A STITCH IN TIME
Could early intervention save officer and citizen lives?
For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Consider a well-known, chronic offender who habitually gathered with other like-minded souls to sell contraband. Then take into account the reprobate’s criminal record, which included three open criminal cases and about thirty arrests in as many years for offenses including assault, resisting arrest, grand larceny and, most recently, selling contraband cigarettes.
We’re referring, of course, to Eric Garner. During the first six months of 2014 his favorite place for selling loosies was the site of 98 arrests, 100 summonses and hundreds of complaints from citizens, merchants and the landlord of the apartment building where he and his buds gathered to peddle their wares. Two of those arrests were of Garner himself. When, in July, the cops moved in for a third time he tried to fight them off. At six-feet three and 350 pounds, the 43-year old scoundrel suffered from obesity, asthma and circulatory problems, so when an overexcited cop applied a chokehold the outcome seemed all too predictable.
Our second story, also from the Big Apple, reached its equally lethal conclusion last month. On October 18 officers were called to the apartment of Deborah Danner, a 66-year old schizophrenic. Over the years police had repeatedly responded to complaints from other tenants about Danner’s behavior. Although Danner was estranged from her family and lived alone, her sister would usually show up and accompany everyone to the E.R.
This time things turned out differently. Danner, naked and agitated, flashed a pair of scissors at the sergeant who entered her bedroom. Although he convinced her to put the scissors down, she then rushed him swinging a baseball bat. He drew his gun and fired twice, killing her. His tactics were quickly criticized by the police chief and, most significantly, by Mayor de Blasio, who wondered why a Taser wasn’t used. Hizzoner later lamented that Danner’s sister had also been there:
She said she'd seen it done the right way and expected it to be done that way this time as well. You can only imagine the pain she feels having had to stand there and hear the shots fired and the recognition coming over her that she had lost her sister.
You’ve guessed it – our third account is also from New York. But this time a cop died.
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Manuel Rosales was a violent, deeply troubled youth. His father would later complain that despite the boy’s behavior police and school authorities – he dropped out when he was seventeen – repeatedly let him slide by. By the time that Rosales turned thirty-five the self-professed gang member had been arrested seventeen times and served two prison terms for theft. His violent outbursts led his wife to leave him last year and secure a protective order, which Rosales evidently ignored.
On November 3, while out on bail for a July assault on his estranged spouse, Rosales broke into her Bronx apartment and took her and three others hostage. He was armed with a reportedly stolen .45 caliber pistol. Rosales left several hours later. Responding officers spotted his vehicle and gave chase. Rosales crashed his Jeep, and as his pursuers stepped from their vehicles he unexpectedly opened fire, killing Sgt. Paul Tuozzolo and seriously wounding Sgt. Emmanuel Kwo. Rosales was shot and killed.
Rosales had preciously declared his intention to commit suicide by cop. He posted “this nightmare is coming to an end…goodbye” on Facebook one day before his rampage.
When confrontations turn lethal, tactics often draw blame. Except for the chokehold, Eric Garner would still be alive. Maybe, as Mayor de Blasio suggested, Deborah Danner could have been Tased. Yet a New York grand jury refused to indict the officer who allegedly choked Garner (he testified that he struggled to avoid being thrown through a plate glass window.) A full-page ad in the New York Times , placed by the NYPD Sergeants Benevolent Association (November 25, p. A-5) suggested that had Danner’s bat struck the cop one might be asking why he didn’t use his pistol.
Really, one can quibble about tactics until the cows come home. But here our focus is on prevention. And one thing is certain: while the motivations and mental states of Garner, Danner and Rosales were different, each had been a prodigious consumer of police services. And the consequences weren’t always what one might expect:
- As the Big Apple roiled in the aftermath of Garner’s death, an exasperated NYPD supervisor pointed to his kid-gloves treatment in the past: “We chased him; we arrested him. But once you’ve chased a guy, what’s a warning going to do?”
- Official reluctance to commit Deborah Danner for mental health treatment left her grieving cousin, himself a retired cop, deeply frustrated: “They [police] have been here numerous, numerous times over the years. Debbie was sick since she was in college. They have to do a better job of handling mental illness.”
- Even Rosales, a twice-convicted felon, kept getting breaks. After his arrest earlier this year for assaulting his ex-spouse (and ignoring a protective order, to boot) he was released on a measly $1,000 bond, far below the $25,000 recommended by prosecutors.
