Three out of every four times that Los Angeles police officers fire their weapons, superiors fault them for potentially life-threatening mistakes that warrant retraining or discipline, records show.
Many officers succumbed to what one union leader called "the John Wayne Syndrome," according to a Times review of nearly 700 shooting reports since 1989. They tended to be too aggressive, abandoning well-established safeguards when moving into armed confrontations.
One officer fired at a possible burglar from nearly a football field away. Another shot an unarmed teen-ager who was displaying nothing resembling a weapon. Three others shot out their own windshields while trying to stop suspects.
A range of tactical errors, from poor communication to failure to take cover, may have led to dozens of other unnecessary shootings by officers in the Los Angeles Police Department, internal reports show.
One officer mistakenly shot another in the back as they converged in the darkness on an unarmed suspect. Commanders later blamed the incident on an "oversight": The officers had not turned on their flashlights.
And in nearly 100 cases, on- and off-duty officers accidentally fired their weapons, sometimes resulting in injuries or deaths.
An off-duty officer, leaving for the Persian Gulf War, wanted to give a friend a bullet from his .38-caliber revolver as a goodby memento. The gun misfired, and the officer shot her through the thigh.
LAPD officials have ruled that most non-accidental shootings were justified because the officers believed that lives were in danger when they pulled the trigger.
Although they acknowledge some training weaknesses, officials maintain that the high rate of errors is chiefly a reflection of the department's overarching efforts to critique its own officers.
"People think we shined every shooting on like we weren't paying attention," said former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, who signed off on hundreds of shooting reports before resigning under fire in 1992. "The fact is, we were hypercritical. . . . Every miscue is cited so we could learn from it."
A Recurring Issue
Police shootings have proved a recurring issue in Los Angeles since 1979 when two police officers fatally shot Eulia Love, who was armed with a kitchen knife. This month, an LAPD officer shot and killed a man who was carrying a toy gun, prompting criticisms from some witnesses.
After the Rodney G. King beating in 1991, the Christopher Commission urged reforms involving the LAPD's use-of-force policies, including those for firearms. The department pledged a new use-of-force manual, but it is not yet completed.
The Times found in reviewing 694 internal LAPD reports that shooting-related mistakes are no less frequent today than five years ago.
No action was deemed necessary in 25% of the cases. More than half of all shootings led to retraining, while a quarter resulted in punishment, including reprimand, suspension or dismissal.
Although policies vary among law enforcement agencies, data from several suggests that officers in Los Angeles are cited for shooting-related mistakes far more frequently than elsewhere.
Long Beach police officials ordered training or administrative review to correct mistakes in less than half of recent police shootings. Chicago took action in about one in five shootings, and the Orange County Sheriff's Department in less than one in 10.
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department releases less information about shootings than the LAPD. But the available records indicate that the Sheriff's Department, with almost as many officers as the LAPD, reports roughly half the number of shooting incidents each year.
Investigations of 25 sheriff's shootings resulted in discipline against three deputies in the second half of last year--less than half the LAPD's rate for the year.
It is unclear whether the numbers reflect disparities in the frequency of firearms-related errors, or the vigor of departments in addressing them.
The LAPD does appear to take a tougher approach to post-shooting training than some other departments. Training at some agencies usually means a supervisor simply sits down with an officer to talk about the shooting, while other departments forgo training altogether.
In Chicago, officers in shootings are either disciplined or cleared; there is no retraining.
But even with such differences, one U.S. Justice Department official who specializes in tracking law enforcement data said the LAPD numbers still seem unusually high: "It says either there was a lack of training, or . . . a lack of supervision when it came to the use of (deadly) force."
City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who as vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee reviews police activities, said he too was surprised by the numbers.
"What this suggests to me is that force might not have been necessary in many of these shootings if individuals were better trained," Ridley-Thomas said.
Deputy Chief Lawrence E. Fetters, who heads the in-house shooting review panel, blamed many shooting errors on training deficiencies caused by high turnover on the 7,500-officer force. He noted a decline in the experience level among training officers.
"Sometimes," he said, "it's kind of like the blind leading the blind."
Dennis Tate had worked for years as an actor, with bit roles in movies and TV, even an award-winning off-Broadway performance. But by 1991, the parts had stopped coming in, and Tate was sweating his days away at two fast-food jobs and sleeping under tattered blankets on the floor of an abandoned South-Central house.
