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Frequent Fire

Times Staff Writers

Most Los Angeles police officers go through their entire careers without ever firing a shot in the line of duty.

Not Bill Rhetts.

He shot and killed a gang member who was firing a handgun at him. He shot and paralyzed a man wielding a pistol. He wounded a teenager brandishing what turned out to be a BB gun. After leaving the LAPD for the Riverside Police Department, he shot an unarmed suspect hiding in a doghouse.

After the last incident, a psychiatrist declared him unfit for duty. Rhetts said he was angry -- until he reflected on how his years in uniform had changed him.

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“I became very desensitized. You know, callous, angry, hateful,” said Rhetts, 45, now a police chaplain. “I didn’t see it then, but I see it now. I became more aggressive in defending my life.”

Officers such as Rhetts represent a mystery and a challenge for police administrators. In the Los Angeles Police Department, they make up a tiny fraternity who have used deadly force much more often than their colleagues, a Times investigation found.

Officers who have shot at suspects three or more times represent less than 1% of the force. But they were involved in 20% of all LAPD shootings since 1985.

Little is known about why they pull the trigger so often. Few researchers have paid attention to the phenomenon. The LAPD does not track frequent shooters. It does not even know who they are.

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The Times discovered the cadre of repeat shooters through a computer analysis of 1,437 officer-involved shootings from 1985 through mid-2004.

Of an estimated 16,000 officers who worked field assignments during that time, only 103 fired at suspects on three or more occasions, the analysis revealed. Among 9,100 active officers, just 69 have three or more shootings.

Some of these officers serve in SWAT teams, narcotics squads or other high-risk units. But that does not explain their propensity to fire. In their use of deadly force, they stand out even when compared with officers in identical assignments in the same parts of the city.

Moreover, many continued to fire frequently even as the overall number of officer-involved shootings declined over the last decade.

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Experts in police behavior say departments should monitor repeat shooters closely.

“The simple fact that an officer is involved in a disproportionate number of shootings raises a red flag,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. “The department needs to start taking more notice of these shootings and look for patterns or trends.”

The 103 frequent shooters identified by The Times are not easily categorized. Some have won the department’s Medal of Valor. Others committed notorious acts of misconduct: Former Officer David Mack robbed a bank. Edward Ruiz framed a man on a gun charge.

Five of the repeat shooters were implicated in planting evidence, beating suspects or covering up shootings in the Rampart scandal.

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Only three of the 103 are women.

Frequent shooters have sparked controversy this year.

In February, Officer Manuel Solis was captured on live news broadcasts firing repeatedly into a car whose driver had led police on a high-speed chase.

The motorist, Nicholas Hans Killinger, 23, was suspected of holding up an Agoura Hills gas station. The 90-minute police pursuit ended in front of Santa Monica High School, where Killinger hit a curb while trying to make a U-turn. He then put his Ford Tempo in reverse and backed up slowly toward two patrol cars.

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Solis and two other officers fired a total of 22 rounds, killing Killinger. LAPD officials said Solis believed Killinger was trying to run him over. The shooting -- Solis’ third -- remains under investigation.

Officer Charles Wunder is another three-time shooter. In July, he and a fellow officer shot and killed a man who had been behaving erratically at a downtown bus station.

The man was crawling through an opening in a ticket counter, clutching a 6-inch metal stake. Wunder and the other officer opened fire while a third officer was still trying to subdue the man with a nonlethal stun gun.

Police Chief William J. Bratton expressed “significant concerns” about the shooting, which is also under investigation.

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Wunder and Solis both declined to be interviewed.

The sparse scholarly research on repeat shooters offers some tentative explanations for their behavior.

Social scientists believe that some of them are innately aggressive or anxious. Others may have family problems. Still others appear to place themselves in danger through carelessness or poor judgment, leaving no recourse but to shoot.

The Times analysis and interviews with frequent shooters suggest another possible factor: that the experience of firing at a suspect for the first time leaves a profound psychological mark, lowering an officer’s threshold for shooting.

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Nearly 90% of the officers who have worked field assignments since 1985 never fired their weapons in the line of duty. But after a first shooting, an officer’s likelihood of shooting again rose sharply -- from 1 in 10 to 1 in 5. Those with two shootings had a nearly 1-in-3 probability of becoming involved in a third.

“It definitely is easier to pull the trigger a second time,” said former Officer Hank Cousine, who was involved in three shootings during a 15-year career with the LAPD. “You kill a lot of paper targets, but shooting a human being is different.”