A stiff sentence early on might have helped extinguish a pattern of behavior that repeatedly brought Garner into conflict with police. Danner, who had clearly presented a threat to herself and others for over a decade, could have been forcibly hospitalized years earlier. Harsh, perhaps, but far preferable to getting shot. Had the judge acceded to the D.A.’s request for a stiff bond, Rosales would have likely remained locked up, and both he and Sgt. Tuozzolo would still be alive.
Acting decisively when it matters can make a difference. No, we’re not suggesting a return to “broken windows” policing, which has a well-earned reputation for needlessly provoking conflict. Neither is our approach a version of “predictive policing,” which uses crime data to identify “hot spots” where offending is likely to occur. Instead, our focus is on individuals, specifically those whose documented behavior indicates they are at great risk of harming themselves or others.
In an era where the tendency has been to ease punishments, acting pre-emptively may be a hard sell for budgetary reasons alone. Making good decisions may also require information that’s not readily available. Officers don’t consistently acquire – and police records systems don’t consistently store and catalog for ready retrieval – the quantity and quality of information necessary for making reasonably accurate predictions of violent behavior.
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Assume that officers and record systems are brought up to the task. What then?
- First, there must be a process for filtering out persons who most need special attention from an admittedly noisy background. This would at a minimum include a substantial history of contacts and, most importantly, input from field officers, who are in the best position to decide whether (and to what extent) the admittedly subjective threshold of dangerousness has been breached.
- Secondly, there should be a non-nuclear option. “Crisis intervention teams” comprised of officers and medical specialists are widely used to respond to active incidents. Conceptually similar teams could be used proactively to visit and counsel individuals whose behavioral pattern, if left unchecked, might lead to tragedy.
- Finally, there must be a process for selecting individuals whose behavior resists less coercive means, including pre-identifying available options. Mentally ill persons such as Deborah Danner could be flagged for formal commitment, while offenders such as Eric Garner might be “scheduled” for an arrest instead of a citation or warning.
To be sure, deciding just who merits special attention, and of what kind, invokes substantial liberty concerns. Of course, so does shooting someone, or being shot.
11/19/22 A search of the dorm room assigned to University of Virginia shooter Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. turned up both guns that he (legally) purchased: a Ruger .223 caliber semi-auto rifle and a Smith and Wesson 9mm. pistol. Police also found a Franklin Armory “binary trigger,” which doubles a rifle’s rate of fire by discharging a round when the trigger is released. (It’s Federally legal but has been outlawed by a number of States, not including Illinois.) UVA regulations prohibit guns in residence halls.
11/17/22 In September the University of Virginia was tipped off that Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., the student who recently opened fire at the end of a field trip, killing three students and wounding two, had a gun on campus. Although neither the tipster nor Jones’ roommate said they saw a gun, it was learned that in 2021 Jones was convicted of concealed carry. It also turns out that a gun dealer had rebuffed Jones’ attempt to buy a gun because he had a pending felony charge. But the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, and this year he sold Jones a rifle and a 9mm. pistol. All this has left victim families and others wondering why authorities didn’t pursue their inquiries with more vigor.
9/26/22 A Fresno, Calif. man put a gun to his head and threatened to commit suicide and kill any police who approached. He was in his own home, and posed no immediate threat to others. So the officers left. With nearly one in four police shootings involving the mentally ill, “tactical disengagement” is being adopted by police across the U.S. Some agencies try to send in mental health professionals. But if there’s resistance to offers of help and innocents aren’t clearly at risk, everyone simply leaves.
9/2/22 Despite fervent opposition from the ACLU and other rights advocates, California legislators overwhelmingly approved Governor Kevin Newsom’s “CARE Court” proposal. Designed to help homeless persons who are mentally ill and have drug problems but reject care, it would empower families and first responders to seek court orders that would compel persons to accept housing, medical and mental health services they provably need. Sixty-three million dollars to fund CARE courts is part of the package.
8/29/22 Last October LAPD officers shot and killed two mentally-ill persons one day apart. Evelyn Del Real was shot by a police sniper who observed her swinging a knife at her child, whom she had already stabbed. One day later an officer killed Grisha Alaverdyan after he stabbed a woman on the street, then advanced on him. Del Real and Alaverdyan had been previously assessed by police mental health teams. L.A.P.D.’s civilian police commission cleared the officers, and Chief Michel Moore agreed. But he was troubled about the second incident, as the cop’s partner had simultaneously discharged a beanbag round.
