Experts Say Police Can Decrease Rate of Self-Defense Shootings : Prevention: Increased training and enforcement of strict policies have been effective elsewhere, they say. But some local authorities are skeptical.
Can the number of police shootings in Ventura County be reduced?
Experience and academic studies nationwide show that police departments can indeed prevent justifiable homicides by beefing up training and implementing strict policies, experts say.
“The police in many jurisdictions have been able to reduce the number of killings by police without creating offsetting problems in the crime rate or number of police fatalities,” said Bill Geller, associate director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank.
In New York, for example, police shooting rates plummeted after a change in department policy and the creation of a shots-fired review board.
Pressure from the public and from police leadership can play a role, as well. In Los Angeles, police shootings dropped 70% in the four months after the racially charged fatal shooting of Eulia Love in 1979.
And in Newark, N. J., after the police director ordered one of his officers arrested and charged with murder in a fatal shooting, all shootings by Newark police officers dropped by nearly 60% over five months.
Locally, some authorities are skeptical about the possibility of reducing the number of police shootings.
“Preventing a justifiable homicide . . . didn’t make any sense to me,” said Sgt. Derek West of the sheriff’s academy. He argues that if a shooting is justifiable, it must have been necessary to protect someone’s life. Fewer justifiable homicides would mean more murders, he said.
Some say that reducing the numbers of justifiable homicides might jeopardize the safety and survival of police officers.
“An officer is not paid to give up his life and take unnecessary chances,” said Lt. Craig Husband, who teaches use of force at the sheriff’s academy.
Rather than treating justifiable homicide as something to prevent, police groups have, at times, viewed it as something to praise.
Officers who shoot killers on a rampage, such as the unemployed computer engineer Alan Winterbourne, have been honored with the Medal of Valor, the highest award given by the Peace Officers Assn. of Ventura County.
But not all justifiable homicides stop murderers. Oxnard police have in recent years shot a car thief armed with a gun and a flasher driving his car toward a police officer, according to reports.
And Geller said even dangerous situations do not have to end in death. “Bad guys with guns are arrested all the time and nobody gets shot,” said Geller, author of “Deadly Force: What We Know.”
Local police say emerging technology is a key to reducing fatal officer-involved shootings.
Lt. Patrick Miller said the Ventura Police Department has already spared some lives by shooting people with shotguns that fire small sandbags rather than lethal ammunition. The sandbag-guns, deployed in May, 1994, have successfully disabled dangerous people who might otherwise have been killed, Miller said.
Asked about preventing fatalities, Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Tom Cady also discussed a future full of such sophisticated, non-lethal weapons as chemical sprays and electronic stun guns.
But experts say much of the technology for preventing officer-involved shootings is already available.
The most effective tool, they say, is a strict and concise department policy on the use of force.
The county Sheriff’s Department, which patrols a large area but has been involved in remarkably few fatal shootings, has a three-page policy that tells officers not only when they can shoot, but also tells them when they cannot.
It warns officers not to shoot at fleeing people who have committed only petty crimes, and it reminds officers that the Sheriff’s Department has always used “extreme caution” in considering the use of deadly force against youthful offenders. It also tells officers to avoid firing warning shots, and to avoid shooting people because they run away.
The Ventura Police Department’s policy contains none of those restrictions. And a draft of the Oxnard policy, which is under revision, contains no language about youthful offenders or fleeing petty thieves.
The 17-page proposed Oxnard policy, however, includes a “use-of-force continuum” chart, with “low force” such as a firm grip or gesture at the bottom of the page, and “deadly force” at the top.
But one lawyer who defends police in shooting cases said such policies can get departments sued and officers killed.
“We don’t want officers to say, see, let me go back to that chart, maybe I should be using pepper spray, and in the meantime the officer is getting stabbed to death with a knife,” said attorney Bruce D. Praet , who killed a man in 1979 when he was a police officer in Orange.
Training can also play a role in reducing officer-involved shootings, experts said.
Police cadets for all of the county’s police agencies are taught when to use force by Lt. Lance Young of the Sheriff’s Department. Young fatally shot two men as a young officer in South Lake Tahoe during the 1970s. One of the cases resulted in a civil lawsuit that dragged on for seven years and was ultimately settled out of court, he said.
Young said he does not tell his students about his involvement in the fatal shootings. He does not want them to be impressed by it.
“Now, we hire people because they don’t want to hurt people,” Young said. “I got involved in those decades when, you know, you’re manly, you get involved, you go kick some butt, then you come back and carve a notch in your gun.”
Young teaches in a classroom setting, leading discussions, asking cadets what they would do when faced with hypothetical situations.
“What we’re really trying to do is give them a broad knowledge base in order to make judgmental decisions,” Young said.
For some officers, the 100 hours of training they get during the 22-week-long academy, crammed in along with instruction in using guns and batons, may be the only formal training they receive on when to use force.
The Sheriff’s Department’s three-day advanced officer training class taught at the academy to meet state continuing education requirements includes training in explosive and drug recognition, baton use, marksmanship, and crowd control--but nothing about the decision on when to use force.
Many experts and law enforcement officials think that achieving substantial reductions in the number of justifiable homicides depends on changing other aspects of society.
To Cady, the fact that four of the five people Oxnard police shot in the last five years had guns “speaks of the broader problem of the availability of handguns in our society.”
And Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Ronald C. Janes, who investigates fatal police shootings for the district attorney’s office, said that because so many of the people shot in justifiable homicides are drunk or under the influence of drugs, a reduction in substance abuse might help reduce the numbers of times police have to shoot people.
To George Kelling, who teaches policing at Harvard and Northeastern universities, the answer is community policing--putting more officers on foot patrol on regular beats to solve problems in neighborhoods they know.
“When you’ve got police officers that are remote from communities, where they’re kept in cars, you’ve got edgy police, frightened police, and that’s where you get problems,” Kelling said.