Posted 6/20/22

TENACITY IS GREAT – UNTIL IT’S NOT

An aggressive citizen, a dogged cop, and a tragic outcome

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     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. In 2014, after a decade-long stay in an African refugee camp, an eighteen year old Congolese youth accompanied his family to the U.S. But while his parents and siblings settled in Lansing, Michigan’s capital city, Patrick Lyoya soon relocated to Grand Rapids. He fathered two daughters, of whom little is known, and bounced between jobs.

     Along the way, he also drew lots of attention from the cops. According to Grand Rapids police, Mr. Lyoya amassed eight misdemeanor convictions in Michigan and, in Illinois, a felony conviction for aggravated drunken driving. A recent complaint by the mother of one of his daughters that he “punched her in the face and slammed her head into a car after she refused to let him take her new bedsheets” led to a warrant for domestic violence. MLive and WWMT reported that Mr. Lyoya had a prior conviction for that offense. Their review of criminal records revealed that he also had three convictions for drunk driving, plus convictions for unlawful use of a motor vehicle and driving on a suspended license, and was awaiting sentencing for a 2021 DUI that could involve prison time. As one would expect, Mr. Lyoya’s Michigan driver license had been revoked.

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     None of that was known to Christopher Schurr, the Grand Rapids police officer whose attention was drawn to the vehicle that Mr. Lyoya was driving on the morning of April 4th. Officer Schurr’s lawyer  would later assert that his client, who was patrolling alone, stopped the car because it was proceeding “suspiciously slowly.” That seems plausible, as according to the Coroner (yes, that’s how things turned out) Mr. Lyoya’s post-mortem blood alcohol level was .29, more than three times Michigan’s .08 limit.

     Officer Schurr quickly ran the plate. It came back to a different vehicle. Figuring that something was up – maybe the car was stolen? – he pulled it over. Mr. Lyoya promptly exited (he had a passenger, who remained seated). Officer Schurr walked up and promptly mentioned the mismatched plate. Mr. Lyoya didn’t offer an explanation. Neither could he produce the driver’s license that he said he had, as one didn’t exist. Caught in a predicament, he simply walked away. (For the GRPD’s montage of videos from the police car, the officer’s body camera, a residential camera and the passenger’s cellphone, click here. For our condensed, annotated version, click here. WARNING: they’re graphic!)

    At the time Officer Schurr didn’t know who Mr. Lyola was. And when he tried to stop the possible car thief from leaving, Mr. Lyoya resisted and ran off.

Lyoya2


Officer Schurr chased Mr. Lyola and radioed for backup. He also supposedly fired his Taser twice, but the probes evidently missed. He finally tackled Mr. Lyoya, then tried to walk him to the police car.

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Mr. Lyoya, though, kept struggling. Officer Schurr pulled his Taser, which he probably intended to use it in “drive stun” mode to gain compliance. But before he could, Mr. Lyoya grabbed the device.

Lyoya4


Officer Schurr repeatedly told Mr. Lyoya to let go. But he wouldn’t. In fact, he quickly gained full possession of the device. Officer Schurr again took Lyola to the mat. During their final struggle the cop pulled his pistol and pressed it against Mr. Lyoya’s upper body. And, within moments, fired.

Lyoya5


     He...fired?

     According to the autopsy, Mr. Lyoya died from a bullet that entered the back of his head. To his family, friends and, apparently, many others, what Officer Schurr did was an execution. We’re unaware of any policing expert who’s endorsed the shooting as the appropriate response. Several, though, have pointed out that the officer faced considerable risk from a strong, aggressive and seemingly determined adversary. Ditto the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association. In their view, a police officer “has the legal right to protect themselves and community in a volatile dangerous situation such as this, in order to return to his/her family at the end of their shift.”

     That’s the defense that Mark Dodge, the (now, former) cop’s lawyer has advanced. Alleging that Mr. Lyoya’s behavior gave the officer plentiful cause to believe that he was “in danger of serious bodily injury or death,” he pronounced the shooting “legally justified.” But Kent County prosecutors disagreed.  On June 9 they charged Christopher Schurr with second-degree murder, which Michigan defines as a “spur of the moment” act that’s either unplanned and intentional or caused “by a reckless disregard for human life.” Officer Schurr didn’t contest his proposed termination, and he was fired on June 10.

     We’re not convinced that murder charges are appropriate. Your writer recalls rolling around with an aggressive citizen on the porch of his home. Fortunately, a neighbor came to help, and handcuffs were soon in place. No one, though, stepped in to help Officer Schurr. Still, drawing the pistol seems a serious lapse in judgment, and the shooting is inexcusable. Officer Schurr could have jumped away and gained some distance. If he had in fact twice fired the Taser, it would be out of darts; if not, and Mr. Lyoya aimed the device at him, shooting could have been an appropriate response.