8/13/22 A 37-year old Texas-based traveling nurse who by all appearances deliberately sped into a Los Angeles intersection against a red light, causing a multi-vehicle crash that killed five and injured eight, had been previously involved in thirteen collisions. Prosecutors say there is no evidence that drugs or alcohol were involved and charged her with murder. Nicole Lorraine Linton’s lawyer, though, has brought up “documented profound mental health issues.”
7/16/22 In 2019 UC Irvine police discovered that student Sebastian Dumbrava was posting threats on social media to shoot up the campus. He wound up on a three-day psychiatric hold. But the threats then resumed, and Dumbrava acquired guns and ammunition, which his mental condition barred. That earned him seven months in prison. But on release he didn’t comply with probation, kept posting threats, and demanded $50,000 from the State. So “for now” he’s back in custody. And, yes, the campus worries.
6/24/22 During the span of a few hours, Los Angeles police repeatedly responded to calls about a deranged man who was hopping into backyards and acting threateningly. Officers encountered and spoke with the man several times. Each time they let him go and reassured residents that all was o.k. Then the intruder broke into a bedroom, stabbed a resident dead, then killed himself. A lawsuit has been filed.
6/22/22 Shootings recently took the lives of two D.C. teens. One, fifteen, was packing a gun. He had twice been wounded by gunfire in the past. In a separate incident, a sixteen-year old who was recently arrested with a gun was also shot and killed. His mother said she asked he be put on GPS monitoring but was told that was only for dangerous persons. Mayor Bowser’s new “People of Promise” initiative seeks to identify D.C. residents who are “most at risk of committing or being victimized by violent crime” and provide preventive services. These youths, the columnist feels, would have made excellent candidates.
6/9/22 According to a 2018 Secret Service report, early intervention is key to preventing school violence. But its 2019 study of 41 episodes found that although most plotters had leaked their intentions verbally, in writing or otherwise, their warnings weren’t heeded. Peers, says a 2021 Secret Service report, are best positioned to know, but may not take the messages seriously, or may be afraid or reluctant to snitch. It’s up to parents, says the Washington Post, to get their kids to drop the “code of silence” and open up.
5/24/22 Illinois man Jeffrey Reinking was convicted in State court of returning guns to his son, Travis Reinking, 29, after the latter’s firearms I.D. card was revoked because of his hospitalization for mental illness. Travis Reinking used one of these guns, an AR-15 assault rifle, to storm a Waffle House restaurant in Peoria four years ago, killing four. He was disarmed by a customer after the weapon jammed. Travis Reinking was convicted of murder and drew life without parole.
5/13/22 A 14-year old girl who had cycled through Florida’s mental health system for years and a deeply troubled 12-year old boy ran off from a group home and broke into a large residence. Inside they found an assortment of guns and ammunition. Gathering the weapons, they began firing. A protracted shootout with deputies followed. The girl was wounded but recovered. Both youths face attempted murder charges; the girl, who is being prosecuted as an adult, will likely be sentenced to prison.
5/11/22 Four Illinois cities – Peoria, Springfield, East St. Louis and Waukegan – will be receiving State funds to implement “co-responder” programs that partner social workers with police, creating teams that respond to mental-health emergencies and offer solutions other than arrest. Peoria’s police chief praises the initiative as part of a “new era of policing.” Chicago began a similar program last year.
4/23/22 A lawsuit accuses Los Angeles police and social workers of ignoring repeated warnings that Liliana Carrillo, whom her estranged husband said suffered from “postpartum depression, anger and childhood trauma,” posed an imminent risk to her three children, ages 6 months, 2 and 3 years. Carillo admitted drowning them last year. A judge’s order to remove them from her custody was ignored, and authorities reportedly failed to share information and act despite numerous instances of odd behavior.
4/20/22 A homeless New York City man who shoved a commuter into an approaching subway train in January was declared unfit to stand trial for her murder. Martial Simon, 61, a long-time schizophrenic, will stay locked up in a psychiatric ward. Meanwhile, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan for a CARE Court system that would accept referrals from family members and others about persons with severe mental health issues is being opposed by civil libertarians, who call it “legally misguided and immoral.”
4/14/22 NYPD officers arrested reputed subway shooter Frank James after he called and tipped them of his whereabouts. According to the New York Times, his recent YouTube videos described a planned journey by van to “the danger zone.” One day before the attack, James said he wanted to kill and “watch people die,” but had been dissuaded by thoughts of being imprisoned. New Jersey once charged him with “making terroristic threats”; he was convicted of a lesser charge, harassment and given probation. James received extensive mental health counseling over the years but claimed it made him worse.