Then the police came at 2 a.m. on March 23.
They had gotten a call--groundless, it turned out--that there was a body in the house, and two officers went inside. All the 59-year-old Tate knew was that there were two men with flashlights, raising a ruckus in the next room.
"What is it?" demanded a groggy Tate, still wearing his Pizza Hut uniform.
"Police! Get your ass out here!" came the response, according to a deposition Tate gave two years ago. "Come out and take your hands out of your pockets!"
Tate did, but too quickly, and Officer Garland Hardeman fired, police said. The officers said they believed the belligerent suspect was reaching for a gun.
"I took my hands out of my pocket and the next thing I know I heard something like a hand clap, and I fell on the floor," Tate recalled. "There was a big gaping wound in my leg. . . . I said, 'I did what you wanted, and you shot me.' "
Police officials later found the shooting unwarranted, records show, and they suspended Hardeman for five days.
Tate won a $150,000 settlement from the city. But he walked with a cane after two surgeries and a month in the hospital. Earlier this year, after he apparently had cashed a disability check, he was killed by muggers in Hollywood, his lawyer said.
The Tate mishap is one of 58 shootings over the last five years in which the department issued its most serious finding: An officer was not justified in using deadly force because there was no immediate threat to anyone.
Once, an officer answering a gang call shot and killed a teacher's aide after mistaking a "dark object" for a gun; it turned out to be a camera. In other cases, a glove and a chrome-plated comb prompted police to shoot.
In one 1990 confrontation with suspected car strippers, a police officer shot an unarmed teen-ager in the abdomen. The officer said the youth appeared to be reaching for a gun. But Chief Gates disciplined the officer after finding that he "did not see him holding anything that could even be construed as a weapon." The teen-ager was not charged, and the city agreed to a $1.4-million settlement.
"The common thread I've seen," said attorney Jeffrey Galen, who represented Tate and others in lawsuits against police, "is you see officers jumping the gun, shooting and asking questions later."
Between 1989 and 1993, records show, the LAPD reported 127 fatalities in officer-involved shootings. Last year, the city agreed to pay $5.6 million to settle police shootings, more than half of all police litigation payouts.
Unwarranted shootings, representing about one in 10 of all non-accidental shootings, often occurred at the close of a car chase, in a suspected drug house, or at the end of a dark alley as officers answered a call.
But others came after hours, when officers were off duty. During an argument at her home, an officer fired into a Teddy bear. During a traffic dispute, another officer sprayed 13 rounds across a busy street, wounding three people in the other car.
A third off-duty officer went on what investigators described as "an aggressive, armed quest" after spotting a "beer run" robbery at a convenience store. Aided by his armed son, he ended up in a shootout with the bandits and was wounded in the head. The department disciplined him for shooting without cause.
In dozens of cases where officers did have reasons to shoot, the department found problems in the execution. Officers sometimes fired too many rounds or endangered bystanders by shooting at moving vehicles. One officer fired at a fleeing suspect from 283 feet away on a Downtown street.
It is a precept of policing that officers should use their guns only as a last resort--when lives are in danger.
At the LAPD, where 22 on-duty officers have been killed in the last decade, even warning shots are discouraged in all but the most dire situations. Many officers pride themselves on never using their weapons during years of service.
Unlike some departments, the LAPD investigates all "officer-involved shootings," whether the officer is on duty or off, whether the shot is deliberate or accidental, whether anyone is hit.
"We are our own worst critics, I think," Fetters said.
When an officer is found in violation of shooting policies, the case is sent to Internal Affairs for investigation. But usually only the most serious cases, or those in which the officer appeals disciplinary action, are publicly disclosed.
Some victims advocates believe this shroud of secrecy has allowed LAPD abuses to go unchecked.
"Are we really disciplining these officers, or are we slapping their wrists?" asked Karol Heppe, executive director of Police Watch, a lawyer referral service for alleged police victims. "Who's keeping a watch on the trigger-happy officers?"
The department insists that it is. In addition to ordering discipline for dozens of officers each year, officials say they also require thousands of hours of remedial training for shooting mistakes. Retraining can include a week in Tactical Awareness School, or a few days in a firearms "re-familiarization" program.
Although the department says that retraining is not punitive, Skaggs of the police union said: "The officers view it as being on trial. They don't ever feel they need the extra training, and they feel that their career sometimes is on the line. That (criticism) goes on your record."
