Shooting of L.A. homeless man underscores risks, decisions police face

Even though the #SkidRow shooting was caught on camera, we should not rush to judgment on the facts

The death of a homeless man in downtown L.A.'s skid row on Sunday has received wide coverage, both in this city and around the world. This comes at a time of heightened sensitivity to officer-involved shootings, with prominent situations last year in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City leading to demonstrations in many cities and criticism of police in popular media and online.

Though every officer-involved shooting, particularly those that result in a death, is a tragedy, each situation must be examined individually and investigated thoroughly to determine the facts. Premature judgments, either by law enforcement or by community members, are not fair to anyone involved. Often they are unfair to the police officers involved, who bear the brunt of early criticisms, protest and, as we have seen, threats to their safety.

From the perspective of those in law enforcement, every shooting underscores a reality of police work that is not frequently seen by the public: It is dangerous and can turn violent in the blink of an eye. Officers are expected to confront situations every day from which ordinary citizens would — rightly — run. Many of these situations become confrontational. During investigations or while making arrests, many people become violent and struggle with officers. They may be hardened criminals avoiding arrest; they may be suffering from mental health issues.

Whatever the case, the struggle itself is unlawful, harmful to all involved and creates an immediate crisis in which officers must sometimes make split-second, life-and-death decisions.

Often, an individual who is willing to physically confront a police officer will reach for the officer's weapon. According to the FBI's 1996 Uniform Crime Report, from 1987 to 1996, more than 10% of officers who died in the line of duty were shot with their own guns. L.A. police officers on duty during this time frame distinctly remember a bright, young LAPD officer killed during a struggle for his gun by a burglary suspect on a North Hollywood street. In 1988, 24-year-old Officer James Beyea was shot with his own gun by a 16-year-old suspect.

Since that time, high-security holsters and enhanced weapon retention training have lowered the number of police officers killed with their own weapons to less than 5%. Nonetheless, it still happens and the threat is evident. According to the FBI statistics for 2013, 27 officers were killed in the line of duty by those they were investigating or arresting. Two had their weapons stolen and one was killed with his own weapon. It should be no surprise that law enforcement officers are sensitive to the potential loss of their weapons during a struggle and that they take the necessary and immediate steps, when it does occur, to avoid harm.

It's important to keep in mind that law enforcement officers are legally allowed and, we would argue, expected by those they are sworn to protect to use lethal force when reasonable and necessary to prevent imminent, serious bodily injury to themselves and others. In assessing whether the use of lethal force by police is justifiable, the evaluation of police actions is not made on the basis of how a situation appears to those who study it afterward, with the clarity of hindsight and the ability to ask, "What else might have been done?"

Rather, the question asked is what reasonable action would a trained officer take in the midst of a critical situation, given the facts known then and the speed needed to avoid bodily injury?

Sunday's officer-involved shooting has given rise to worldwide media coverage, social media postings and minute examination of multiple video recordings. We hope that in the midst of all this analysis, the public will keep in mind the constant dangers our officers face every day on the job, the fact that officers are vulnerable to being shot with their own weapons and that they have been trained to act swiftly to protect themselves and others when placed at risk.

Craig Lally is the president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

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