4/13/22 Frank James, 62, is the man whom authorities believe threw smoke bombs and opened fire in a Brooklyn subway car during the April 12 morning commute, wounding ten. A Glock pistol and a credit card in his name that he used to rent the U-Haul he drove and later abandoned were found at the scene. James, who has lived in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, remains at large. Billing himself as “prophetoftruth88” he has posted many YouTube rants about race and violence. One of his recent videos criticizes the Mayor for suggesting that removing the homeless would improve subway safety.
4/11/22 Journalist Mark Follman’s new book, “Trigger Points,” argues that “behavioral threat assessment,” an emerging preventive approach that has been adopted by schools in more than a dozen States, can reduce the incidence of mass shootings. Trained employees watch for “warning behaviors” including threats, aggressive behaviors and an unusual interest in shootings. They listen closely for concerns from family and friends. Specialized “threat teams” that include behavioral specialists visit homes, determine the access to firearms, and provide personalized counseling to troubled individuals.
3/17/22 A Virginia man has been arrested for shooting three homeless persons in D.C., killing one. Gerald Brevard III, 30, is also suspected of shooting two homeless persons in New York City, where one died. Bullet casings from both cities match to the same gun. Brevard was found incompetent to stand trial for attempted assault with a deadly weapon three years ago. He later drew a year in prison but the term was suspended. Brevard’s father faults a system that failed to treat his son’s mental illness. A major piece in the NY Times reported that Brevard and those he killed were chronically mentally ill.
One-hundred twenty seven point-five million. That’s what the Department of Justice has agreed to pay to settle more than forty lawsuits filed in connection with the 2018 massacre by Nikolas Cruz at Marjorie Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida. A tip called in to the FBI five weeks earlier warned that Cruz, who had been expelled from the school for his behavior, had bought guns and intended to “slip into a school and start shooting the place up.” But it was never passed on.
3/4/22 Dismayed by persons “with their clothes off defecating and urinating in the middle of the streets, screaming and talking to themselves,” Calif. Gov. Edwin Newsom proposed a program, to be enforced by civil “CARE Courts,” that would compel individuals in severe distress to accept care, and if necessary, housing, in a community mental health facility. A similar approach for criminal defendants is in place in Santa Clara County. Newsom has proposed to spend billions to finance the effort.
11/25/21 In August 2020, “after numerous policy violations and conduct issues,” Kansas City police fired Det. Lionel Womack, a 13-year veteran. Within days he tangled with Sheriff’s deputies when, supposedly from fear, he ran away during a traffic stop. (Womack was injured and sued.) On November 22 a 9-1-1 caller reported that Womack was “standing in a road pointing at the sky and trying to jump in front of traffic.” During a violent encounter with his former colleagues, Womack took away an officer’s gun, jumped behind the wheel of the patrol car, and was shot dead by the cop’s partner. In May 2022 the shooting was ruled justified.
6/22/21 An L.A. Times op-ed opposes a proposal that Homeland Security underwrite efforts by community groups, universities and law enforcement to identify potentially dangerous individuals and refer them to treatment before they strike. According to Harsha Panduranga, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, “mental health issues, having trouble at home or in relationships, having a political or personal ‘grievance’ - are shared by millions.” Using these to identify potentially violent persons, Panduranga argues, will increase bias against Muslims and persons of color and lead to more abuses.
5/1/2021 “They were just kind of giving us a heads up, ‘This is what he’s thinking about doing.’” That’s how North Carolina Sheriff Len Hagamana characterized recent warnings about Isaac Alton Barnes, 32, a well-armed resident of Boone whom neighbors feared was getting set to explode. But nothing was done, and on April 28 he did. Barnes’ shooting rampage took the lives of his mother and stepfather and two deputies. He committed suicide.
3/25/21 During an argument with his wife a Rhode Island man brought out a gun and asked her to shoot him. She fled and returned the next day with police. While the man agreed to go in for an evaluation, he didn’t consent to have two guns seized. But police did so after he left, and only returned them months later when pressed by his lawyer. He sued over the warrantless search, but Federal courts upheld it under the “community caretaking” exception, which has been applied to vehicles. Whether it extends to one’s home will now be decided by the Supreme Court. (Caniglia v. Strom, no. 20-157.)
