Posted 9/23/18


Acting swiftly can save lives. And take them, too.

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. On April 20, 1999, two high school seniors staged an elaborately planned massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School. Before committing suicide they shot and killed twelve students and a teacher and wounded nearly two dozen others. When it comes to police strategy, Columbine changed everything. Criticism that lives would have been saved had officers moved in more quickly – they awaited SWAT, which took forty-five minutes to arrive – led the Governor’s review commission to suggest a new approach:

    Clearly, rapid deployment poses risks to innocent victims but, even so, immediate deployment by teams of responding officers to locate and subdue armed perpetrators seems the best alternative among a set of risky and imperfect options in a situation like that at Columbine High School. (p. 67)

     Dubbed IA/RD (“Immediate Action/Rapid Deployment”), the new strategy marked a shift in response philosophy, from containment to prompt intervention. To be sure, IA/RD doesn’t simply mean “barging in.” Officers are supposed to be trained in this approach, and when the opportunity comes form small teams and move in a coordinated fashion. Yet when things get “hot” in the real world time is at a premium, and the one thing that cops must have to make good decisions – accurate information – is often lacking.

     Reacting swiftly can save lives. As events regularly demonstrate, it also creates “risks to innocent victims” that cannot be easily dismissed. During the early morning hours of July 31, Aurora (CO) patrol officers responded to a report of intruders at a private residence. They came upon a chaotic scene. Within moments gunfire erupted inside the home. An adult male came into view holding a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. When commanded to drop the weapon he raised the flashlight. An officer not yet identified shot him dead. Inside the residence cops found a naked dead man and an injured 11-year old boy. It turned out that the person whom the cop killed – Richard “Gary” Black Jr., a decorated Vietnam vet – was the lawful resident. He had fought with and shot the naked man – a known gang member and ex-con – after the intruder broke into the home and tried to drown Mr. Black’s grandson in the bathtub.

     Hasty responses have also proven tragically imprecise. On June 16 Los Angeles police officers were summoned to a stabbing at a homeless shelter. It turned out that an angry resident had cut his ex-girlfriend’s hands with a knife (her injuries were not critical.) When cops confronted the 32-year old assailant on the sidewalk he grabbed a disabled person, Elizabeth Tollison, 49, and put the knife to her throat. Officers opened fire, killing both.

     Five weeks later, on July 21, a man who shot his grandmother led LAPD officers on a wild car chase. He eventually crashed his vehicle by a Trader Joe’s. Firing at officers, he ran inside. Police fired back. One of their rounds fatally wounded a store employee, Melyda Corado, 27. After a prolonged standoff, the suspect, Gene Atkins, 28, surrendered peacefully.

     Sometimes there is no need to intercede. On September 6, Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, 30, finished her shift and drove to the apartment building where she had been living for a month. On arrival she parked one level higher than usual and inadvertently wound up at the apartment directly above her own. It so happened that its brand-new tenant, PricewaterhouseCoopers employee Botham Jean, 26, had left his door unsecured. Officer Guyger knew something was amiss but nonetheless walked in and reportedly issued loud “verbal commands.” But they failed to have the desired effect. Apparently thinking herself in peril, she fired twice, killing Mr. Jean in his own apartment.

     Over the decades law enforcement experts, academics, interest groups and the Federal government have recommended ways to make policing more effective while preventing needless harm to the law-abiding. “Making Time,” a key tactic that skillful cops have always used, has been incorporated into organizational directives and training regimes, essentially becoming an official tool of the trade.

     So what’s holding things back? Why is Police Issues revisiting the same concerns ad nauseam?

