If there was any bright spot in the circumstances surrounding last week’s massacre in San Bernardino, it was the performance of law enforcement officers.
Police officers, sheriff’s deputies and federal agents worked together to stop the killers, search the area and investigate the circumstances.
From the start, San Bernardino officers drew on lessons learned from previous mass shootings. They didn’t hang back as officers had in Columbine, when two students killed 13 people in a high school siege that went on for almost an hour.
San Bernardino officers quickly assembled a team that rushed in, ready to confront the shooters. The hunt for the killers was thorough and transparent. Even through a raging gun battle that left both suspects dead, the police stayed calm and kept residents safe and the public informed.
It was a display of professionalism that we ought to publicly applaud. It highlighted the importance of sound tactics and the value of history.
If police departments around the country took those elements more seriously, we might not have so many high-profile incidents in which tactical errors lead to civilian deaths, put officers at risk and diminish public confidence in law enforcement.
But a report by an independent review commission of law enforcement officials blasted the officers for several egregious tactical blunders and faulted the Pasadena department for its shoddy investigation.
The officers’ mistakes put them in “a precarious position” that left them little choice but to try to shoot their way out, the report said. One officer jumped out of the patrol car to chase McDade without telling his partner — who then drew his gun while driving, crashed into a brick wall and made the “potentially disastrous mistake” of getting out of the patrol car without putting it in park.
The shooting occurred more than three years ago. But the report was made public, by court order, only last month. The police union battled its release to protect the officers’ “privacy rights.” And the department brass didn’t want us to see it — probably because it shows how little they cared about making the tragedy a teachable moment.
That’s not uncommon in the insular culture of law enforcement. But it’s exactly the wrong approach, particularly in an era of cellphone videos and patrol car cameras that provide an objective record and plenty of public fodder.
Some departments recognize that; they have made frequent tactical refreshers a part of their community policing plans.
The homicide rate in the Northern California city is at its lowest in 33 years. Officer-involved shootings rarely occur
“There are a million different decisions that go into getting you into that [shoot or don’t shoot] situation,” said UCLA professor Phillip Atiba Goff, who studies departments around the country as head of the Center for Policing Equity. “You want the kind of tactical training that sets you up so you don’t wind up in that place.”
The tactical flaws cited in the Pasadena report echo a theme in controversial shootings nationwide: Police fire in response to dangerous situations that their own choices helped create.
The Pasadena department concluded that the officers did the best they could in a chaotic situation.
But that chaos existed because the officers’ actions “were not congruent with principles of officer safety,” the review panel found.
Or the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot to death last year at a park in Cleveland by officers responding to a 911 call about a man with a gun. A rookie officer began firing at Tamir before his patrol car even came to a stop. It took him all of two seconds to decide the boy was a threat. Tamir died with a toy gun tucked in his pants. The officer who killed him said he had no choice.
That’s the refrain in many use-of-force cases: We focus on that moment when officer and suspect connect.
But tactics matter. Those encounters are choreographed by the choices that both sides make — and those choices are too important to be left to adrenaline or a hunch.