SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS SECTION: WATCHING CRIME HAPPEN : Experts Elsewhere Criticize SIS Record of Few Arrests, Frequent Deadly Shootings
The comparatively high number of shootings and relatively low number of arrests by Special Investigations Section detectives raises questions about the unit’s methods and effectiveness, according to law enforcement experts in other cities.
Los Angeles Police Department records show that SIS officers over the last two decades have killed 23 suspects and wounded 23 others.
Police officials point out that each of the unit’s shootings has later been justified by the district attorney’s office and police internal affairs investigators.
But in the last 10 years, the officers in the unit have shot nearly twice as many people as those assigned to the department’s larger and better-known Special Weapons and Tactics team. Between 1978 and 1987, SWAT officers shot 15 people, killing 10. SIS detectives, meanwhile, shot 29, killing 16.
One SIS detective, Michael G. Sirk, has shot nine suspects over the years, more than any other Los Angeles police officer, records show. In seven shooting incidents since 1977, Sirk has killed five people and wounded four.
Another SIS member has shot seven people; another has shot six, and three have shot three suspects each.
Beyond the unit’s history of shootings, SIS’s arrest record also has caused experts elsewhere to question the squad’s effectiveness.
The Times requested details of each SIS arrest over the last two years, including the names of suspects and the nature of surveillances that led to their being taken into custody. Instead, police officials provided vague, one-paragraph summaries of SIS’s monthly activities.
SIS Capt. Dennis A. Conte said he could not provide suspects’ names and little other specific information on 1986 and 1987 surveillances because the SIS does not keep such data.
Last year, according to the summaries, the 19-man squad logged 66 surveillances and claimed credit for 36 arrests, including two murder suspects, two extortionists, a kidnaper and eight robbers or burglars.
Fifteen of the year’s arrests came in one case alone, and were for auto theft or receiving stolen goods. SIS detectives spent 23 days on that case.
The summaries show that the unit also spent nearly two weeks watching a mentally disturbed man who had threatened to kill a police officer. The man was taken into custody after the detectives watched him walk into a gun shop and buy rifle ammunition.
The remaining seven arrests made by SIS in 1987 were incidental to the surveillances that detectives were on at the time, Conte said. The arrests involved two separate groups of youths who were seen driving stolen cars.
“When you measure dollars and cents, you can’t put a price tag on a lot of what (SIS detectives) do,” Conte said.
But in other cities, police officials who attempted similar surveillance squads have done just that and inevitably scrapped or greatly modified their squads after concluding that shadowing suspects full time is often a waste of time and money.
‘A Waste of Time’
In Kansas City, Mo., police in 1972 established a 12-man undercover “Perpetrator-Oriented Patrol.” Like the SIS, the Kansas City squad began following suspects in hopes of catching them committing robberies and burglaries. The unit lasted less than two years.
“It was a total failure, a waste of time,” said then-Kansas City Police Chief Joseph D. McNamara, who now heads the San Jose Police Department.
A study by the Police Foundation, a Washington-based, law enforcement-related think tank, showed that the Kansas City unit averaged 57 arrests a year--2 1/2 times as many arrests per man as the SIS made in 1987.
Six years ago, police in Washington launched a similar full-time surveillance program, dubbed the Repeat Offender Project. It, too, did not as last long as originally conceived.
“We found pretty quickly that straight surveillance was boring, time-consuming and had limited productivity,” said Washington Deputy Police Chief Edward J. Spurlock. “But when we mixed it with other tactics--information exchange, infiltration and investigation--it became a fantastic operation.”
After ROP was modified, about 20 other law enforcement agencies modeled similar units after it.
Spurlock said that the 55-member ROP averages more than 40 arrests a month, the majority involving the same types of hard-core criminals--burglars and robbers--pursued by SIS. About one-third of ROP’s arrests stem directly from surveillance, according to Washington detectives.
Spurlock shook his head in disbelief when told of SIS’s arrests last year. “Those numbers are pathetic,” he said.