Lyoya6     Officer Schurr seemed clearly determined to subdue the large, frenzied man and “finish” the job on his own. Indeed, his temperament may not have allowed him to wait for backup.  During his seven years of service Officer Schurr earned a slew of commendations and received no significant demerits. According to a former Detroit police chief who reviewed his personnel file, Officer Schurr was a vigorous cop who consistently displayed initiative and determination. And a predilection for taking action:

    What I noticed is that he does a lot of stops. There’s a lot of commendations that are made and given to him by his supervisors (because) of the stops and what he recovers whether there’s guns or narcotics...There was nothing in his file that I saw in his file that said he was doing anything that was egregious or that he was doing any stops that were unwarranted.

     While Officer Schurr was definitely the tenacious sort, nothing that’s been revealed about his prior service suggests that he lacked self-control or misused force. He definitely doesn’t resemble the chronically misbehaving cops we discussed in “Third, Fourth and Fifth Chances.”Lyoya7 So why did he shoot? Grab another look at the last four images. (If you’ve got the stomach for it, click here for a video of those final few moments.) As they struggle – keep in mind, Mr. Lyoya now has the Taser – Officer Schurr draws his pistol and seemingly shoves the muzzle against Mr. Lyoya’s upper body. Perhaps he wanted his adversary to feel the gun’s presence, realize he could be shot, and give up. But Mr. Lyoya kept struggling. If the officer’s index finger was on or near the trigger, a jolt could have caused an unintentional discharge.

     That’s our best guess. Of course, police aren’t trained to use guns this way. But if that’s what Officer Schurr intended, the shooting seems much more a fit for involuntary manslaughter than murder.

     Mr. Lyoya was as determined a soul as the cop, but to opposite ends. Voluntary compliance wasn’t in his nature. He was on probation, by no means supposed to be driving, and the legal ownership of that vehicle was unclear (its license plate apparently belongs to a friend.) Being drunk can easily lead to bad decisions, and given his past and present legal baggage, he undoubtedly feared what would come.

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     Other than giving its participants personality transplants, what could have prevented that needlessly tragic ending? Grand Rapids has reportedly shifted to two-officer cars, at least for the time being. That Lyoya8can help. But it’s not a guaranteed fix. In June, 2020, two Atlanta cops tangled with an intoxicated man who was every bit as determined and combative as Mr. Lyoya (“Is it Ever OK to Shoot Someone in the Back?”) He was also shot dead. That came after he punched one cop, snatched his Taser (see image), and, during a foot chase, fired it at the other. And no, he hadn’t been fleeing from a crime scene. Rayshard Brooks fell asleep behind the wheel of his car in a Wendy’s drive-through, and employees couldn’t wake him. So they called police.

     Catastrophic street encounters (remember, um, George Floyd?) have seriously undermined the relationship between citizens and police. Natch, Police Issues has a “better idea.” Given the lousy decisions that human beings often make, and especially while they’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs, insistently trying to score a “capture” can yield, well, a corpse. In these fraught times, when voluntary compliance seems in particularly short supply, cops – especially, those working alone – should consider letting pesky citizens go. (“Backing Off” happens to be the title of a recent post. “Want Happy Endings? Don’t Chase” is another.)

     Mind you, we’re not suggesting that shooters, robbers or evildoers flaunting knives or guns be ignored. However, none of that applied to Mr. Lyoya. Once backup arrived, officers could have interviewed the passenger, impounded the car, and tacked their findings onto the naughty one’s bucket list. Instead, a man is dead, a city has been torn asunder, and a once-promising cop faces murder charges. Really, there is room for a “reset.” Sometimes both citizens and police need to be saved from themselves.

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Backing Off     Third, Fourth and Fifth Chances      Want Happy Endings? Don’t Chase

Is it Ever OK to Shoot Someone in the Back? (II)     Fair But Firm



Posted 1/4/22

WHO’S IN CHARGE?

An eager cop rushes in and opens fire.
He kills the suspect. And an innocent child.


     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. One cannot envision a more soul-crushing example of well-intentioned policing gone horribly wrong. On December 23, Daniel Elena Lopez, 24, a convicted felon under local supervision, pushed his bicycle into a North Hollywood Burlington clothing store where 14-year old Valentina Orellana-Peralta and her mother were selecting a dress for the girl’s forthcoming quinceanera. Wielding a lock and chain, Lopez rampaged around the store, prompting employees to call 9-1-1 and order customers to leave. Valentina and her mother apparently took cover in a dressing room. Within minutes a bullet fired by an officer pierced a wall and struck the youngster in the chest. She died in her mother’s arms.