Police are required to visit a department psychologist after a shooting to determine whether they need counseling or a break from street duty. But officers who have been through the 45-minute consultation describe it as perfunctory.

“Pretty much all they do is say, ‘Gee, Dale, how do you feel?’ ” recalled Dale Suzuki, who had five shootings in 10 years with the LAPD. He left the force in 2000 to become a wilderness guide in Alaska.

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“It’s pretty brutal,” Suzuki said of the emotional aftermath of a shooting. “That’s what a lot of people from the outside don’t see. You know ... did I do the right thing? Maybe I should have waited a second longer.”

‘Bare-Bones’ Data

The department’s failure to identify and monitor repeat shooters is remarkable given the city’s history of explosive controversies over police use of force.

The 1991 Christopher Commission, established after the Rodney King beating, called on the LAPD to make statistics on officers’ shootings and other uses of force “readily accessible” so that supervisors could detect signs of trouble.

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In response, the department developed a database called the Training Evaluation and Management System, or TEAMS. But a 1996 report said the system provided only “bare-bones” information and was a “far cry” from what the Christopher Commission had proposed.

In a 2000 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, police officials promised to do better. They said they would create a comprehensive “early warning” system, dubbed TEAMS II, to track use of force, citizen complaints and other data on all officers.

The department is still struggling to get the system running. LAPD officials now say they expect it to be operational by July.

Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert on police oversight, said there was “no excuse” for the delay.

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“It has now been 13 years” since the Christopher Commission report, he said. “The one thing we have learned is that these problems are manageable.”

The Police Commission, the five-member civilian panel that oversees the LAPD, reviews all shootings to determine whether officers obeyed department policy on the use of deadly force.

But in judging a case, the commission deliberately does not consider any previous shootings by the officer involved, lest that information prejudice its decision.

Commission members say, however, that after they make a ruling, they examine the officer’s use-of-force history to determine whether intervention is called for.

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Bratton said repeat shooters should be monitored, but not shackled with restrictions. Many of them are exceptional officers, he said.

“They make some phenomenal arrests because they’ve got that sixth instinct,” he said. “They’re more inquisitive. They’re not going to drive by something that somebody else might not even notice.”

Bratton said it would be unfair to restrict such officers to desk duty simply because they were involved in numerous shootings. “The reality is a lot of these cops prefer to work in [dangerous assignments] and they are good at what they do, and that is the balancing act.”

Among LAPD officers, a history of shootings generally is no cause for embarrassment. Repeat shooters are often viewed as tough and fearless.

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Keith Lewis shot at suspects seven times in an eight-year span while working in the Narcotics Division. In an eighth incident, he accidentally wounded a fellow officer while shooting a snarling dog.

Four of Lewis’ shootings were deemed unjustified by the Police Commission. In one of those cases, Lewis shot and wounded a suspect who he believed -- mistakenly -- had a gun in his hand.

In another incident, the commission found that Lewis fired “indiscriminately” into a car after one of the occupants allegedly pointed a gun at him. Two unarmed women were wounded along with the alleged gunman.

Yet among Lewis’ friends on the force, his shooting record was hardly taboo. When they organized a retirement party for him last year, his buddies had an artist draw a caricature that made light of his propensity to fire.

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The caricature, published in the Thin Blue Line, the police union’s monthly newspaper, depicts Lewis in plaid golf pants, hunched over a putter -- with a pistol hanging from his waist.

A dialogue balloon has the grinning Lewis saying: “When in doubt, shoot it out.”

Lewis, 45, did not respond to a request for comment.

Another prolific shooter is Bob Crupi, a 30-year veteran. He has fired at suspects three times since 1985. LAPD records list eight earlier shootings, but provide no details.

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In a brief interview, Crupi recalled a shooting from 1988. A suspected hit-and-run driver, fleeing police on foot, climbed a chain-link fence. Crupi tried to pull the man down, but backed off when he waved a sharpened screwdriver, police reports say. Crupi then shot the suspect, wounding him in the back.

He said his captain later criticized him for being too quick to fire.

“I was told I should have retreated and reassessed,” said Crupi, now a motorcycle officer in the San Fernando Valley. “I told him ‘retreat’ wasn’t in my vocabulary.”

‘A Lot of Shootings’

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Officer Jamie McBride has what police call “good obs.”

He notices things others might miss: a slyly executed street corner drug deal, the evasive body language of somebody trying to hide something.