Unlike the SIS, whose surveillances often last weeks, ROP officers rarely spend more than five days following suspects, said Detective Jerry W. Williams, chairman of ROP’s “target committee,” which decides who will be followed and for how long.
“There are too many other fish out there for us to be waiting around for weeks to see if a guy is going to pull a bank job or something,” Williams explained. “If the guy’s not active, we’ll put the file away and look at him a few weeks later.”
Williams, Spurlock and others also questioned the number of shootings SIS detectives have been involved in. “They may be scumbags, but you don’t have to shoot them,” Spurlock said. “Every time we shoot, we lose credibility on the street.”
Officers assigned to Washington’s ROP unit have shot and wounded two suspects since 1982, when the unit was formed, Spurlock said. No suspects have been killed.
During the same period, members of the “Cobra Corps,” a 14-officer surveillance unit based in the San Fernando Valley, have shot five suspects, killing two.
SIS detectives, meanwhile, have shot 15 suspects, killing eight in that period.
Police officials declined to detail how many shootings individual officers have been involved in. Cmdr. William Booth, a Police Department spokesman, said that disclosure of such data from department files would violate state laws guaranteeing the officers’ privacy.
The Times instead examined press releases and all available follow-up reports for each incident over the last 10 years in which people were shot by Los Angeles police officers--documents that under department policy are public.
The survey found that of 690 officers involved in shootings between 1978 and 1987, 24 had three or more shootings each. Three of those officers are in the Metropolitan Division, home of the SWAT team. The others are scattered throughout the force, with one exception: five are assigned to the SIS.
They are Sirk, 44, who has shot nine people; Jerry L. Brooks, 49, who has shot seven; Henry Cadena, 46, three shootings; David J. Harrison, 39, three shootings; and Gary L. Strickland, 45, three shootings. SIS Detective Robert G. Gilmore, 51, has had at least six shootings, the first in 1969, but none since 1983.
Another six SIS detectives have been involved in at least one shooting apiece.
SIS’s most recent shooting occurred Sept. 1, when, police said, a 14-year-old boy allegedly fired on two squad members, Gary W. Zerbey and Richard Zierenberg, who were on surveillance in South-Central Los Angeles. Neither officer was hit.
The boy, who was not identified because of his age, ran and was shot in the leg when he allegedly turned and pointed the gun at the detectives, according to police reports. He was arrested after seeking medical treatment at a Silver Lake hospital.
Zerbey, 39, was involved in the surveillance squad’s last fatal shooting, which occurred Jan. 26, records show. He and other SIS detectives that night tailed an 18-year-old murder suspect, Timothy E. Pierson, to Baldwin Park and watched him shoot a man in a robbery attempt outside a restaurant.
As Pierson ran from the scene, Zerbey ordered him to stop. Pierson, according to a police news release, continued to run, then quickly turned toward the officer. Zerbey fired five rounds, hitting Pierson three times.
Zerbey shot Pierson with a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, a type of weapon that Chief Daryl F. Gates authorized the unit to use beginning in March, 1986, according to SIS’s Conte. But officials of the Los Angeles Police Commission, which sets Police Department policy and last year allowed officers to carry 9-millimeter handguns, said they were never consulted or even notified of SIS’s switch to a more powerful--some say more lethal--weapon.
Executive Secretary William Cowdin said that the commission has authorized only SWAT officers to carry .45s.
Conte said he was not troubled by the Pierson shooting or, for that matter, previous SIS shootings.
He noted that SIS shootings have been “unusual” in number but stressed that, “If there were any improprieties clearly patterned, they would be closely monitored by the (Police Department’s) Use of Force Review Board. . . . I haven’t heard of any problems.”
Internal reports from Gates’ office to the Police Commission and to Gates from the Use of Force Board, a group of police officials who review Police Department shootings, indicate that there has been a recurrent problem with recent SIS shootings.
Police officials on three occasions since 1986 have ordered various SIS detectives to undergo additional training after shooting reviews found that the officers had failed to take adequate cover before confronting--and then shooting--armed robbers or burglars, reports show.
The detectives’ daring placed them at risk needlessly, police officials concluded. According to law enforcement tacticians elsewhere, such daring also makes an officer more inclined to shoot the suspect he is supposed to arrest.