     Let’s begin by using LAPD’s officer bodycam videos to describe what took place. (For the agency’s full, 35-minute compilation release click here. For our condensed, 8-minute version click here.)

     At the start of the 9-1-1 call, a Burlington employee reported that an intruder with a bike was assaulting people with a lock and chain. But another employee then mentioned – and confirmed when asked – that the man was armed and had fired a gun.

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     As it turns out, Lopez did not have a gun. During the early stages of his rampage, Lopez repeatedly swung the lock and chain, and its impact on walls and such may have sounded like gunfire. In any event, this incorrect, misleading and, one can imagine, highly disturbing information was passed on to responding officers.

     On arrival, a police supervisor spoke with a Burlington employee. The worker (his face is obscured in the video) said that the intruder had gone “pantless” (a store video shows Lopez stripping to his underwear) and was “smashing things around” with a bike lock. He said nothing about a gun, nor did the officer ask.

    
     Burlington’s in-store cameras depict Lopez’s arrival. Chain and lock slung over his shoulder, he wheels in a bicycle, takes it up the escalator, then dumps it on the ground. Customers take notice of the oddball and give him a wide berth.


Lopez walks around, flinging the chain at objects and at people. He then goes back downstairs, discards his trousers and briefly exits the store.

     Lopez quickly returns and rides the escalator back up to the sales floor. Employees had sought to evacuate the premises, but some customers apparently remained. Lopez spots one of the exceptions and attacks her with the chain. He then drags his victim through the aisles, pausing to inflict additional beatings.


     By then officers are already in the store. They begin closing in. But their formation is soon taken over by a latecomer, Officer Jones. His bodycam depicts him grabbing an AR-style rifle from a police car, bolting up the escalator, then imploring a moving column of cops to “slow down” so he can “take point with the rifle.” And he quickly does.


Officer Jones charges ahead. Unnerved by his aggressive tenor, a fellow cop yells at him to “slow it down.” But he doesn’t. And as Jones reaches the victim, who is lying on the ground, he’s beseeched  to “hold up.” But he doesn’t.


Jones instantly swivels and fires three shots, mortally wounding Lopez, who is at the end of an aisle (see opening image). Alas, one of the bullets pierces the wall behind Lopez and fatally wounds the child.

     LAPD and media sources have identified Jones as a regular patrol officer. His access to an assault-type  rifle, though, indicates that he’s received specialized training. So he must know that their projectiles exhibit highly lethal properties at great range, readily penetrating walls and other obstacles and producing massive, lethal wound cavities nearly anywhere they strike. We’ve discussed these fearsome ballistics in prior posts (see, for example, “Ban the Damned Things!”).

     Of course, modern police handguns are also quite powerful. A misplaced pistol round might have pierced the wall and caused injury. What’s concerning, though, is that officer Jones seemed determined throughout to respond quickly, and with force. Still, in a city where criminal gunplay is frequent, officers take unqualified admonitions such as “shooting just occurred” very much to heart. So if blame is to be assessed, some of it must fall on the shoulders of the Burlington staffer who incorrectly informed 9-1-1 that the intruder was armed and had fired a gun.

     Yet other officers may not have shared Officer Jones’ heightened degree of concern. Consider, for example, that the police supervisor mentioned above didn’t ask the employee with whom he spoke about guns or gunfire. It’s possible that other Burlington staffers had already told officers that they didn’t see a gun or hear any shots. Jones, though, joined a formation that had already assembled and entered the store. His late arrival may have deprived him of critical information and led to an exaggerated view of the threat that Lopez actually posed.

     That’s conjecture. What isn’t is that officer personality really, really counts. We’ve often written about confirmation bias. If officer Jones was  disposed to perceive the existence of threats and to act pre-emptively, this “bias” might have “confirmed” (in his mind) the severity of the circumstances that he  faced. And if Jones was on the impulsive end of the continuum, so much the worse. “Speed Kills” and “SWAT is a Verb” describe episodes in which poorly-informed, late-arriving officers jump in and make needlessly lethal decisions. Yet officer Jones is an Officer II, an ordinary, non-supervisory rank. So we’re surprised that a supervisor didn’t hold him back. And appalled that, given the weapon’s characteristics, a cop would “take point” (officer Jones’ words) indoors with an assault rifle.

     As it turns out, LAPD’s manual regulates rifle deployments. Here’s an extract from Vol. 4, pg. 2005, sec. 245.50 (UPR means “urban police rifle,” SSA means shotgun slug ammunition):

    The UPR and/or SSA shall only be deployed by a UPR or SSA certified officer upon approval from a supervisor. Each deployment shall be in accordance with Department policy, such as during a spontaneous field incident, and only when there is reason to believe a suspect is (∗) Wearing protective body armor; or, (∗) Armed with or has immediate access to a high-powered weapon which surpasses the capability of the weapons normally carried by field personnel; or, (∗) Armed and situated in a distant or fortified location which affords the suspect(s) a tactically superior position, in which the deployment of a UPR or SSA reasonably appears necessary to neutralize the threat posed by the suspect(s).

