Burgreen Orders Review of Police Shooting Policy : Law Enforcement: Chief’s order comes in wake of 19 shootings--seven fatal--by officers this year.


Reacting to a recent spate of police shootings, San Diego’s police chief has formed a 16-member committee to conduct an extensive review of the department policies on the use of lethal force.

Three members of the committee, including a deputy chief, have been detached from their regular duties and assigned full time to the group until it completes the broad review, which will include visits to the Los Angeles, San Jose, Dallas and Phoenix police departments.

“What I’m doing is unprecedented in the department,” Police Chief Bob Burgreen said in an interview this week. “My sudden interest has to do with a rash of shootings that have been publicly questioned.”


San Diego police have shot and killed seven people so far this year and injured 12 others. Last year, eight people died in police gunfire and 16 were injured. Ten were killed and 11 injured in 1988.

Three particular shootings this year, all of which occurred within a month, prompted the investigation, Burgreen said. In late May, police shot and killed a 24-year-old Mexican man waving a plastering tool on Interstate 5. In two separate incidents in June, just four days apart, police fatally shot two men who were wielding baseball bats.

Those incidents, coupled with other controversial law enforcement shootings around that same time, caused an outcry from citizens and civil rights groups, who questioned the officers’ judgment and focused attention on police policies involving shootings and self-defense.

“It happened like that. We had three straight shootings, bang, bang bang,” Burgreen said. “People were questioning us. I figured it was an appropriate time to look at our shooting policies.”

Burgreen said he is not second-guessing the actions of his officers in any of the recent shootings; those cases are all still under investigation. But he said he wants to be satisfied that recruits are properly trained, and that those already on duty are following department procedures.

Law enforcement officials agree that regulations involving the use of deadly force are vague and open to interpretation.

A San Diego police officer is permitted to fire a weapon only during target practice or when “reasonably necessary to protect himself from death or serious injury or to protect another (officer) or any other person from death or bodily injury,” according to department policy.

Officers also are permitted to use deadly force “to apprehend a fleeing felon reasonably known to be armed with a deadly weapon” and who might inflict “great bodily harm or the threat of great bodily harm.”

A thorough review of the department’s policy is made all the more necessary because police are finding themselves in life-threatening situations more frequently, said Capt. Dave Hall, who is assigned full time to the committee along with Deputy Chief Mike Rice and Sgt. Jeff Cable.

“We are in more high-risk situations than ever before, and many of those situations require some kind of force,” Hall said. “We’ve never looked at lethal force in as much detail as we’re doing now.”

The massive review is reminiscent of a similar undertaking in 1985, when a police safety task force spent five months trying to determine why San Diego was suffering one of the highest mortality rates in the country.

The 85-member task force, created by then-Chief Bill Kolender in response to two police killings, came up with 127 recommendations, nearly all of which were adopted. Among others, the department developed high-technology training techniques, a new physical fitness program and a full-time hostage rescue team.

Burgreen’s committee is far smaller and has a different mission. For the first time, a group of detectives, patrolmen and administrators will focus solely on the department’s policy of using lethal force and may borrow training techniques from other similar-sized departments, Hall said.

“This is going to be a pretty extensive examination,” Hall said. “We want to know who is training our recruits to use lethal force? What are they learning, and is it consistent with department policy? When do we resort to lethal force?”

Rice and Hall already have met with training officials from the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. They are planning a trip next week to meet with police departments in San Jose and Sacramento, and the California Highway Patrol’s Santa Rosa office.

Burgreen also has asked Rice to study shooting policies of other departments that have a civilian review board monitoring them, such as those in Dallas and Phoenix.

Last month, Burgreeen granted the San Diego civilian board the right to review all police shootings in which people were killed or seriously injured, although the board is empowered by the City Charter only to look at those shootings in which a complaint is filed.

“I figured why not?” Burgreen said. “To have decided otherwise would have made it look like we had something to hide. These people have no ax to grind. Maybe they’ll come up with some suggestions that can help us out.”

The civilian review board, however, may have to wait three to six months for a case following a police shooting. Each incident is reviewed by homicide detectives and also goes to the district attorney’s office, the department’s internal affairs unit, a special police board that reviews shootings, and the San Diego city manager.

Cmdr. Bob Thorburn told the civilian board Tuesday night that it will eventually be able to review 18 police-shooting cases that date back to December and are still under investigation.

In an interview this week, Burgreen said he is not overly concerned with the number of fatal shootings so far this year but believes that ,coupled with other law enforcement shootings, the public’s perception is that police officers are somewhat trigger-happy.

“You’re going to shoot and kill 10 to 12 people a year, that’s just the way it is,” he said. “There’s a hell of a lot more violence out there than ever before. All we can do is hire the best people available make sure they’re well trained and put them out on the street.”

Burgreen has assigned Rice to visit the Police Academy, study the curriculum and review lesson plans. Hall said the group will present its findings by the end of the year and is not afraid to alter police procedures.

“If we find it necessary to make changes, we’ll make changes,” he said. “If you’re a professional, you’re always looking to do things in a different or better way.”


Chart shows the number of those killed and injured in San Diego police shootings in the past six years.

Shootings Fatal Injured 1990 (through Aug.29) 19 7 12 1989 24 8 16 1988 21 10 11 1987 18 7 11 1986 18 6 12 1985 19 3 16

Source: San Diego Police Department