Troubled by an increase in police shootings last year, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on Wednesday ordered deputies to be more cautious -- and call for backup -- when pursuing armed suspects.
“In policing cultures around the nation, there is a tendency for us to put ourselves in harm’s way right away,” Baca said at a news conference at Sheriff’s Department headquarters in Monterey Park. “You don’t have to go barreling in on every case and then find yourself in a position where you have no choice but to use your gun.”
Baca said deputies should try to contain dangerous suspects and wait for assistance rather than rushing into confrontations that quickly escalate into shootings. He said the changes are aimed at reducing injuries and fatalities among deputies, suspects and bystanders.
The new tactical approach was recommended by a panel of veteran deputy training officers that Baca convened in September after a rash of shootings. The sheriff said he asked the panel to answer a defining question in law enforcement: “If a person who you believe is armed runs from you, what should you do?”
Presented in a glossy, 30-page booklet, the report, titled “Split second decision: The dynamics of the chase in today’s society,” lays out eight scenarios in which deputies must choose to use deadly force or consider other options.
Baca said that in most of the scenarios a conservative response was the right one.
The sheriff noted that his deputies often drive in squad cars alone, in contrast to Los Angeles Police Department officers, who work with a partner.
Baca said the booklet would be the basis for new training guidelines on tactical responses to armed or unarmed people who resist or reject orders by deputies. He added that the measures would be put into effect “almost immediately” and that every deputy would be given a booklet.
A spokesman for the union representing sheriff’s deputies said he had no immediate comment on the report or the policy change.
Michael Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, which monitors the Sheriff’s Department, called the policy change “a step forward.”
“It’s intended to teach deputies to avoid gunfights,” Gennaco said. “It provides guidance to deputies, and it sets a new bar for departmental expectations of performance.”
Merrick Bobb, an attorney who also monitors the department under a contract with the Board of Supervisors, has long advocated a more conservative approach toward suspected felons who are fleeing, noting that a quarter of officer-involved shootings from 1997 to 2002 involved foot pursuits.
“I heartily approve of this new policy,” Bobb said.
State law gives broad latitude to police officers who shoot at suspected felons who flee, recognizing the potential threat they pose to the public.
But most police departments place greater restrictions on when and where officers are justified in using deadly force to prevent the suspect’s escape.
LAPD policy emphasizes that officers must be sure the person they are shooting at has been involved in a violent crime and that his escape poses “a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others if the apprehension is delayed,” according to the department’s manual.
The manual also notes that officers should, if it is practical, avoid using deadly force if innocent bystanders could be injured or killed.
The Sheriff’s Department has similar parameters, department officials said. But the new policy is aimed at improving decision making in tactical situations to avoid placing deputies in harm’s way.
A string of shootings last year led to questions over the use of deadly force in chases.
One of the most notable was the death of Darrick Collins, 36, in Athens. Deputies were searching for two robbery suspects when they spotted Collins and another man about 10 p.m. in the 1200 block of Poindexter Street.
As they tried to detain Collins, he ran up an alley next to a home and went into a gated yard, officials said. A deputy tried to follow and, believing Collins was reaching for a weapon in his waistband, fired three shots, sheriff’s investigators said.
Detectives found a cellphone but no weapon on Collins. They also determined that he was not the robbery suspect the deputies were seeking.
Baca said that sometimes the danger to public safety is so great a deputy should not hold back.
“If the armed suspect is in a crowded mall and you are the only one there and that person is shooting, then guess what: You are going to continue to put yourself at risk until you subdue that individual or otherwise you’ll end up with four, five or six people dead.”