Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, testifying Friday for the second time in a federal court trial over the killing of three robbers by his officers, defended the secretive surveillance unit that shot them.
Members of the unit, the Special Investigations Section, or SIS, have "perhaps the most dangerous assignment" in the department, "almost always dealing with armed and dangerous suspects," Gates said.
The chief's testimony came after an expert on police use of force testified that SIS officers used proper and expert tactics before and during the Feb. 12, 1990, shooting outside a McDonald's restaurant in Sunland.
Gates, Mayor Tom Bradley and 10 members of the SIS are being sued by the families of the three dead robbers and a fourth robber who was wounded but survived. They seek $5 million in damages and claim the bandits' civil rights were violated, contending that the officers opened fire on them without warning or cause.
According to earlier testimony before the 10 jurors, the four men had just robbed the manager of the closed McDonald's and had gotten into their getaway car when members of the SIS moved in to make arrests. SIS officers have testified that three of the robbers brandished weapons, prompting the officers to fire 35 times at them. However, the lone survivor, Alfredo Olivas, testified that they had put their weapons--unloaded pellet guns--in the trunk of the car minutes before and were unarmed when they were shot.
Gates testified briefly in January when he was subpoenaed to testify by the plaintiffs. Testifying Friday as a defense witness, he covered much of the same ground, saying that SIS officers attempt to avoid violent confrontations and preserve life. He said, however, that the surveillance team is used almost exclusively on investigations involving the "most violent, most serious" criminal suspects.
"It is perhaps the most dangerous assignment we have," Gates said. "I can't think of anything more dangerous. They are almost always dealing with armed and dangerous suspects."
The plaintiffs' suit has alleged that the squad uses tactics intentionally designed to result in shootings.
Gates denied that and said SIS officers attempt to make arrests as soon as possible but factors of safety and tactics often intervene.
"It's an incredible dilemma we are placed in," Gates said. "We would like to stop a crime from ever occurring. Unfortunately, we are not always in that situation."
Asked again about the findings of the independent Christopher Commission, Gates said he disagreed with many conclusions and said most of the recommendations of the panel were already being undertaken by the department.
The commission investigated the department after the Rodney G. King beating, finding problems with use of force, racism and management. In the McDonald's case, U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts has ruled that the report will be given to the jury as evidence in the case when it begins deliberations.
Gates' testimony is scheduled to continue Tuesday. It followed the testimony of Joseph Callanan, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who is an expert on use of force.
An expert hired by the plaintiffs earlier testified that the shooting could have been avoided but that the tactics used by the SIS provoked it.
Callanan, who also has testified before the grand jury that indicted four Los Angeles officers in the King case, said he studied all police reports on the McDonald's shooting and staged a re-enactment of the shooting with the officers. He said he concluded that the SIS officers handled the situation expertly and properly.
"They are superior tactics," he said. "They are almost teaching models of police procedure."
Callanan said the decision to arrest the robbers after they had gotten into their parked car was best because it offered the highest degree of safety and surety that they would not escape because the four men would be contained in one spot.
"It had the highest probability for success without violence," Callanan said.
During his cross-examination of Callanan, plaintiffs' attorney Stephen Yagman brought out that Callanan had once testified as a defense witness in another suit filed against the SIS over a fatal shooting. In that case, Callanan said the officers' decision to make arrests before two bank robbery suspects got to their car was the best tactical maneuver.
Callanan, however, said the two cases were different. He said that in the bank robbery case the suspects would have been able to get away if they had reached their car. In the McDonald's case, the SIS officers' plan was to move in and block the getaway car from moving.