2/10/21 A mentally troubled rural Minnesota man who was under a restraining order for threatening to blow up a hospital in 2018 surrendered after using a handgun to shoot up a rural clinic, killing one and wounding four. Gregory Paul Ulrich, 67 also set several explosive devices, which did not detonate. Long known as a troublemaker by other residents and police, Ulrich was reportedly upset that doctors refused to continue prescribing pain medication to which he had apparently become addicted. In May 2022 a jury convicted Ulrich of murder; he faces a mandatory term of life without parole.
1/21/21 A Chicago man who had posted numerous “disturbing” videos on Facebook, including rants in which “he brandished a gun” and “threatened to ‘blow up the whole community’” went on a shooting spree on January 9. Jason Nightengale, 32, apparently chose his victims randomly. By the time he was shot dead by Evanston police three were dead and four were wounded. A fourth victim has since died.
11/29/20 In response to objections by activists who demand police keep away from responses to mentally troubled persons, Chicago will be deploying two kinds of crisis intervention teams in 2021. One will, as previously planned, include two experts and one officer. But the city will also deploy teams of “clinicians and paramedics” modeled after “Cahoots” that do not include police. Both approaches will be implemented next year.
11/25/20 On January 11, 2020 an LAPD Sergeant responding to 9-1-1 calls about a man “waving” a gun spotted Victor Valencia, 31, holding what seemed to be a handgun. When Valencia pointed it at him the officer shot Valencia dead. His object turned out to be a bicycle part, which a witness to the encounter said looked like a gun. Valencia reportedly suffered from depression and was mentally ill. On November 24 the Sergeant’s actions were ruled justified. LAPD account
11/17/20 Beset by troubling encounters between police and persons in mental distress, Chicago is considering deploying CIT teams that include two experts and one officer. But objections have been raised as to why cops should be included at all. “I think it’s an emergency to get police out of the mental health response” said an Alderman. A mother whose mentally ill daughter was recently Tasered agrees. But she also wants “a health care system that supports people before they are in crisis.”
11/15/20 An NPR report claims that “crisis intervention teams are failing.” Problems are attributed to response models that include clinical workers but are nonetheless managed by police, who consider persons in crisis as inherently dangerous. “Cahoots” is identified as an approach that helps debunk that notion. CIT’s are also “no replacement for an adequate mental health care system in a community.”
10/15/20 A member’s view that “calling the police on George Floyd about an alleged counterfeit $20 bill ended his life" heped propel the L.A. City Council to unanimously pass a proposal to create unarmed civilian mental health teams that would respond to “nonviolent” 911 calls instead of police. According to the council’s President, the move would “save lives” and free up officers to handle violent crime. That overall approach, according to CNN, has found favor elsewhere in situations where no violence or crime are involved.
9/9/20 Seven Fort Hood soldiers have been murdered since January 2016, and seventy-one have committed suicide. Authorities attribute the grisly toll to emotional problems, harassment and bullying. A 2009 study suggested various factors, including prior drug and alcohol abuse, involvement in crime and combat experience.
6/26/20 Santa Cruz, Calif., an early adapter of Predictive Policing, has banned it because it biases police attention towards areas populated by persons of color. Its use was suspended by a new police chief in 2017 because doing “purely enforcement” caused inevitable problems with the community. Santa Cruz also banned facial recognition software because of its racially-biased inaccuracies.
12/16/19 BJA released “How to Reduce Repeat Encounters,” a four-step plan designed to help police executives devise and implement management and response strategies for identifying and properly dealing with troubled, repeat users of police services.
12/7/19 CNN has tallied more than twenty shootings on U.S. military bases since 1993. Four have taken place since November 5, 2009, when troubled Fort Hood psychiatrist Nidal Hasan killed thirteen and wounded twenty-eight. Two occurred only this week. On December 4 Gabriel Romero, a U.S. Navy sailor standing guard at Pearl Harbor, opened fire with his issued weapons, killing two and himself. Two days later, Saudi military student Mohammed Alshamrania used a pistol to kill three and wound eight at a Florida base. He was shot and killed by police. Romero was in trouble with the Navy and getting counseling. Alshamrania had reportedly posted hateful tweets and recently gathered friends to watch mass shooting videos.
10/24/19 At the urging of Attorney General William Barr, in December 2019 the FBI will host a national training session to prevent mass shootings. Local and state agencies will be exposed to “proven models” drawn from the war against terror; for example, identifying dangerous, “extremely challenging individuals” and compelling to undergo mental health treatment before they strike.