The district attorney's office also reviews police shootings, but criminal filings are rare: In 284 LAPD shooting investigations since 1990, prosecutors have brought charges once.
Veteran Officer Douglas Iversen was charged with murder in the 1992 slaying of tow truck driver John Daniels, who was driving away from a gas station as Iversen tried to stop him. The officer's trial is pending, and the LAPD has relieved him of duty pending an internal review.
One morning in 1989, just south of Koreatown, two officers chased down a young man suspected of robbing a pedestrian at gunpoint.
"Get your hands up!" one cop shouted at 23-year-old Vaughn Marshall. As Marshall approached, one of the officers walked out from behind her car--despite her partner's warning to "keep your cover."
The suspect reached toward his waist, police said. Fearful that his partner was exposed to a gunman, the senior officer fired twice. The second round hit Marshall on the right side of his skull, killing him.
The victim, it turned out, was not armed. Police found the shooting itself "in policy," but they faulted the tactics leading up to it. The junior officer, they said, should never have left her cover, and her "poor tactics directly precipitated" the shooting.
Officers often ran into problems when they simply tried to do too much, displaying a hero's mentality more suited to the movie screen than to the streets:
An officer races after an armed suspect without taking cover, splits from his partner and fails to ask for a backup. Then, left to confront a suspect on his own, he opts to use his weapon.
Bad communications posed the most frequent tactical problem, cited in 230 shootings--or one in three. Officers neglected to tell their partners that someone had a gun. Many did not let their command posts know what they were doing. And others did not give adequate orders to suspects.
Tactical problems come up so frequently that LAPD officials sometimes seemed exasperated when writing up officers. "Don't split up!" Gates wrote after one 1990 shooting.
Some mistakes bordered on the bizarre. Like the time an officer threw a child's bike at a charging German shepherd before shooting at the dog.
Or when an undercover detective shot out his windshield as he struggled to extricate himself from a seat belt while chasing a Van Nuys car thief. Police officials ordered "additional training in exiting a vehicle."
Records show that although the department often catches glaring shooting mistakes, commanders are also quick to criticize some officers who appeared to have done a good job, or even acted heroically.
Last year, Officers Hilton Henry and Stephen Kehoe apprehended a suspected robber who took a 12-year-old girl hostage in east Hollywood.
The officers helped free the girl unharmed, and Kehoe took two bullets in a shootout with the suspect, putting him out of work for two months.
Chief Willie L. Williams lauded the "courageous and heroic actions" of the officers, but ordered training for both because of a series of tactical lapses.
The most critical: Henry left his car unlocked and running when he first confronted the suspect. The wounded suspect jumped in the police car, taking the girl. After a few blocks, he rammed into another car and was captured.
In another case, an officer was praised for "exemplary" work in killing a man who was raping a woman at scissors-point. But the officer and his partner were ordered to undergo training because they did not take cover when confronting the suspect.
The safety of the officers demands such admonitions, Fetters said. "We tell them: 'On the one hand, you're a hero because you saved a life, but you have to remember how exposed you were--and that if you keep doing it, we're going to have to go to your funeral.' "
The driver looked dangerous--a druggie or "a mental case"--and he fit the description of a wanted burglar, the officer thought as he pulled up behind a parked van.
But, as commanders later concluded, the biggest threat that day in Canoga Park five years ago was not the burglary suspect, but a cop with a shotgun.
His gun trained, the officer ordered the man out of the van. Then the scene turned violent. As the suspect struggled with a second officer, the officer leaned his gun against a car bumper and ran over to help.
When the gun was jostled, it fell and discharged, flattening one of the van's tires. No one was hurt, but the chief ordered disciplinary action, saying the officer's "handling of the shotgun presented more of a threat to the officers than the suspect himself."
Despite vigorous firearms training, accidental shootings remain a vexing problem: LAPD officers are disciplined at a rate of nearly two a month for unintentionally firing their weapons, and that rate climbed 60% for the first six months of 1993.
The department has completed investigations into 96 accidental shootings since 1989--all but 20 of them on duty. Virtually all led to discipline, usually for negligence.
Stressful as police work is, department officials characterize most accidental shootings as inexcusable. "Some," said Skaggs of the police union, "are just stupidity."
