Judgment Call : Some Experts Question Police Tactics in Fatal Shooting After Car Chase

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

This part of the televised Valentine's Day chase of Hong Il Kim is clear: With a car on either side of his red Toyota 4-Runner, two police cruisers behind, a concrete wall in front and officers surrounding him with their guns drawn, Kim had nowhere to go.

But when four officers shot the 27-year-old South Korean national to death--while the TV cameras rolled--the incident became muddled with doubts.

Did police have to shoot? Was it necessary for Kim to die?

Officials from Orange, Westminster and the California Highway Patrol, the agencies involved, have said their officers acted appropriately.

But some who viewed videotapes of the pursuit, including at least two police chiefs from Orange County and some of the country's top criminal justice experts, don't think so.

"This was an avoidable shooting," said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice professor who has helped write the deadly force policies for dozens of police departments, from Dallas to Aiken County, S.C. "Judging by the video, there was absolutely nowhere [Kim] could have gone. . . . I've seen a lot of bad shootings. This is one of them."

One Orange County chief, who requested anonymity, agreed: "By God, who are we to take a life if we can come up with other strategies and plans to take a person into custody instead? . . . It appears it could have been resolved without the death of the individual."

The same troubling conclusion has rallied a rare coalition of Asian American and Latino advocates, as well as the South Korean government, to challenge authorities' justification for the shooting and to demand a review of deadly force policies.

Investigations by the Orange County district attorney's office and the departments involved are not expected to be completed for months.

*

The deadly pursuit of Kim has highlighted startling differences in the policies of police departments on when officers can--and should not--shoot to kill.

Officials from the three agencies whose officers were involved maintain that the shooting was appropriate because Kim was gunning the engine of his truck--"a 3,000-pound lethal weapon"--at two plainclothes Orange detectives standing in front of it.

"I don't know if [the officers] could've dived off to the side," said attorney Bruce Praet, a former police officer who regularly represents the Orange and Westminster departments. "If they hadn't, you'd have two officers that are hood ornaments or plastered against that wall."

But Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters said that if officers in his city had been involved in the same fatal confrontation, it would have been a questionable shooting.

"On its face, that's the way it looks," Walters said.

Five police policy experts who reviewed the TV footage of the pursuit and shooting at the request of The Times all said the officers committed a series of tactical errors.

The deadly force policies of many police departments say that officers should not shoot at a moving vehicle, and some specifically state that officers never should place themselves in the path of a vehicle to begin with.

"Given a similar situation in our city, where there's no route for [the suspect to] escape, we would consider this a questionable shooting," said Dallas Police Sgt. Jim Chandler, who investigated officer-involved shootings for 10 years. "When you move yourself out into the path of the vehicle, then there's reason to question an officer's actions."

Had it not been for a citizen's prodding, the 30-mile pursuit of Kim might not have happened.

A Westminster patrol officer was en route to drop off a bicycle at the station when Kim cut off several nearby motorists to make a right turn.

"The turn was so blatantly reckless that one of the drivers made eye contact with the officer, as if to say, 'What are you going to do about that?' " Westminster Police Capt. Andrew Hall said. "At first, [the officer] didn't even want to make a traffic stop. He was in a hurry to get rid of the bicycle that was sitting in his trunk."

*

What started as a reluctant chase quickly escalated, reaching speeds of 100 mph and attracting more than a dozen officers from various agencies--including Orange and the CHP--and a squadron of police and TV helicopters.

Kim led the caravan of police cruisers into the parking lot of an Orange mini-mall. While Kim tried to evade police, a plainclothes officer jogged alongside the truck, pounding the passenger-side window with the butt of his gun.

Police eventually cornered the 4-Runner, ramming it into a parking space with their patrol cars.

With police cars behind him and parked vehicles on either side, four police officers, guns drawn, circled the truck on foot. Two Orange plainclothes officers stood in front, with a CHP officer to the side and a Westminster officer behind.

After Kim jammed his vehicle into low gear and began moving slowly forward, the officers in front opened fire, followed by officers behind and beside the 4-Runner. When the fusillade ended, the truck was riddled with at least 20 bullet holes, and Kim had been hit at least six times, according to a pathologist hired by the family. No officers or bystanders were injured in the cross-fire.

Police are withholding further details pending the outcome of investigations and have refused to release the names of the officers involved.

Criminal charges are almost never filed against officers in such shootings. The district attorney's office, which investigates all officer-involved shootings in Orange County, has not filed charges in any of the last 56 homicides attributed to police.

"Criminal law is, if a police officer believes his life is in danger at the time he pulls the trigger, it's justified," said James Fyfe, a criminal justice professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

But Fyfe and other criminal justice experts say officers and their departments can face severe civil penalties if juries agree that officers unnecessarily put themselves in situations that cause them to fear for their lives.

Unlike most police-involved shootings, this one unfolded on TV newscasts in the living room of Kim's family, and those of hundreds of thousands of TV viewers, some as far away as South Korea.

To Praet, the videotape represents strong evidence that the officers had no choice but to shoot.

To others, the same recorded scene is frightening proof that Kim didn't have to die.

