-2015 nineteen officers were killed by bullets that penetrated body armor. (The toll of those injured but not killed is unknown.) All these deaths but one were caused by rifle ammunition. Assumedly, most of these cops, like most of those who battled the perpetrators of the recent San Bernardino massacre, weren’t “militarized”: they were ordinary patrol officers, using ordinary police cars, wearing conventional, soft body armor. (That’s probably true everywhere. FBI statistics indicate that only seven of the 41 officers killed in 2015 were specialists engaged in a designated “tactical situation.”)
Had the citizen who called Palm Springs PD (reportedly, the shooter’s mother) alerted dispatch about Felix’s threat to kill officers, and that he was armed with a rifle, the information would have certainly been passed on, and officers Zeregny and Vega would have undoubtedly chosen a different approach. But as their distraught chief later pointed out, the call came out as a “simple” family disturbance. Alas, if there’s a takeaway from this tragedy, it’s that little is “simple” anymore. The civilian firearms market has become so militarized that, regardless of how minor a situation might seem, it’s become imperative to probe every caller about possible threats, and particularly the presence of a weapon.
Naturally, what’s important can’t always be gleaned over the phone. What else can be done?
- Some States and localities have gun purchase and/or registration databases that can be queried by name and address. While this wouldn’t have helped in Palm Springs (the killer’s weapon was supposedly stolen) it might have prevented the infamous Santa Barbara massacre of April 2014.
- Information about prior calls and outcomes is of course important. That’s why it’s imperative to collect everything that’s potentially useful, index it by name and address, and make it instantly available to patrol.
- Individuals with violent histories and those on probation and parole can be flagged. Entries should include an account of their past offending and whether violence was involved. (The Palm Springs suspect, a notorious gang member, had done prison time for a shooting. His brother is currently incarcerated.)
- Members of the public can be solicited for information about mentally disturbed family members.
One might think that in a time of Internet-connected cell phones and mobile data terminals cops no longer need rely on dispatch to warn them of possible risks. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Officers caught up in the hurly-burly of taking calls need knowledgeable, inquisitive souls with ready access to a wide range of information to help keep them safe, or as safe as possible. In this brave new world of ballistic threats, a robust, patrol-oriented information platform isn’t a luxury: it’s a pressing need.
UPDATE (3/5/18): In the New York Times, an excellent, illustrated feature about the damage inflicted on the human body by ultra high-velocity projectiles such as those fired by AR-15 style rifles.
UPDATE (1/3/18): Douglas County, CO Deputy Zackari Parish was killed and four other deputies were wounded by a mentally troubled veteran and former lawyer who fired “more than 100 rounds” from a rifle before he was shot and killed.
UPDATE (3/19/17): The Cleveland 911 call-taker who failed to alert dispatchers that an armed person in a park was probably a kid with a toy gun was punished with an eight-day suspension. In 2014 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer who thought that his air pistol was a real gun.
UPDATE (11/5/16): A troubled middle-aged Iowa man used a .223 rifle to shoot and kill two Iowa police officers, one in Urbandale, the other in nearby Des Moines, during the early morning hours of November 3. Both officers were approached as they sat in their patrol cars, which were riddled with bullets.
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Silence Isn’t Always Golden A Lost Cause A Ban in Name Only Coming Clean in Santa Barbara
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The Militarization of the U.S. Civilian Firearms Market Assault Weapons: The Issue of Lethality