Consider some cases resulting in discipline:
A SWAT team member, giving an equipment briefing to a visiting delegation of South Korean dignitaries, saw a visitor handling a .45-caliber pistol and tried to reactivate the safety. Instead, the officer fired a bullet into a nearby car.
An off-duty officer fell asleep at the wheel in Irvine with his hand on his gun, which was on the seat. Then he ran into a fence and shot himself in the leg. LAPD officials said the gun should have remained holstered.
After the slaying of a detective, officers were assigned to guard the victim's Studio City home. One officer perused a commemorative rifle hung above the TV. But he did not check to see if it was loaded, and he fired a round through a painting.
Gates sternly noted that the officer was "assigned to protect the residence, not manhandle (the slain detective's) treasured belongings."
Sometimes a stumbled step--or a sudden alarm, or an elbow from a struggling suspect--has been enough to prompt an officer to fire accidentally. Other times, officers have been cleaning their guns, or putting them away, or drinking and horsing around with friends.
Usually, records show, the officers broke a "cardinal rule," putting a finger on the trigger before there was any need to fire. Their bullets have landed everywhere--in soda machines, in parked cars, in police station lockers and in frat-house walls.
Usually, tragedy has been averted--such as last year when a stray bullet from an officer's gun lodged in a bedroom floor just a few feet from a sleeping 15-year-old girl.
But other officers have not been so lucky. At least 17 times since 1989, LAPD officers have accidentally wounded themselves or others. Two others have been killed.
Marion Jminer Gray, a 52-year-old Compton woman who cares for her schizophrenic brother, remembers the horror of seeing him lying in their mother's garage one morning four years ago, shot in the leg by an LAPD officer.
City officials termed the shooting an accident: Three officers, they said, were trying to calm the man and bring him to a medical facility. But as he resisted and tried to shut a garage door on them, one officer accidentally fired his gun.
The officer was disciplined, the city agreed to pay the family $65,000 to cover the victim's injuries, and the case quietly went away. But, looking back, Gray still does not understand.
"He was all skin and bones--maybe a hundred pounds. All they had to do was grab him or something," she said. "Why did they have to draw their guns?"
Pausing a moment, she said: "I just never thought they would fire."
Crossing the Thin Blue Line?
In the last five years, LAPD officers were involved in nearly 700 shootings that have been reviewed by the department, and police officials ultimately ordered corrective action in three of every four cases.
Here is a look at the year-by-year breakdowns showing how often the department found that a shooting warranted no further action; that at least one officer involved in a case needed training because of mistakes; or that at least one officer needed disciplining. Year: 1989 Shootings: 152 No Action: 37 Training Only: 77 Discipline Required*: 38 Corrective Action (Training or discipline required): 75.7%
*Year: 1990 Shootings: 164 No Action: 36 Training Only: 84 Discipline Required*: 44 Corrective Action (Training or discipline required): 78%
*Year: 1991 Shootings: 130 No Action: 33 Training Only: 49 Discipline Required*: 48 Corrective Action (Training or discipline required): 74.6%
*Year: 1992 Shootings: 154 No Action: 53 Training Only: 71 Discipline Required*: 30 Corrective Action (Training or discipline required): 65.6%
*Year: 1993** Shootings: 94 No Action: 18 Training Only: 53 Discipline Required*: 23 Corrective Action (Training or discipline required): 80.9%
*Total: Shootings: 694 No Action: 177 Training Only: 334 Discipline Required*: 183 Corrective Action (Training or discipline required): 74.5%
* Some discipline cases also required training.
** Because of a backlog of cases, 1993 case reviews are complete only through midyear.
From the Files
The LAPD's internal reviews of department shootings include detailed critiques of an officer's performance, ranging from sharp criticism of an officer who shot an unarmed teen-ager, left, to high praise for an officer wounded in a shootout with gang members, right.
Source: Times review of LAPD officer-involved shooting reports.
The LAPD regularly cites its officers for errors in the course of shootings. Among several dozen problem areas, these were the most common in nearly 700 shootings from 1989-93:
Mistake Shootings Bad communication 230 Poor planning 135 Failing to take cover 117 Accidental discharge 96 Failing to request backup 89 Splitting from partner 85 Fire control/execution 67 Firing without immediate threat 58
Note: Some cases involved multiple errors
Source: Times review of LAPD shooting records