7/22/19 On May 28 Rhett Nelson, a 28-yr. old Utah man with drug and mental issues left home saying that “he wanted to make it on his own or die.” Police were informed, but although Nelson had a gun, officers didn’t think him suicidal or a threat and closed the case. On July 22 Nelson, under arrest in Los Angeles, was charged with two murders, a murder attempt and two robberies.
2/19/19 The article’s title says it all: “Serial sex criminal who targeted women on buses and trains banned from Metro after 10th conviction.” One year after his ninth conviction for groping and molesting women and children on public transportation, Ager Linder, 27, did it again. Each time, including the present, his conduct was apparently adjudicated as a misdemeanor.
1/25/19 Zephen Xaver, 21, entered a Florida bank, ordered four employees and a customer to lie on the floor, and shot them in the head. All died. As a youth, Xaver’s dreams of taking students hostage led to his referral for treatment. That incident, as well as his recent message about taking hostages and committing “suicide by cop” had come to the attention of police. Xaver recently told a friend that he had bought a handgun.
11/8/18 On 11/7/18 ex-Marine gunner Ian David Long, 28, walked into an L.A.-area bar and opened fire with a legally-bought .45 caliber Glock pistol with an extended magazine. Twelve were killed, including Ventura Co. Sheriff’s Sergeant Ron Elus, who had responded to the scene. Long was though by neighbors to be mentally disturbed. Last April mental health workers called by deputies to the home that Long shares with his mother decided he did not meet the standards to be held.
5/14/18 According to the L.A. Times nine states now have “red flag” laws that authorize courts to order the seizure of guns from persons who are at risk of hurting themselves or others. Five of these laws were passed since the Florida school shooting.
2/16/18 At a bench trial, a judge acquitted NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry of all charges, including murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide, in the killing of Deborah Danner. Sgt. Barry is still subject to department discipline.
9/10/17 New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board ruled that officer Daniel Pantaleo caused Eric Garner’s death by placing him in a prohibited chokehold. But action against Pantaleo and other officers awaits DOJ’s decision whether to prosecute them for civil rights violations.
6/23/07 James T. Hodgkinson, the shooter at the June 14 Congressional baseball game, had several recent gun-related run-ins, including a dispute where he allegedly struck a man with the butt of a shotgun and fired a round. He was arrested but charges were dropped because the victims didn’t show up in court.
12/3/16 On November 15 a man clearly suffering from long-standing mental problems was “banned for life” from a Tacoma shopping mall for bizarre, hostile behavior. Police found a shotgun in his vehicle and issued an “officer safety bulletin.” Two weeks later he shot and killed a Tacoma officer during a domestic disturbance call. Neither the victim nor other officers who responded to the scene knew that the assailant was the subject of the earlier warning.
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How to Reduce Repeat Encounters (BJS) NPR Report
Another Day, Another Massacre When a Dope Can’t be Roped Was a Dope Roped?
When Must Cops Shoot? (I) (II) A Workplace Without Pity Free Agents Red Flag (I) (II)
Preventing Mass Murder There’s No “Pretending” a Gun Routinely Chaotic
Ban the Damned Things! Massacre Control A Lost Cause Are Civilians Too Easy on the Police?
Is it Always About Race? A Very Hot Summer Catch and Release (I) (II) First, do no Harm
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
In an era of highly lethal firearms, keeping patrol informed is job #1
For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. On October 8, 2016 Palm Springs police officers Lesley Zerebny and Jose “Gil” Vega were shot and killed as they stood outside a residence to which they had been called over a “simple family disturbance.” (Another officer who responded to the scene was wounded but is doing well.) Only moments earlier the father of John Felix, a 26-year old ex-con, had frantically begged a neighbor for help. “My son is in the house, and he’s crazy. He has a gun. He’s ready to shoot all the police.” Tragically, the officers learned that Felix was armed only after they arrived. When they called on him to come out he opened fire with an AR-15 .223 caliber semi-automatic rifle, shooting multiple rounds through the home’s front door.
Officers Zerebny and Vega were wearing soft body armor. Given the weapon used, we can assume that it was ineffective. Due to their extreme velocity, .223 caliber (5.56 mm) and similar rifle ammunition readily penetrate the soft body armor that street cops typically wear. Specialized ceramic or hard metal inserts can stop these rounds, but vests so equipped are too heavy and uncomfortable to wear on patrol. (Felix reportedly used “armor-piercing” ammunition whose composition and construction is intended to pierce armor plates. But ordinary .223 rifle ammunition readily defeats soft body armor.)
