Another Case of ‘Contagious Fire’

Times Staff Writers

The Compton shooting in which deputies unloaded 120 rounds in a residential neighborhood is one of five incidents in the last three years that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department believes involved “contagious fire.”

The phenomenon, in which officers start firing because other officers are shooting, has become enough of a concern that officials said Wednesday they planned to beef up training on the issue.

Michael Gennaco, head of the department’s Office of Independent Review, said contagious fire is a particular problem in cases in which large groups of deputies converge on a crime in progress.


“It’s a chain reaction to observing or hearing other shots fired by either deputies or suspects,” Gennaco said. “And it happens often enough to be a concern.”

He cited several incidents, including one in March 2004 in which deputies fired 111 rounds at a man with an assault rifle in Carson. The gunfire sprayed bullets into businesses and wounded a roofer working a block away.

Experts say officers tend to be more likely to fire when they see colleagues shooting -- a defensive response that police agencies need to address in training.

“Just because one person fires, that doesn’t mean the use of deadly force is justified by them or others,” said Michael Lyman, a professor of criminal justice at Columbia College in Columbia, Mo.

In an effort to stem growing anger in Compton over the shooting, Sheriff Lee Baca walked the block where the incident occurred and talked with residents about what happened. He examined the bullet holes that shattered windows and pocked walls at homes caught in the crossfire of Monday morning’s shooting on Butler Avenue.

Baca, who has been increasingly critical of the deputies’ tactics, was joined on the tour by activist and 2004 presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton, who flew in from New York.


They examined Pedro Mendez’s second-floor apartment, where two bullets fired by deputies penetrated a window, closet and hallway. They talked to his 15-year-old daughter, Nayelly Cruz, who held out her father’s hat, from which a bullet had torn out a chunk about 1 1/2 inch wide. The hat had been in a closet during the shooting incident.

“They shot through his hat; my Lord,” Sharpton said.

Baca looked on with an expression of disbelief.

“How do we make amends, and how do we correct whatever needs to be corrected?” Baca said later. “This is saying, ‘Wait a minute, we can do better.’ This is not anything to be feeling good about.”

Baca has expressed concern about the tactics of the 10 deputies -- especially the officers who fired the last volley.

Compton city officials on Wednesday demanded an independent investigation of the shooting and wondered whether the city should continue to contract its police services with the department.

Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin said the city pays the Sheriff’s Department $14 million a year for the services of 75 officers. He said it is “hard to understand” how officers could have felt threatened. He said one spent round was recovered from a stucco wall of Kelly Elementary School, about two blocks away.

The shooting, which lasted 18 seconds and peppered five homes with gunfire, unfolded about midnight Monday after deputies spotted a white Chevrolet Tahoe matching the description of a similar vehicle involved in a nearby shooting.

When deputies tried to question 44-year-old Winston Hayes, he allegedly took off, leading several patrol cars on a low-speed chase though a working-class neighborhood of small bungalows off Alondra Boulevard.

After 12 minutes, deputies were able to surround the truck on Butler Avenue. Three of them were approaching the vehicle on foot when Hayes backed toward them, prompting them to open fire.

One deputy was hurt after being shot by “friendly fire.” Hayes, who was unarmed, was hit four times and remained hospitalized Wednesday. Deputies said Hayes told them he was high on drugs, according to Baca.

An unedited videotape of the incident appears to show several key tactical lapses by deputies, Gennaco said. They appear to have fired toward other deputies and deviated from the vehicle shooting policy, which states deputies must consider their surroundings before opening fire, he said.

In the wake of the shooting, Gennaco said the department would soon screen a new videotape for deputies detailing how they should use deadly force against moving vehicles. Under department policy, deputies are permitted to fire at moving vehicles only if they believe their lives or those of bystanders are at risk.

In January, the Sheriff’s Department began training deputies to improve how the agency handles incidents involving large numbers by quickly delegating responsibilities such as containment, arrest and deadly force teams on the scene.

Officials now plan to review those procedures to see if they are adequate.

Deputy Roy Burns, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said the department’s training initiatives were a “touchy-feely approach” that was “a Band-Aid”

“We cannot stop this type of thing through punishment,” Burns said. “Mr. Gennaco does not understand police work and what occurs in life-and-death situations. The response here should be a lot more training, especially force-on-force training.”

Gennaco said the Compton shooting was the largest but far from the only contagious fire case the department has seen in recent years.

Sheriff’s deputies wounded a roofer whom they mistook for a gunman during a chaotic shooting near Carson on March 31, 2004, when 111 shots were fired.

During that incident, which took place near Normandie Avenue and Torrance Boulevard, deputies shot and killed a man who had fired on them in the street with an assault rifle.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s Office of Independent Review are investigating the case. But as part of the department review, officials examined whether some of the eight deputies involved fired indiscriminately.

Shortly after the gunman was shot, sheriff’s helicopter personnel reported seeing two men “bobbing up and down” on the roof of a nearby liquor store and alerted colleagues on the ground. Some deputies opened fire, sending bystanders scrambling and leaving one car riddled with bullets.

Gunshots also hit the roof, wounding a worker. Authorities later determined that the two men had been spreading tar on the roof, and that a tar mop might have been mistaken for a rifle.

Gennaco cited several other cases that involved contagious fire, including one in 2003 in which 10 deputies fired a total of 61 rounds and another in January in which six deputies fired 60 rounds.

“Oftentimes, officers are not aware of where everybody is because of tunnel vision,” said David A. Klinger, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“It kicks in when any human being is in any life-threatening situation or there is a crisis situation,” Klinger said.

Times staff writers Richard Winton and Tonya Alanez contributed to this report.