Faced with record numbers of police shootings and locked in an arms race with criminals, Orange County's top-ranking peace officers have begun a comprehensive look at officer-involved shootings that might lead to reducing the toll.
For the past year, a committee of the Orange County Police Chiefs and Sheriff's Assn. has been discussing the use of deadly force in hopes of developing some uniform guidelines and recommendations for the county's 24 law enforcement agencies.
The first installment of that effort--a set of steps to investigate the often controversial incidents--will go into effect this month. The guidelines, or "protocol," codify some existing practices, including the use of independent agencies such as the district attorney's office, to investigate the shootings.
Once the protocol is in place, some committee members say they would like to consider other issues related to the use of firearms, including hiring, training and policy-making, as well as alternatives to the use of deadly force and how to handle officers who have shot someone.
"Violent incidents with the potential for a police shooting are skyrocketing," said Garden Grove Police Chief John Robertson, who chairs the committee. "We are just trying to prepare for the future. You won't find a police chief in the county today who will say this potential will lessen in the years ahead."
Last year, 29 people were shot by police countywide compared to 20 in 1988 and 10 in 1987, according to county law enforcement agencies. Of the 1989 total, 12 people were killed. In addition, a police officer was wounded by police gunfire.
Besides the human toll, the rash of officer-involved shootings over the past two years has prompted at least 15 lawsuits and liability claims alleging wrongful death and excessive use of force. The legal actions, most of which are unresolved, seek millions of dollars in damages and raise questions about police conduct.
Coinciding with the county's rise in police shootings is the increase in crime. According to state and local figures, the number of homicides in the county rose to a record 157 last year compared to 129 in 1988, 98 in 1987 and 112 in 1986. Aggravated assaults, which include attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon, rose to more than 6,000.
Statewide, the number of justifiable homicides by peace officers has increased since 1986, according to the state attorney general's office. Statistics show that 85 people were shot to death by police in 1986, 92 in 1987 and 101 in 1988.
Violent confrontations have also hurt more local peace officers than in the past. Last year in Garden Grove alone, about 30 officers received hospital treatment for on-duty wounds, seven of whom had to be relieved of duty temporarily, according to the Police Department. That compares to one or two officers a year more than a decade ago.
"I have concerns that society is turning very violent," Robertson said. "Weapons violations are up. It's almost vogue now to challenge authority, and who most represents authority out there: the police officer, and you see him every day."
The county Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Assn. formed the ad hoc committee last year after the number of officer-involved shootings doubled from 1987 to 1988. Robertson and other chiefs say they envision the group as a way to augment, study and improve existing firearms procedures now used by county law enforcement.
"It's a logical way to approach things so we are not heading off in 24 different directions," said Laguna Beach Police Chief Neil Purcell, president of the chiefs' association. "It serves the community best to have some uniform guidelines."
While rules governing the use of deadly force differ among departments, most firearms policies give the officer discretion. However, in all cases there must be an immediate danger to officers, hostages or bystanders.
The shootings are usually investigated by the district attorney's office to check for criminal culpability and the police department to determine if the officer violated department policies.
"Given the track record in this county, we have been extremely fortunate that the police shootings have been deemed lawful. But if we don't maintain a high level of scrutiny, we could have a bad shooting," Robertson said.
The committee's first effort--a three-page protocol detailing how police shootings should be investigated--has been ratified by the county marshal, sheriff, 22 police chiefs and the district attorney. It provides some uniformity of procedures across the county. Although not a required policy, these guidelines recommend an independent agency to investigate officer-involved shootings, ways to issue public information about the incidents and methods to make sure investigations are thorough and fair.
"We are taking a pro-active view," said Huntington Beach Police Chief Ronald E. Lowenberg, past president of the chiefs' association. "When we get the countywide protocol out of the way, we want to look at some other issues, such as training and post-shooting evaluations, that will better prepare us to handle this unfortunate trend."
Other issues, such as how to prevent shootings, improve investigations and deal with the variety of conflicting interests that come into play in the aftermath of a shooting, rank high among the possible considerations.
Robertson said he is particularly concerned that police shootings and the resulting investigations are becoming increasingly complex. He noted that attorneys for the victims or their families and police officers, municipal civil liability teams, the news media, as well as police and district attorney's investigators, now become involved in trying to unravel officer-involved shootings.
"It's a very traumatic event for everybody," Robertson said. "Police are not hardened machines, not robots. The shootings take a toll on both sides. We don't want to shoot anybody but occasionally that happens and we want to try to minimize that. The public thinks we come back to the station and celebrate."
Law enforcement authorities across the county and an expert in officer-involved shootings praised the effort by the chiefs' association in tackling an issue as sensitive, complex and controversial as officer-involved shootings.
"In my opinion there is an intensity and a feeling that they are going to do something about it, which I find unusual, having worked with police departments throughout the country," said Arnold Binder, a UC Irvine professor who has studied officer-involved shootings.
Binder has written a book on police shootings titled "The Badge and the Bullet" and has recently met with representatives of the chiefs' association to discuss firearms policies.
Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Maury Evans said: "The police chiefs in Orange County have been very responsive regarding police shootings. And as a part of being responsive, they have taken upon themselves to review the protocols for police shootings in Orange County."