     On October 20, 2014 Chicago officers responded to a call about a teen trying to break into parked vehicles. Patrol cops soon encountered 17-year old Laquan McDonald. He was walking down the street, reportedly “swaying” a knife. As our original post indicated, and as the officers likely assumed, the teen had lived a hard life. So they called in for assistance to peacefully corral the troubled youth. A half-dozen additional units soon arrived:

    ‘We were trying to buy time to have a Taser,’ Officer Joseph McElligott testified Monday in a hushed Cook County courtroom. ‘(McDonald) didn’t make any direct movement at me, and I felt like my partner was protected for the most part inside the vehicle…We were just trying to be patient.’

Officers retained their approach even when McDonald ignored commands to drop the knife and slashed a police car’s tires. Then officer Jason Van Dyke and his partner pulled up. According to his colleagues, Van Dyke, a 14-year veteran, emptied his pistol at the youth within six seconds (his partner stopped him from reloading.) More than a year later, following public protests and a court-ordered release of officer bodycam video, officer Van Dyke was charged with murdering McDonald. (Van Dyke is presently on trial. For compelling details about the case see the special section in the Tribune website.)

     This wasn’t the first time that a cop’s unwelcome intrusion undermined a promising response. “Routinely Chaotic discussed the notorious October, 2016 killing of Deborah Danner, a mentally ill 66-year old woman. While she was being successfully contained a late-arriving supervisor butted in, causing Ms. Danner to flee to the bedroom and pick up a baseball bat. Sgt. Hugh Barry promptly shot her dead. He was tried for the killing but acquitted by a judge. (Sgt. Barry remains on limited duty awaiting departmental action.)

     In the uncertain environment of the streets, outcomes are shaped by many factors, including the availability and accuracy of information, police and mental health resources, and officer knowledge and experience. Officer personality characteristics, though, typically receive scant attention. Yet all who have worked in law enforcement (including your blogger) know that its practitioners are human: they have quirks, and their behavior can deteriorate under stress.

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     “Three Inexplicable Shootings” suggested that “cops who are easily rattled, risk-intolerant, impulsive or aggressive are more likely to resort to force or apply it inappropriately.” Violent experiences – and in our gun-saturated land they are deplorably common – undoubtedly play a major role in fashioning the lens through which officers perceive and respond to threats:

  • One year before blundering into the wrong apartment, Dallas officer Guyger (mentioned above) shot and wounded a parolee after he took away her Taser. Her actions were deemed justified and the suspect, who survived, was returned to prison. (An unidentified “police official” attributed officer Guyger’s recent, lethal lapse to the effects of an excessive long shift.)
  • One month before killing Richard Black, the unnamed Aurora cop shot mentioned above shot and killed an armed pedestrian whom he and a partner confronted during a “shots-fired” call. Although the shooting seemed justified, a lawyer for Black’s family questioned whether the officer should have been returned to regular duty so quickly.

     Our “sample” is infinitesimally small. It’s also not lacking for contradictions. Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke, for example, testified that he had never fired at anyone other than McDonald during his 14-year career. (Officer Van Dyke did amass a not-inconsequential record of citizen complaints, including one that triggered a large monetary award.)

     According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, thirty-one officers were shot and killed during the first half of 2018, while twenty-five fell to gunfire during the same period in 2017. Los Angeles, where your blogger is based, has been beset with shootings of police. On July 27 a gang member on probation shot and wounded an LAPD officer who told him to exit his vehicle during a seemingly “routine” traffic stop (the assailant was shot and killed by her partner.) On September 19 two L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies were wounded during a firefight with assault suspects. One suspect was killed and another was wounded.

     When streets teem with guns and with evildoers willing to use them, risk-tolerance can be “a very hard sell.” But there’s no arguing that rushed police decisions can needlessly kill. What’s the solution? PERF’s “Guiding Principles on Use of Force” suggests that keeping distance, taking cover and “de-escalating” can provide a safe middle-ground:

    …rushing in unnecessarily can endanger the responding officers…When officers can keep their distance from a person who is holding a knife or throwing rocks and attempt to defuse the situation through communication and other de-escalation strategies, they can avoid ever reaching that point where there is a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to anyone, including themselves.