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And the bad news doesn’t stop there. Once high-velocity projectiles strike flesh they cause devastating wounds, creating temporary cavities that can be more than ten times the projectile’s diameter, affecting large areas of tissue and damaging or destroying nearby organs. (Gunshot Wounds, DiMaio, p. 152)
Felix’s weapon, the Colt AR-15, is specifically banned under California law. Enacted in 1989 after a deranged man used an AK-type rifle to kill five children and wound dozens more in a Stockton schoolyard, the State’s “assault weapon” ban prohibits the possession of certain enumerated weapons including the AR-15. More generally, the law bans any semi-automatic, centerfire rifle that has one or more of certain external features such as a handgrip, requires that ammunition magazines for semi-auto rifles be removable only with a tool, and limits magazine capacity of semi-auto pistols and rifles to ten rounds. (A similar but weaker Federal law was passed in 1994. For more about that statute, which expired in 2004, click here.)
Eager to safeguard their best-selling, most profitable products, gun manufacturers adjusted to the original bans and to every tweak thereafter, promptly renaming weapons on the “bad-gun” list, stripping rifles of external baubles such as handgrips and flash suppressors, and limiting magazine capacity to ten rounds. When California tried to impair quick reloading by requiring that magazines only be removable with a tool, savvy entrepreneurs quickly devised a simple add-on that uses a bullet tip to drop empties (hence, the infamous “bullet button.”) In time the state countered with an amendment, to be effective next year, that rifles be so configured that reload necessitates a partial “disassembly.” As one might expect, an easy workaround is already being marketed. Bottom line: citizens can select from a veritable cornucopia of “Federal” and “California legal” weapons that comply with every restriction that’s been imposed but are in most important aspects functionally identical to the bad old “assault rifles” they replaced. (For a taste simply Google “semi auto rifles California legal.” Here is one example.)
All through this decades-long struggle, the elephant in the room – ballistics – has been studiously ignored. Despite the carnage – in 2015 nearly as many deaths were caused by guns (33,736) as by motor vehicles (33,804) – America’s gun makers continue enthusiastically marketing firearms whose projectiles defeat protective garments worn by police and inflict potentially life-threatening wounds nearly anywhere they strike. While some States have addressed peripheral issues such as magazine capacity, Government experts are well aware of the lethality of .223 and similar projectiles, but the imperatives of politics and commerce apparently demand that lawmakers look the other way.
We’ve had a lot to say about such things before (see, for example, “A Ban in Name Only” and “Cops Need More Than Body Armor”.) Here, our focus is on mitigating the risk. According to the FBI, between 2006-2015 nineteen officers were killed by bullets that penetrated body armor. (The toll of those injured but not killed is unknown.) All these deaths but one were caused by rifle ammunition. Assumedly, most of these cops, like most of those who battled the perpetrators of the recent San Bernardino massacre, weren’t “militarized”: they were ordinary patrol officers, using ordinary police cars, wearing conventional, soft body armor. (That’s probably true everywhere. FBI statistics indicate that only seven of the 41 officers killed in 2015 were specialists engaged in a designated “tactical situation.”)
Had the citizen who called Palm Springs PD (reportedly, the shooter’s mother) alerted dispatch about Felix’s threat to kill officers, and that he was armed with a rifle, the information would have certainly been passed on, and officers Zeregny and Vega would have undoubtedly chosen a different approach. But as their distraught chief later pointed out, the call came out as a “simple” family disturbance. Alas, if there’s a takeaway from this tragedy, it’s that little is “simple” anymore. The civilian firearms market has become so militarized that, regardless of how minor a situation might seem, it’s become imperative to probe every caller about possible threats, and particularly the presence of a weapon.
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Naturally, what’s important can’t always be gleaned over the phone. What else can be done?
- Some States and localities have gun purchase and/or registration databases that can be queried by name and address. While this wouldn’t have helped in Palm Springs (the killer’s weapon was supposedly stolen) it might have prevented the infamous Santa Barbara massacre of April 2014.
- Information about prior calls and outcomes is of course important. That’s why it’s imperative to collect everything that’s potentially useful, index it by name and address, and make it instantly available to patrol.