While these rules convey LAPD’s awareness of the “UPR’s” lethality, they make no distinction as to where it can be used. One reason might be that only its projectiles can be relied on to defeat the protection offered by ballistic vests, should a suspect be wearing such a garment. Lopez, though, wasn’t.

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     We don’t endorse addressing every possible issue with a rule. But the ability of projectiles fired by AR-15 type rifles to travel great distances and pierce obstructions in their path merits strict regulation of their deployment, including the supervisory “pre-approval” that LAPD seemingly requires. Or does it? Here’s the rest of that paragraph:

    Exception: When a UPR or SSA certified officer encounters an immediate life threatening situation which meets the deployment criteria and sufficient time does not exist to obtain supervisory approval, he/she may deploy the UPR and SSA without prior supervisory approval.

We don’t know whether officer Jones’ decision to bring the rifle was pre-approved. Ignoring colleagues’ objections, he rushed to the front of the line. Giving no warning, he wheeled and fired the instant Lopez came into view, as though positive that his quarry was armed.

     But he wasn’t. Officer Jones then learned that he had killed not one person but two. We can’t begin to imagine the impact of that discovery on Jones or his colleagues, nor of the torment that Valentina’s family and friends have endured. The alarm’s gone off. A serious change in police rules and practices is in order. This is a wake-up call that must not be missed.

UPDATES (scroll)

6/16/22  A “high-profile” lawyer, Ben Crump, is representing the family of Valentina Orellana-Peralta, the young teen who was killed by a police bullet that pierced an interior wall at a Los Angeles-area clothing store. Its intended target, Daniel Elena-Lopez, who had rampaged through the store, assaulting exployees and customers, was killed by another bullet. He had been mistakenly reported to be armed. According to the coroner’s autopsy, Elena-Lopez was under the influence of meth.

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.”

3/3/22  After three hours of deliberation, jurors found former LPD detective Brett Hankison not guilty of “wanton endangerment.” During his testimony, he explained that his allegedly wild barrage, which he fired into a window and a sliding door, was meant to neutralize the shooter who had just wounded his colleague as they served a search warrant at Breonna Taylor’s residence. “I thought I could put rounds through that bedroom window and stop the threat,” he said. But his bullets penetrated into another apartment occupied by a couple and their small child. One of the parents testified about their near miss.

2/22/22  Police gunfire that places innocents at risk is “under the gun” in Southern California. LAPD chief Michel Moore recently concurred with a finding by the Police Commission that an off-duty lieutenant violated policy by firing at a fleeing vehicle. Although one of its passengers had just shot a pedestrian, the officer was not considered in danger, and his bullets could have imperiled others. In another incident, a carjacking suspect pulled a gun as Sheriff’s deputies closed in to make an arrest. They fired as the man ran into a backyard, striking him multiple times. While he survived, deputies later discovered the body of a 67-year old man in the yard. He had apparently been shot dead, but by whom is as yet unknown. Per recent California law, State agents will investigate to determine if fault exists.

1/14/22  Questioning the adequacy of discipline imposed on LAPD officers who violate shooting policies, outgoing L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered a review of past episodes. Officer discipline, though, is constrained by the participation of citizens in conduct hearings, as they tend to side with the cops.

1/12/22  LAPD Chief Michel Moore announced that Valentina Orellana-Peralta’s killing and an increase in officer-involved shootings is leading to a deep examination of whether training and use of force policies are in sync. Officers opened fire 37 times in 2021, killing 18. That’s an increase from 2020 (27 shootings, 7 fatal) and 2019 (26 shootings, 12 fatal.) Of the 37 incidents in 2021, 22 suspects were armed with weapons other than guns. (For an analysis of shootings during 2016-2020 click here and go to pg. 145.)

1/10/22  LAPD, the Los Angeles Police Commission Inspector General and the California Attorney General have opened investigations into the killing of fourteen-year old Valentina Orellana-Peralta by an officer’s stray bullet. L.A.’s mayor, police chief and D.A. promised a comprehensive assessment “from training to tactics, policies and the incident itself.” A police union spokesperson said that the use of a formation and officer Jones’ taking the lead spot with a rifle is how an “active shooter” is addressed.



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Cops v. Assault Weapons     Regulate. Don’t “Obfuscate.”     SWAT is a Verb     R.I.P. Proactive Policing?

Informed and Lethal     Ban the Damned Things!     Speed Kills