Still, considering the dynamics of street encounters, there’s no guarantee that time, cover and distance will be available. In the uncertain and often hostile environment of the streets, officers can find it impossible to quickly choreograph and implement a peaceful response. Bottom line: “slowing down” requires that cops occasionally accept considerable risk. Should their judgment be off, they can be easily hurt or killed. That’s not ideology: it’s just plain fact. And it’s the fundamental dilemma that well-meaning “experts” have yet to address.

UPDATE (11/15/18): On 11/11 a cop responded to a bar shooting in a Chicago suburb. On arrival the officer encountered an armed man in the parking lot, holding another man at gunpoint. Reports conflict, but the officer claimed that the armed man, Jemel Roberson, 26, wasn’t wearing a uniform and didn’t obey commands to put down the gun.  The officer, who is white, then shot him dead. Roberson, a black man, was a security guard and supposedly wearing an identifying acp. The man he held had reportedly opened fire in the bar and wounded several patrons. Illinois state police summary

UPDATE (10/5/18): Chicago jurors convicted officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. He faces a minimum of six years imprisonment. His lawyer bemoaned the conviction and said it would make cops fearful of doing their jobs. But a sign-waving crowd awaiting the verdict outside City Hall rejoiced.

UPDATE (9/25/18): On 9/24/18 an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy was shot and wounded while trying to disarm a middle-aged man during a traffic stop. His partner shot and killed the assailant.

UPDATE (9/24/18): Dallas police fired officer Amber Guyger for “adverse conduct” in the shooting death of Botham Jean. She has also been charged with manslaughter.

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Routinely Chaotic     Three Inexplicable Shootings     Working Scared     De-Escalation

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Is it When to Chase? Or If?     Making Time     Every Cop Needs a Taser     Is it Too Easy to Zap?

There’s no easy solution     When Cops Kill (II)     When Cops Kill

Posted 3/6/18


Rule #1: Don’t let chaos distort the police response. Rule #2: See Rule #1.

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. “She was too fast for me.” Taking the stand at his trial for murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide, that’s how NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry explained winding up in a situation that ultimately forced him to pull the trigger, mortally wounding Deborah Danner, 66, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. Only a day later Mayor DeBlasio declared the officer at fault: “The shooting of Deborah Danner is tragic and it is unacceptable. It should never have happened.” Police Commissioner James O’Neill agreed: “That’s not how we trained. We failed.”

     On October 18, 2016 officers were dispatched to the apartment building where Ms. Danner lived and occasionally lost control. Sgt. Barry testified that when he arrived Ms. Danner was ensconced in her bedroom, a pair of scissors in hand. He said he convinced her to put the scissors down and come out, but she soon became recalcitrant. Fearing she’d go back for the scissors, he tried to grab her, but the panicked woman slipped away. So he chased her back into the bedroom, and got confronted with a baseball bat. Sgt. Barry testified that Ms. Danner ignored repeated commands to drop the object, then aggressively stepped towards him and began her swing.

     In our earlier comments about the case (A Stitch in Time and Are Civilians Too Easy on the Police?) we referred to NYPD’s lengthy and, in our opinion, confusingly written protocols. In all, these rules apparently prescribe that unless a mentally ill person’s actions “constitute [an] immediate threat of serious physical injury or death to himself or others” officers should limit their response to establishing a “zone of safety” and await the arrival of their supervisor and an emergency services unit.

     Well, a sergeant got there, and he didn’t wait for the specialists. With the Big Apple still reeling from Eric Garner’s death at the hands of a cop two years earlier, the mayor and police commissioner probably figured that accepting responsibility and promising reform was the wisest course. Ditto for the D.A. While she vigorously insisted that her decision to prosecute was based on the facts, and nothing but, expressions of concern by Black Lives Matter and other activists might have helped spur Sgt. Barry’s indictment seven months later.