- Individuals with violent histories and those on probation and parole can be flagged. Entries should include an account of their past offending and whether violence was involved. (The Palm Springs suspect, a notorious gang member, had done prison time for a shooting. His brother is currently incarcerated.)
- Members of the public can be solicited for information about mentally disturbed family members.
One might think that in a time of Internet-connected cell phones and mobile data terminals cops no longer need rely on dispatch to warn them of possible risks. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Officers caught up in the hurly-burly of taking calls need knowledgeable, inquisitive souls with ready access to a wide range of information to help keep them safe, or as safe as possible. In this brave new world of ballistic threats, a robust, patrol-oriented information platform isn’t a luxury: it’s a pressing need.
7/2/22 Officers attempting to serve an emergency protection order in rural Kentucky were met with a barrage of gunfire as they approached the subject’s home. Six were wounded, three fatally. Lance P. Storz, 49, who allegedly raped the woman who sought the order, was reportedly lying in wait for police with a rifle and other firearms. He eventually surrendered. His town of residence, Allen, Kentucky, is too small to have a police force, so officers from nearby agencies were involved.
5/20/22 A Buffalo 9-1-1 dispatcher with eight years experience has been suspended and faces termination for reportedly hanging up on one of the TOPS employees who called in during the massacre. An assistant office manager said her voice was hushed because she feared being overheard by the shooter. But the dispatcher insisted she speak up, then hung up when she didn’t. “...Out of nervousness, my phone fell out of my hand, she said something I couldn’t make out, and then the phone hung up.”
1/24/22 On January 21 three NYPD officers responded to a 9-1-1 call from a woman whose 47-year old son had become violent. What they weren’t told, possibly because the dispatcher didn’t ask, is that Lashawn J. McNeil had a gun - a stolen .45 Glock pistol with a large extended magazine - and a criminal record. When two officers went into the back of the residence to fetch him he emerged and opened fire, mortally wounding rookie officer Jason Rivera, 22, and critically wounding his partner, Wilbert Mora. The third officer, who remained in the front, returned fire and critically wounded the shooter.
7/27/21 In Wasco, a town near Bakersfield, Calif., a 41-year old man armed with an AK-47 style rifle and a handgun opened fire inside his home. Neighbors called deputies and said occupants had been shot. Responding officers were fired on and took cover. Two SWAT members soon approached on foot. The shooter opened fire, reportedly through the windows, fatally wounding Deputy Phillip Campas, 35 and wounding his partner. Two other deputies sustained shrapnel injuries. Deputies shot and killed the assailant as he exited the home. His 42-year old wife and their 17 and 24-year old sons were found inside, all shot dead. A restraining order prohibiting the shooter from having guns was in effect.
8/15/19 A Philadelphia man who had served Federal prison time for being a felon with firearms fired repeated barrages at police serving a narcotics search warrant. Six officers sustained minor wounds. The suspect eventually surrendered. An AR-15 rifle and a handgun were recovered.
8/13/19 On August 12 veteran California Highway Patrol officer Andre Moye, 34, was shot and killed and two colleagues were injured when a convicted felon whom officer Moye pulled over for a traffic violation opened fire with an “AR-15 style” rifle. Their assailant was reportedly a gang member who had served prison time for an armed assault.
10/5/18 A 74-year old veteran and disbarred lawyer who bragged about his abilities with military-style rifles unleashed a barrage from “a high powered rifle” on officers serving a search warrant at his Florence, South Carolina residence. One officer was killed and six were wounded. Five citizens were also hurt. Police deployed an armored vehicle to extricate the injured. More
3/5/18 In the New York Times, an excellent, illustrated feature about the damage inflicted on the human body by ultra high-velocity projectiles such as those fired by AR-15 style rifles.
1/3/18 Douglas County, CO Deputy Zackari Parish was killed and four other deputies were wounded by a mentally troubled veteran and former lawyer who fired “more than 100 rounds” from a rifle before he was shot and killed.
3/19/17 The Cleveland 911 call-taker who failed to alert dispatchers that an armed person in a park was probably a kid with a toy gun was punished with an eight-day suspension. In 2014 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer who thought that his air pistol was a real gun.
11/5/16 A troubled middle-aged Iowa man used a .223 rifle to shoot and kill two Iowa police officers, one in Urbandale, the other in nearby Des Moines, during the early morning hours of November 3. Both officers were approached as they sat in their patrol cars, which were riddled with bullets.
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