James J. Fyfe, a former New York City police lieutenant and a nationally regarded expert on police use of deadly force, said that when surprised by a command, crime suspects, as well as average citizens, “reflexively” turn to see who issued the order.
Consequently, an officer without sufficient cover would be more likely to shoot in self-defense as an armed suspect turned toward him, said Fyfe, who authored a reflexive response training program taught to New York City police recruits.
Los Angeles police reports on SIS shootings show that, in fact, numerous suspects “whirled” or turned toward officers who were in vulnerable positions. The suspects were then shot by those officers or others nearby.
In 28 of the 32 SIS shootings incidents examined by The Times, suspects did not fire at the detectives, records show. And of suspects shot by SIS detectives over the years, 13 were unarmed.
Take the shooting of bank robbers Jane Berry and John Crumpton by four SIS detectives in 1982.
According to police reports, the two were surprised by detectives at their getaway car, and ordered to put their hands up. Instead, reports said, Crumpton and Berry “whirled” in the officers’ direction and reached for their waistbands.
The detectives, who had rushed toward the suspects and were standing in plain view behind a chain-link fence about 40 feet away, opened fire--17 shotgun rounds and one revolver shot in all.
Crumpton was hit by more than 40 shotgun pellets and killed. An autopsy report and police forensic documents show that none of his wounds were to the front or even side of his body. He was hit in the back, buttocks, back of his arms and legs, and through the sole of his left foot. Crumpton had a leather holster on his belt but no gun.
Berry sustained 14 pellet wounds, all from the rear, reports show. The officers said they took a gun from Berry’s belt when they handcuffed her.
Similarly, autopsy reports show that 16 of 22 other suspects killed by SIS detectives were shot once or more from behind.
Fyfe suggested that some shootings could be avoided if officers took cover, leveled their weapons and anticipated a suspect’s reflexive reaction. That way, he said, officers can give the suspect a chance to “come to his senses” and surrender.
“If all that the perpetrator sees is the top of the officers’ heads and barrels pointed at him, he’s going to realize it’s a no-win situation,” Fyfe said.
Of SIS’s tactics, Fyfe said:
“It seems pretty clear to me that in a lot of these situations, you’re encouraging a shooting.”
Williams of the Washington police said that his unit minimizes shootings by making suspects “an offer they can’t refuse. If a guy sees six shotguns pointed at him, he’s never going to shoot it out, never,” he said.
Some Officers Out of Sight
But retired SIS detective Robbie A. Lee said that arrest situations in which he participated often were set up so that suspects, when told to freeze, “usually would see only about two of our guys.” Although other SIS detectives were there, they kept out of sight, Lee said.
If a suspect turned abruptly and his gun was level, “he bought the farm because there’s only one thing he’s going to do and that’s shoot. . .,” Lee said. “If they wanted to go the hard way, that was their decision. They didn’t know it, but I was there with the mostest.”
Lee said that in his 13 years with the unit, 14 suspects were killed and “about three or four” were wounded. When a reporter noted that far more suspects had been killed than wounded, Lee agreed, saying, “Pretty good shooting for all the guys.”
He noted that all of those shootings involved armed suspects.
SIS detectives, who are on call 24 hours a day, face inordinate pressures, particularly the ever-present danger of armed confrontation. But only a few, police officials say, have been adversely affected.
One of them is Martin J. Dorner, a 17-year SIS veteran, who last year complained of problems that he associated with having been regularly exposed to dangerous criminals and to having participated in six fatal shootings while with the unit.
There were times, according to state workers’ compensation records, when Dorner’s blood pressure would shoot up to dangerous levels, leaving his hands shaking uncontrollably and his head pounding. He had trouble breathing. Even in cool weather, his cheeks would flush and he would break out in a sweat.
“He’s an individual who is very seriously disabled,” his attorney, Michael T. Roberts, told the Los Angeles Board of Pension Commissioners at a hearing in May, 1987.
The board agreed. Dorner was granted a $2,429-a-month retirement.