"Why did [the] officers place themselves in that position, between the wall and in front of that vehicle?" asked the Orange County police chief who spoke on the condition that he would not be named. "Here you had a person who already had demonstrated that he will run you over, so why put yourself in a position that will force you to use deadly force? . . . It defies all logic to me."

Among those who have studied the tape, no one believes the officers wanted to kill Kim.

What concerns them is a disturbing series of errors in judgment.

All five experts who reviewed footage of the pursuit said one of the most egregious violations of procedure occurred when a plainclothes officer rushed at the moving vehicle on foot soon after it entered the parking lot.

"The absolute idiot is the guy who runs up and bangs on the door" with the butt of his drawn pistol, said Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina. "To go out in the middle, with no cover, and expose yourself. If this guy [Kim] were crazy, and had the desire to shoot, [that officer] put himself in enormous jeopardy."

From that point, Alpert and other experts said the adrenaline-pumped detectives appeared to abandon basic safety procedures.

Once Kim was boxed in, Alpert said, "all the officers had to do was take cover. . . . They never should have been in front of the car in the first place.

*

Criminologists said the problems continued after the pursuit ended and Kim was surrounded. When the four officers--positioned in a semicircle around the truck--opened fire, they also could have easily shot one another, the experts said.

Westminster's Hall said the cross-fire aspect will be addressed in his department's internal investigation.

For one person in law enforcement, there is no debate over whether Kim had to die.

For most of his life, Rodney Chai, Kim's brother-in-law and also a native of South Korea, has held an unflinching belief in the justice of his adoptive country.

"It is so very difficult for me to accuse my fellow officers of this," said the Buena Park resident, 42, an inspector for the U.S. Customs Service. "But they did this, they executed him when they didn't have to. And they have to be held responsible."

Kim's family plans a wrongful-death lawsuit against the departments involved, Chai said.

Kim had many run-ins with law enforcement. They resulted in three misdemeanor convictions, two for theft and one for carrying a concealed weapon in a vehicle, authorities said.

But, Chai said, there is no reason that his brother-in-law had to die.

*

This month, he met with three coalitions and recounted the events that led to Kim's death. At each meeting, Chai ended his narrative with the same words: "My brother-in-law was not an angel. And the police are not devils. But they didn't have to do it. They didn't have to shoot him down."

For the officers from Orange, the policy on deadly force amounts to two paragraphs, while the policies of some departments fill pages.

In essence, the Orange policy directs officers to use deadly force when it "reasonably appears necessary to the officer . . . to protect themselves or others from bodily harm."

The Times examined 20 policies from departments nationwide, including the CHP's, and found that many specifically prohibit the use of deadly force to stop a misdemeanor or traffic violator--such as Kim.

Fyfe noted that many departments shunned detailed policies after the Long Beach Police Department lost a lawsuit that hinged on one of its policies. A motorcycle cop had fired into a moving car, accidentally killing a hostage.

The courts, however, have ruled that departments can be held equally liable if their policies do not properly direct employees, Fyfe said.

Orange Capt. Dean Richards and Westminster's Hall said their departments' guidelines do not address specific situations because police work is so unpredictable.

Both departments said they rely on extensive training and their officers' good judgment to ensure that they react properly in the field. The guidelines must be working, Richards said, because his officers seldom are involved in fatal shootings.

And Richards said Orange does not have the big-city tensions that might require more specific regulations.

Both Orange and Westminster police officials stress that their shooting policies are more limiting to officers than what is legally defensible under state law.

Under the law, officers have no duty to retreat from a confrontation with a suspect and cannot be held criminally liable if they do not, Praet said.

CHP officials say their policy, however restrictive, allows officers the latitude to shoot if their lives or someone else's are at stake.

"If you ask why didn't the officer just dive out of the way," said CHP spokesman Steve Kohler, "then you also have to ask why didn't [Kim] just pull over in the first place?"

By now, videotapes of the chase and its deadly conclusion have circulated well beyond the corridors of police stations.

Los Amigos of Orange County, a support group that provides legal counseling to Latinos, has written a letter calling for the county grand jury to conduct its own probe. The Orange County Freedom Network--a newly formed coalition of Asian American and Latino activists--also has weighed in with its demand for action.

Dr. Koo Oh, president of the Korean American Assn. of Orange County, said the shooting challenges his community's long-held belief that the police are unquestioned protectors.

"The Korean community is very quiet; most people are just trying to work hard for their families and lead quiet lives," he said. "But we realize in this case that if we're not making noise or trying to find out what's happened, it could happen again."

Times staff writer Len Hall contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fatal Climax

A 30-mile chase on freeways and Orange County streets began when Hong Il Kim refused to pull over for law enforcement officers. During the final minutes of the chase:

1. Kim drives into Orange mini-mall parking lot. Plainclothes officer approaches the vehicle and attempts to break front passenger-side window with butt of his gun.

2. Kim's vehicle creeps forward while officers surround it and order him to give up.

3. Officers pin the vehicle into parking space and block it from behind with police cars; two Orange plainclothes officers assume shooting stance in front.

4. When Kim moves vehicle forward, officers open fire. Kim fatally shot.

Source: Times interviews

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
71°