Police refuse to explain officers’ use of force in fatal shooting

Times Staff Writer

Four days after Santa Ana police fatally shot the driver of a stolen SUV following a 20-minute chase, authorities refused to say whether he was armed or why officers fired at him.

Experts on the use of force by law enforcement said they were troubled that police had not described what threat to life led them to open fire on Kevin Rene Powell, 41, a parolee from Aliso Viejo.

“There really has to be a credible, actual threat,” said Sam Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He said the circumstances of the shooting -- its location in a crowded area near a freeway and the number of shots -- made him wonder if officers overreacted.

Police said the encounter began when Powell sped away as officers tried to pull him over Tuesday near 4th and Main streets in Santa Ana.

Police have acknowledged firing at him two different times, first at Dyer Road and Hotel Terrace Drive. The second time occurred after Powell drove down the embankment of the 55 Freeway at MacArthur Boulevard and came to a stop.


Witnesses said eight to 15 officers fired as many as 20 shots at the SUV. A female passenger emerged unscathed and was arrested on suspicion of parole violation.

Police said Powell had a history of weapons and narcotics violations and there was a warrant out for his arrest on a narcotics violation.

Walker said that in an adrenaline-charged moment, officers can forget the rules. Santa Ana Police Department policy allows officers to use deadly force to defend themselves or others from the threat of death or serious injury, or to prevent the escape of a suspect in a violent felony who poses an immediate threat to others.

A Los Angeles community activist said the incident highlighted the need for law enforcement officials to review their policies on the appropriate use of deadly force. Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic HOPE, said he planned to request a meeting with the Santa Ana police chief Monday to gain understanding of the department’s policies and procedures.

“There are too many questions unanswered,” he said. “We can’t wait for the investigation because it’s a matter of public safety. They need to have transparency.”

Nina Vaca, a distant relative of Powell, said seeing a photo of the bullet holes in the driver’s side door led her to believe that police went too far in shooting the man she knew as having a “big heart and a big smile.’ ”

“Why so many bullet holes? All it takes if you want to take somebody down is maybe one or two shooters,” she said. “I was just sick to my stomach, and I felt that something is definitely wrong.”

Santa Ana police spokesman Cpl. Jose Gonzalez declined to state the specific threat Powell presented and referred questions to the district attorney’s office, which investigates all officer-related shootings. He said his department is investigating whether the shooting was in line with its policy.

Susan Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney, declined to discuss the specifics of the case as a matter of office policy.

“Our slice of the pie is very narrow,” she said. “We’re basically determining whether a police officer violated the law or not.” And that is different from whether an officer broke department policy.

Prosecutions for officers using excessive or deadly force are rare, according to experts.

Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, said it may mislead the public when police departments have outside agencies investigate officer-involved shootings.

“They’re not looking at whether or not the shooting was justified; they just look to see if a crime was committed,” he said. “As important as whether a crime was committed is whether the shooting was justified.”

Some questioned the safety of opening fire in a crowded area at about 3:40 p.m. as rush hour neared.

“An officer firing a gun must take into account the backdrop and actively consider the risk to innocent third parties and bystanders,” said Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and president of the Police Assessment Resource Center, a police accountability group. “There is a question whether, on a busy freeway with cars whizzing past, it was a safe environment to have multiple officers discharging firearms.”

Michelle Pinoosh, a Tustin mortgage lender who was driving about the time of the shooting on nearby streets as she picked up her children from school, said the officers’ behavior seemed reckless.

“Why would you open fire on a freeway in the afternoon when school gets out?” she asked. “It just seemed incredibly irresponsible.”