     As one would expect, the charges – and their severity – caused an uproar in cop-land. Here’s how the NYPD Sergeant’s Benevolent Association disparaged the “political prosecution”:

    Police Commissioner James O’Neill stated that “we failed” when describing the fatal shooting of Deborah Danner, an emotionally disturbed woman who attacked Sgt. Hugh Barry with a baseball bat. The reality is that Commissioner O’Neill “lied” because, in the split-second that Sgt. Barry had to make a momentous decision, he followed department guidelines…

Here’s how a union member saw it:

    …There is nothing easier than to be a Monday morning quarterback. This is an absolute joke, my thoughts and prayers are with all of you guys in particular Sgt. Barry. I am quite confident justice will prevail in this situation…

     While their arrival was staggered (Sgt. Barry reportedly came in next to last), five patrol officers and two paramedics ultimately handled the call. According to a reporter who sat through the trial, their testimony clashed:

    Two emergency medical technicians and five police officers have testified over the last two days of trial, giving differing accounts of what happened. It is not unusual for witnesses to a shooting to remember things differently, though in this trial, some of the inconsistencies have been striking.

     “Striking” seems an understatement. A paramedic testified that she was conversing with Ms. Danner when the supervisor arrived. Sgt. Barry didn’t contact her, and officers soon butted in, causing the agitated woman to scurry back to the bedroom. However, four officers insisted that the medics never actually entered the apartment, while the fifth, Officer Camilo Rosario, said that the EMT who spoke with Ms. Danner retreated to the front door when Sgt. Barry arrived. Officer Rosario’s account also differed from Sgt. Barry’s. Officer Rosario said he informed his supervisor about the scissors and Ms. Danner’s refusal to voluntarily go to the hospital. So they soon decided to go to the bedroom to fetch her. Officer Rosario, who was right behind Sgt. Barry, agreed that Ms. Danner threatened with a bat, and that’s when the shooting happened.

     Sgt. Barry conceded that containing Ms. Danner within a “zone of safety” and awaiting the arrival of an emergency services team might have been possible. He also turned away (we think, correctly) the suggestion he should have used a Taser, as CED’s are neither suitable nor intended for use as defensive weapons. Of course, Sgt. Barry wasn’t being prosecuted for violating policy but for needlessly taking Ms. Danner’s life. In the end, the judge (it was a bench trial) felt that prosecutors did not met their stiff burden, and he acquitted Sgt. Barry on all counts.

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     In “Are Civilians Too Easy on the Police?” we suggested that the case was purposely overcharged so that jurors who may have been reluctant to severely sanction a cop had a lesser offense on which to convict. That’s probably why Sgt. Barry opted to be tried by a judge. He is presently on desk duty awaiting an internal hearing. Unless he can convincingly argue that his decision not to wait for specialists was correct – that Ms. Danner posed an imminent threat to herself or others – his future with NYPD seems bleak.

     In science the “ideal case” is a made-up example that typifies the situation under study. But when it comes to failed encounters between citizens and police there’s little need to concoct scenarios. Our Use of Force and Strategy and Tactics sections brim with accounts of policing gone wrong (for a few recent examples click here). Indeed, handling chaos is what cops do. What they try to avoid – usually, successfully – is letting the messiness of the real world infect their response so it turns into what officers sneeringly refer to as a “cluster”.

     To be sure, there is no shortage of guidance for handling fraught situations. Experts routinely advise that officers who encounter troubled persons “de-escalate” and slow things down, giving themselves an opportunity to think things through and making time for supervisors and specialists to arrive. Well, they may not have called it “de-escalation,” but that commonsense approach is what good cops have always done. Regrettably, what advice-givers can’t supply is more cops. Lots of bad things can happen during a shift, from nasty domestic disputes to robberies and shootings, so care must be taken to leave some uniforms available. Given limited resources (anybody out there got too many cops?) calls must be handled expeditiously and without needlessly tying up specialized teams. As a one-time police sergeant, your blogger thinks that’s what Sgt. Barry was trying to do. Really, a supervisor, five officers and two EMT’s on a single call would be pretty darn good most anywhere.