Spotting concealed guns is one of McBride’s specialties. He’s taken scores of them off the streets of South Los Angeles, repeatedly winning praise from superiors.

“McBride has established himself as one of the most industrious, productive, hard-charging officers in the Division,” reads a performance review from 1995. “McBride has consistently led not only his watch, but also the Division in the recovery of and arrest for possession of concealed firearms.”

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The review made no mention of another statistic in which McBride led his division that year: He was involved in four shootings in five months.

“That’s a lot of shootings,” McBride, a 14-year LAPD veteran, said in an interview. “That’s a lot of shootings in a career, let alone a year.”

The first of those shootings stemmed from a jaywalking stop. Jermaine Stewart, then 20, and a friend were crossing the street when McBride and his partner pulled up in a patrol car. Stewart said an officer’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker: “Come here, fat boy.”

Stewart, who had a .380-caliber pistol in his waistband, took off running, police reports say. At one point, he pulled the gun and allegedly pointed it at the officers. McBride, behind the wheel of the patrol car, fired at Stewart through the open window, hitting him in the leg and arm.

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A departmental review found that McBride was justified in shooting Stewart, but faulted him for “driving, issuing verbal commands and

McBride has been involved in a total of six shootings, the most recent in 2001.

The LAPD has repeatedly criticized him for putting himself and fellow officers at risk with careless tactics. Records show that he has been chastised for failing to take cover, to call for backup or to make fellow officers aware of his whereabouts during shootings.

McBride said he has no regrets.

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“I honestly believe that when I take a firearm off the street -- as corny as it sounds -- I actually prevented a crime from occurring,” he said. “Of all the guns I’ve gotten over the years, I know I’ve prevented at least a few homicides.”

Two years ago, McBride was transferred to the relatively sleepy Devonshire Division. He has not been involved in any shootings since then and was recently named the division’s officer of the year. Now 35, he said he had no interest in returning to the city’s south end.

“I don’t have time for that ghetto gun-fighting anymore,” he said. “I’m getting too old for that. That’s not what I’m about.”

Exercising Restraint

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Hank Cousine makes no apologies for his three shootings. In fact, he says, there are people all over Los Angeles who should count themselves lucky he didn’t shoot them.

This is a common refrain among repeat shooters -- that statistics don’t reflect the restraint they exercised in the face of danger.

“I could have legally killed a hundred people on any given week. Without a doubt,” said Cousine, 44, a former Army Ranger.

He said he was able to escape such situations without firing because he used superior tactics, such as taking cover behind his patrol car or a building. This allowed him to negotiate with suspects to drop their weapons and surrender.

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In some cases, he said, he held his fire even when in danger because he didn’t want to pile up too many shootings.

Once, he said, he refrained from shooting a man who was threatening him with a butcher knife because he was working an off-duty security job without department approval.

“If I had filed my work permit, bang, bang, he’s going,” Cousine said.

Cousine has always been one to speak his mind. After the Rodney King beating, he publicly criticized the officers involved for swinging their batons like “little girls.”

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He was one of 44 “problem officers” identified by the Christopher Commission on the basis of citizen complaints, shootings and other criteria. Assigned to desk duty, he complained that he was “a soldier

Cousine was fired in 1998 for participating in an illegal pyramid scheme. He sold real estate for a time and now sells his own line of motocross gear.

In 1988, Cousine shot a man who pointed what appeared to be a handgun at him, police records show. The weapon turned out to be a toy.

“Why me?” he recalled thinking. “I don’t want to take out a nut. I want to take out a bad guy.”

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His next shooting, in 1989, occurred while he was off duty and driving his Corvette on Eastern Boulevard in Bell Gardens. Seeing a woman he knew, he pulled over and struck up a conversation. Then a car pulled up behind him. The woman said the men in the car had been following her and making sexual comments.

Cousine stepped out of his car and told the men to leave. The driver gunned his engine and drove straight for him, Cousine said. The driver sideswiped Cousine’s Corvette and sped away. A passenger in the car pointed a gun at Cousine, who pulled out his own weapon.

“They’re going down the road and I’m ‘boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,’ ” he said.

His last shooting, in 1989, stemmed from a domestic disturbance. When Cousine tried to arrest an abusive husband, the man lunged at him with a razor blade. Cousine shot the man in the leg.

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“I didn’t want to blow this guy’s head off in front of his kids,” he said. “There’s certain things you don’t do in front of the kids unless you really have to.”

‘One Squeeze -- Boom!’

