Groping to explain a series of four shootings by police officers in the San Fernando Valley, LAPD Chief Willie L. Williams said Tuesday that the controversial "three strikes" law may drive lawbreakers to desperation to resist arrest, regardless of the risk.
"We don't know what's in the minds of these people, but we do think that the threat of incarceration is beginning to have a detrimental effect" on the interactions between police and felony suspects, Williams told members of the city's civilian Police Commission.
Williams stopped short of condemning the sentencing law, but his comments were among his most critical remarks on the controversial 2-year-old law that imposes longer prison terms on repeat felons.
After the meeting, Williams said criminals now have a "heightened sense, a heightened awareness" that capture by police could result in long prison terms, and that increases their incentive to resist.
He is not opposed to the three-strikes law, but it may need modifying, Williams said. He suggested that it apply only to those convicted of three violent crimes instead of requiring life in prison for all triple felony offenders.
Williams' comments came after police shot four suspects in a period of less than 48 hours in the Valley, killing three and wounding one. Two of the suspects--the wounded man and one of the dead men--were parolees who faced third-strike sentencing if caught and convicted of their alleged crimes, police said.
The formal police review of the shootings was just beginning Tuesday and could take weeks to complete.
But people within and outside the department were searching for answers to the unusual outbreak of police shootings in one relatively concentrated section of the city.
The first-reaction explanations ranged from freak happenstance--two suspects were shot by officers clinging to speeding getaway cars--to the actions of a group of reckless lawbreakers, to inexperienced, trigger-fingered cops.
The tactic of officers clinging to a fleeing driver's car is going to be reviewed, a police spokesman said.
"Generally, the sentiment [among police] is, it's unusual to have this many shootings in the same division within hours of each other," said Lt. Daniel Hoffman of the Valley Bureau. "Maybe it's a cycle. We don't know."
Surviving family members of one of the victims saw it differently. "How could they just shoot him like that?" asked Luzmila Jaurequi, sister of Jaime Jaurequi, shot to death when he allegedly tried to run down police with his car.
"They did wrong. We just don't understand it."
Statistics are contradictory on the theory of increased friction between police and criminals.
There were 25 shootings by police officers citywide through March 11 this year, compared to 14 for the same period last year, police said. On the other hand, assaults on officers in Los Angeles have dropped almost 50%, from 1,162 in 1992 to 582 last year.
The series of shootings began Saturday night, when William Thomas Betzner, 43, was killed by an officer in Tarzana, police said. Betzner, on parole for a 1978 double murder, would have faced life imprisonment without possibility of parole if convicted under the three-strikes law.
He was rummaging through a construction site when two officers with three years full-time experience between them stopped and questioned him, according to police. Betzner jumped in his car and took off with one of the officers, Geno Colello, 32, clinging to it. Colello shot Betzner as he sped down Ventura Boulevard at up to 70 mph, according to police.
An ounce of cocaine was later found on Betzner's body, police said.
Jaurequi, 23, was also killed Saturday in a run-in with police responding to a call of an assault with a deadly weapon. Jaurequi fled, and when police caught up with him, they shot him when he allegedly tried to ram a police car and run down several officers.
Then on Monday in North Hollywood, Myron Bowers, a 35-year-old parolee, was wounded in a gunfight with police responding to a domestic violence call, police said. Bowers opened fire on police as they drove up, then took a hostage before the hostage and two civilian passersby wrestled him to the ground, according to police reports.
The most recent shooting occurred Monday evening in West Hills, when a bicycle officer shot and killed 29-year-old Eduardo Hurtado as he tried to drive away with the officer clinging to his car.
The officer, Johnny Jackson, a 15-year veteran, stopped to question Hurtado and friends in an alley. When a passenger in Hurtado's car reached into his waistband, police said, Jackson grabbed him and Hurtado drove off. Jackson was dragged about 40 yards before shooting Hurtado, police said.
LAPD Lt. Anthony Alba said the officers who grabbed the cars put themselves in danger and that those tactics will be carefully reviewed.
"Grabbing onto a car is not something we teach in the academy," Alba said. "I know each and every one of these officers personally, and their tactics might not have been the greatest in the world, but I know they wouldn't put themselves [deliberately] in danger."
A number of police officers and others theorized that the confrontations could be linked to the three-strikes law, signed by Gov. Pete Wilson on March 7, 1994.
"Desperate people do desperate things," Alba said.
"There are some indications that some of our convicted felons are more desperate than before because of three strikes," said Cmdr. Tim McBride, head of the LAPD's community affairs group.
On the other hand, said Robert Tanenbaum, a Beverly Hills attorney and author, the idea that twice-convicted felons might give police officers trouble should be no surprise. "A two-time convicted criminal is more prone to violence than anyone else," three-strikes law or not, he said.
Some questions were raised Tuesday about the experience, or lack of it, of some of the officers involved.
Colello, who shot Betzner, had only two years full-time experience. His partner was Gerald Mimms, 29, a trainee with a year on the job.
Ideally, ranking LAPD officers say, a rookie should be paired with an experienced training officer. But these days, that is harder to do because the department's hiring patterns in recent years have left it with both a large group of new officers and many older veterans on the verge of retirement.
"We don't have enough training officers to go around," said Alba. For instance, on the shift that Colello and Mimms were working, there were eight cars on duty. Half of them had officers in the lowest two grades.
McBride, dismissing experience as a factor, noted, however, that Colello also had several years experience as a reserve officer.
Some law enforcement experts cautioned against assigning any single explanation. It may simply be that "our society is getting more violent all the time," Alba said.
Times staff writers Jim Newton and Frank B. Williams contributed to this story.
* FAMILY OUTRAGED: Victim's relatives say shooting by officer was unjustified. A3