     Might things have turned out differently had an officer Tasered Ms. Danner early on? Possibly. NYPD’s rules specifically allow (i.e., encourage) using CED’s “to assist in restraining emotionally disturbed persons.” Properly deploying the devices, though, can be tricky. At least two officers must be directly involved. Subjects should be relatively still, offer an ample target area and not be heavily clothed. Applying multiple doses or zapping the infirm, elderly or mentally disturbed (Ms. Danner fits at least the last two categories) can prove fatal. CED’s are useful, but far from an unqualified solution.

     Fine. Humankind is frail. Chaos rules the streets. There is a surplus of wackos and a shortage of cops. One-size-fits-all solutions are rare. So, Dr. Jay, what do you suggest?

     We won’t belabor the subject of critical incident response, which has been exhaustively addressed by authoritative sources (for two examples click here and here.) Instead, let’s advance a couple of points that are frequently missing from the conversation.

     First, as to early intervention. “A Stitch in Time” emphasized the pressing need to detain mentally disturbed persons for examination and treatment as soon as they become a cause for police concern. That’s especially true for individuals such as Deborah Danner who live alone. If that seems harsh, consider that waiting until the third episode may, as with Ms. Danner, turn into a death sentence.

     Secondly, we must stop thinking of police as a quasi-military force. Those of us who have been in both occupations know that military operations are typically conducted in groups. Policing is decidedly not. While police also have sergeants, lieutenants and what-not, life-changing decisions are regularly made by twenty-somethings with a badge, acting completely on their own. By the time supervisors such as Sgt. Barry arrive on scene a lot has usually transpired. From our reading of news reports, Officer Rosario seemed to be especially well-informed, having observed Ms. Danner’s behavior from the early stages of the incident through her interaction with the EMT. But he apparently deferred to the judgment of his late-arriving superior, who promptly grabbed for the woman, and ultimately shot her, within five minutes of arrival.

     What to do? Police protocols should place those most familiar with a situation – typically, the first officer(s) on scene – in charge, at least until things have sufficiently stabilized for a safe hand-off. Officer Rosario and his colleagues had been monitoring the disturbed woman and waiting her out. Had Sgt. Barry taken on a supportive role, as supervisors routinely do, and let her alone, a heart-warming Hollywood ending might have been far more likely.

UPDATE (11/15/18): On 11/11 a cop responded to a bar shooting in a Chicago suburb. On arrival the officer encountered an armed man in the parking lot, holding another man at gunpoint. Reports conflict, but the officer claimed that the armed man, Jemel Roberson, 26, wasn’t wearing a uniform and didn’t obey commands to put down the gun.  The officer, who is white, then shot him dead. Roberson, a black man, was a security guard and supposedly wearing an identifying acp. The man he held had reportedly opened fire in the bar and wounded several patrons. Illinois state police summary

UPDATE (3/18/18): Inability of sheriff and police to communicate with each other by radio and a mistaken belief that school video surveillance was real-time (it was set on 20-minute delay) also hampered the response to the Florida school shooting.

UPDATE (3/9/18): The Florida deputy whom President Trump and others excoriated for not entering Marjorie Stoneman High School said that a victim found outside and other indicia led him to believe that the shooter was outside. The first local police officer on scene followed his lead and also set up outside.

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Is it Ever OK?     Speed Kills     Are Civilians Too Easy on the Police?     Consensus II

Three (In?)explicable Shootings     De-escalation     Is it Always About Race?

Good Guy/Bad Guy/Black Guy (II)     A Stitch in Time     A Very Hot Summer

Homeless, Mentally Ill, Dead     First, Do No Harm     Contact Sport (II)     Making Time


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