The most acute example of stress caused by assignment to SIS involved Detective Steve Fisk. He suffered a nervous breakdown and left the force in 1977 after watching another member of the squad kill a 13-year-old girl with a shotgun blast to the head, pension board and workers’ compensation files show.
The girl was with three 17-year-old youths who were believed to be members of a gang of armed robbers. Witnesses had already identified one of the suspects, Latrail Livsey, as having committed six unsolved robberies, police reports show.
On Aug. 10, 1977, Fisk and eight other SIS detectives followed Livsey to a gas station in the 3700 block of South Western Avenue. The detectives watched as he and another youth robbed and roughed up the attendant before returning to their getaway car where Toni Hyams, 13, was waiting along with a third teen-ager.
As the car drove past Detective Curtis C. Hagele, Livsey fired a pistol, according to police reports. Hagele, who would be accidentally shot to death three years later by a fellow SIS detective, fired his shotgun, killing Hyams instantly. When the car stopped, Livsey jumped out and was wounded by another SIS member.
Four sleepless days after Toni Hyams’ death, Fisk left the Police Department and was admitted to Van Nuys Psychiatric Hospital. Dr. John Hochman, a UCLA professor of clinical psychiatry, examined Fisk and found him tormented by “auditory and visual hallucinations” of people he had shot. Fisk had been involved in three fatal shootings in his five years with SIS.
“He feels terrible that you are made a hero when you kill someone when he, in fact, feels so terrible about it,” Hochman noted in his report.
Criticized for Not Shooting
Fisk testified before the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board that other team members had criticized him for not killing Livsey during the Toni Hyams shooting.
Livsey had run toward Fisk’s position with a gun in hand after jumping from the getaway car. “Fisk commanded him to stop and he did,” according to an official summary of Fisk’s testimony. “Another policeman yelled, and the boy turned on this man with a gun. His fellow officers told (Fisk) that he should have cut the boy in half.”
Fisk was awarded a stress pension in 1978. Rehabilitated, he quietly returned to the Police Department in 1986. Now 43, he works as homicide detective at the Foothill-area station in Pacoima.
Thomas L. Ferry, SIS’s former captain, who himself killed a robbery suspect while on surveillance, said that Fisk’s breakdown was an aberration among those who have served on the surveillance squad.
“This unit is manned by very experienced people who constantly work on top types of criminals,” Ferry testified at Fisk’s workers’ compensation hearing. “So the fact that one is involved in a shooting . . . it’s not like two- or three-year policemen sitting around the coffee room, talking, like it’s a big deal. It is not a big deal.”
A former high-ranking police administrator suggested that some SIS officers after long-term assignment to the unit may be “morally callous” and may not hesitate to pull the trigger on a guilty suspect when there might be other, non-lethal methods to arrest him.
“Don’t get me wrong, there’s a need for this kind of surveillance operation,” said the former administrator, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. “But if a person has, in fact, reached a point where shooting somebody no longer has an impact on him, then he shouldn’t be there.”
Police psychologists and law enforcement experts suggest that while most police officers fear ever having to use deadly force, some officers who have shot criminals look forward to shooting more.
That contention is not lost on the Los Angeles Police Department. Its union’s monthly newsletter this year reprinted a Police magazine article on officer-involved shootings, written by an Amarillo, Tex., officer. The article addressed what was termed a “reduction in the killing inhibition” experienced by some officers who have shot more than one suspect.
“More officers find that it is easier to kill after having once killed,” Officer Clarence E. Jones Jr. wrote after researching the subject for a master’s degree.
“Veterans of gun battles report this regularly. . . . This reduction in the killing inhibition may coincide with the discovery that exposure to extreme danger produces a thrill or ‘high’ . . . sufficient to create the desire to experience the thrill again.”
However, the Los Angeles Police Department’s chief psychologist, Dr. Martin Reiser, said that, if anything, officers here who have shot people “become even more sensitized to the notion of taking someone’s life. It acquires a lot more meaning to them subsequently.”
Reiser said that while he has had limited contact with SIS members, “Nothing comes to mind that would separate that group from others.”