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Shootings Recall Dangers of Traffic Stops

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Before Rodney King, there was Leonard Deadwyler, a 25-year-old motorist whose shooting by police in 1966 became a racial flash point in the months after the Watts riots.

It was a similar story with a familiar cast--Johnnie L. Cochran, for one. The case resonated with many of the themes that resurfaced this week in the aftermath of four shootings by police in the San Fernando Valley--questions of professional judgment and the wisdom of officers’ reaching into the cars of suspects who can flee, dragging the cops with them.

The coroner’s inquest into Deadwyler’s death drew scores of angry African Americans from South Los Angeles and threats of reprisals when Officer Jerold M. Bova was exonerated. The sensational proceedings featured a tape--audio--of police actions, which was turned over to the attorney for Deadwyler’s family: Johnnie Cochran.

But those interesting points are not the reasons Deadwyler’s name is coming to the fore after nearly 30 years of obscurity.

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In the wake of the Valley shootings--two involving police caught in suspects’ cars and dragged--some older cops recall that the Deadwyler incident focused attention on the same issue 30 years ago.

“That was the first case about reaching into vehicles,” said Cliff Ruff, a veteran of the LAPD who now works with the Police Protective League. Officer Bova, who had leaned into the car to get Deadwyler to stop, said his gun went off when Deadwyler’s car lurched, killing him.

As a result of that case and others, Los Angeles Police Department tactics were changed to advise officers not to put any part of their bodies into a car that is under the suspect’s control.

Connecting the past to the present, that case illuminated the problems posed by traffic stops, still one of the most dangerous tasks in police work.

Sgt. Rick Dedmon of the LAPD’s Training Division declined to say Friday whether the officers involved in the recent shootings violated department policies, pending completion of an internal investigation.

“Every incident is different,” Dedmon said. “But generally, we don’t want them reaching into cars.”

The pair involved in the recent shootings did not make the same mistake Bova made 30 years ago. Although they got partially trapped in moving cars, they did not reach into the vehicles with their guns drawn, as Bova did.

When they fired, after being dragged for a distance, the shootings were deliberate, not accidental.

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Dedmon said the department will look into the circumstances surrounding the new shootings to see if refinements need to be made in tactics training.

Currently, recruits receive at least 90 hours in training in tactics from how to park behind a vehicle to how to walk up to it. Despite the detailed training, Dedmon said there can be no hard-and-fast rules to cover everything an officer may face.

But the department will review the shootings to determine whether the officers violated any firm policies. The shooting policy, for instance, allows officers to use deadly force in three circumstances:

* To protect themselves and others from the immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury;

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* To prevent a crime in which a suspect’s actions place people at risk of serious bodily injury;

* To apprehend a fleeing felon for a crime involving serious bodily injury or the use of deadly force. In this case, there must be a substantial risk that the suspect will cause death or serious bodily injury to others if not halted immediately.

Another case that influenced thinking on how to handle traffic stops was the 1970 slayings of four rookie California Highway Patrol officers in Newhall.

The incident, the bloodiest in CHP history, occurred when two officers approached a car parked outside a coffee shop near what is now Magic Mountain Parkway. Although the two men in the car, Jack Twinning and Bobby Augusta Davis, had brandished guns at a motorist, the officers were apparently not warned that they were armed.

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Twinning and Davis opened fire, killing both officers. Two other CHP officers arrived and in the gunfight that followed, both were killed.

The incident had a broad impact on police tactics. Now, said one LAPD official, dispatchers are careful to mention when a suspect may be armed.

Dedmon said LAPD officers are taught to approach a car one at a time, covering each other. Also, instead of approaching the driver’s side, which gives an armed suspect a clear shot down the side of the vehicle, they are taught to head for the passenger side.

These cases, said Dedmon, “did have an impact on the way we do things.”

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But, he added, “not any one thing has changed” the department’s policy on tactics. Rather, it is the gradual accumulation of experience that has led the force to revise its tactics.

The process keeps evolving. And even the terminology of tactics is changing.

Today, police are trained to deal with three types of vehicle stops--high-risk, felony and investigative. In high-risk stops, officers believe they may be facing a suspect who has just committed a crime; felony stops involve stolen cars or those matching descriptions of vehicles used in crimes; investigative represents the least danger, the commonplace stop to issue a traffic ticket.

Overall, police say that stopping cars can be as dangerous as responding to domestic-violence calls--notorious among officers for leading to unexpected bursts of violence. In both cases, officers can’t predict what they might be facing.

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“It’s the unknown,” said Deputy LAPD Chief Martin Pomeroy, who oversees the Valley Bureau. “When you make a traffic stop, they have the advantage of surprise. The criminals in a car have the advantage on our officers.”

Capt. Robert Gale, who manages patrol officers at the West Valley Division, said pulling over cars leaves officers vulnerable and unprepared for who or what might greet them.

“On every other call, we’re prepared,” Gale said. “On a bank robbery, mentally you’re prepared to meet someone who’s potentially armed. On a traffic stop or domestic violence, you don’t have that mind-set.

“Traffic stops are just dangerous, dangerous jobs,” Gale said. “You never know who you’re stopping.”

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Had the two officers in the second of the four Valley shootings known that the man they stopped to question on Ventura Boulevard was a paroled felon facing his third-strike arrest, they would have handled the situation differently, Gale said.

“They would have said, ‘Down on your knees!’ handcuffed him and then questioned him,” Gale said. “But how would they know?”


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