On Nov. 14, 1991, Bill Rhetts, then an LAPD vice officer, and his partner were sitting in an unmarked car watching a hooker stroll down Figueroa Street. Suddenly, a gang member walked toward the car, pulled out a handgun and started shooting.

Rhetts said he was slow to return fire. Then his academy training took over: “I put the front sights right on his head and with one squeeze -- boom! -- he was down on the ground. He was dead.”

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The shooting made a deep impression on him, Rhetts said. “I’m not going to allow the suspect to shoot at me first the next time,” he recalled thinking, “because this time he almost killed me.”

In 1996, Rhetts shot and paralyzed a man who he said pointed a gun at him. His partner, who also had his gun drawn, did not fire.

Four months later, Rhetts and another partner responded to a call about a “man with a gun” near a market on Huntington Drive in East Los Angeles.

“I did not want to be in another shooting,” Rhetts recalled. So he and his partner agreed that if it became necessary to shoot, the partner would do it.

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At the scene, the officers confronted a 16-year-old boy with a handgun in his waistband. They trained their guns on the suspect and shouted at him to raise his hands. Instead, Rhetts said, the youth drew his weapon and raised it in their direction.

Rhetts waited for his partner to fire. Suddenly, the partner appeared to jerk backward, as if he had just fired his shotgun, Rhetts said. But there was no sound. Rhetts guessed the weapon had malfunctioned. Then he took matters into his own hands.

“I gave him two rounds and he went down,” Rhetts said.

The boy suffered a leg wound. Rhetts said he was devastated to learn that the weapon was a BB gun.

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“I cradled him like a baby,” Rhetts said. “I remember he was apologizing to me and I was apologizing to him.”

An LAPD report on the incident makes no mention that Rhetts’ partner tried to fire at the suspect. The officer declined to comment.

Rhetts resigned from the LAPD soon after and took a job with the Riverside Police Department.

On Feb. 11, 2000, he shot a parole violator who had run from police and was hiding in a doghouse, according to court documents and interviews with lawyers involved in the case. The man had been described as armed and dangerous, but in fact was unarmed. The shooting injured his leg so badly it had to be amputated.

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Afterward, Rhetts’ superiors ordered him to see a psychiatrist, who found him unfit to serve. Looking back on his career, Rhetts said he came to realize that the psychiatrist may have been right.

He recalled shooting steroids and pumping iron during his days as a street cop in the Northeast Division. He remembered getting drunk on bourbon while driving home to cope with the stress of the job.

He said he also thought about the four shootings -- and wondered whether any of them could have been avoided.

“To be honest with you,” Rhetts said, “I can look back and think, ‘Should I have been a cop?’ ”

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Times researcher Offer Egozy contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Pulling the trigger

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Police shootings are concentrated in a small percentage of officers. Nine out of 10 LAPD officers who held field assignments between 1985 and mid-2004 never fired at a suspect.

Total number of officers: 16,000

Nearly 90% of officers had no shootings

One shooting: 1,316 (8.2%)

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Two shootings: 229 (1.4%)

Three or more shootings: 103 (0.6%)

Probability of shooting

For the same pool of LAPD personnel, the likelihood that an officer would fire his weapon increased markedly after his first shooting -- and continued to rise after each subsequent shooting. The reasons are unclear, but some officers say the trauma associated with a shooting made them quicker to pull the trigger thereafter.

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All officers: 10% probability of shooting

Officers with:

One shooting 20%

Two shootings 31%

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Three shootings 32%

Four shootings 36%

Five shootings 50%

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Source: Times analysis of LAPD statistics. Graphics reporting by Doug Smith

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

About the Numbers

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This report is based on a computer analysis of Los Angeles Police Department data on officer-involved shootings.

The analysis focused on 1,437 incidents from 1985 through mid-2004 in which police officers shot at suspects. Excluded were accidental shootings, shootings of dogs or other animals, and “tactical shootings,” such as when officers fired at the tires of fleeing vehicles.

For each shooting at a suspect, The Times gleaned information -- including the date and location and the identities of the officers involved -- from LAPD reports and Police Commission records.

Because many shootings involve more than one officer, the number of officers who fired their weapons at suspects -- 1,648 -- exceeds the number of incidents.

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Aspects of The Times’ analysis were based on an estimate of the total number of LAPD officers who have served in field assignments since 1985. That estimate -- 16,000 -- was calculated using figures on officer deployments and separations from the force, published annually in the department’s Statistical Digest.


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