How do we save more blue lives from being murdered?
Most of the killings tragically involve a definable list of deadly tactical errors
“We dishonor the fallen if we ignore the lessons that would have saved them.” — Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Commander Sid Heal (ret.)
On average, during the past year or so, one officer is murdered in the line of duty each week. The good news is the numbers are lower than a generation ago. The bad news is that the number is not zero.
Just within LA County over the past 44 years, I have attended many police funerals. Wherever you live, you may have had (or will have) that bitter experience. After the funerals, we must look beyond the grief. We must figure out what happened, and why. We must learn the lessons. And we must teach those lessons to current and future officers.
Focusing on how to save officers’ lives
Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley and former Head Deputy District Attorney Bob Schirn are on a mission to lower the tragic death count of officers murdered in the line of duty. They have published two books already with that goal in mind – “Blue Lives Matter: In the Line of Duty” and “Blue Lives in Jeopardy: When the Badge Becomes the Target” – with a third on the way. It has been my honor to write the lessons learned section for each chapter.
Some of the killings were ambushes. It is hard to fight against an ambush, whether in the military or on the street. But most of the killings tragically involve a definable list of deadly tactical errors.
What is most painful to me is that many of the recurring tactical errors are listed in the 44-year-old book “…officer down, code three” written by famed Los Angeles Police Department detective, the late Pierce Brooks, who moved on to be chief of police of Lakewood, Colorado. That book was worth a read when I was a rookie cop, and it’s worth a read now.
The “Blue Lives” books take a critical look at the tragedies, the prosecutions and the trials of suspects who survived. They focus on how the officer’s life might have been saved.
Here are brief descriptions of two cases from “Blue Lives in Jeopardy: When the Badge Becomes the Target,” the second book in the series:
- An officer was working alone patrolling a commercial area in the middle of the night, where there was little traffic or legitimate activity. He saw two men and a woman walking and elected to stop and investigate. He did not radio his location or the nature of the stop. He did not request a backup unit. Yet he initiated a frisk search of one of the subjects. For reasons we cannot know, the officer was either unaware of or allowed the killer and the killer’s girlfriend to approach within a few feet of where he was searching the other suspect. The killer then quickly closed in and killed the officer with one shot to the head.
- A deputy working by himself went looking for a violent felon who had shot somebody. But he did not communicate with the dispatcher or other deputies when he saw the suspect. The deputy chased him alone and knocked on doors to try to find him. Even then, he did not ask for backup. The suspect opened the door and shot him to death.
These are tragic but classic examples of what Pierce Brooks called “tombstone courage,” one of the 10 deadly officer safety errors he describes in his book.
Supervisors and peer officers often reflect after these cases that “everybody knew” about an officer’s work habits of ignoring policy and training and needlessly putting him/herself into dangerous situations (or not wearing a seatbelt, or overdriving, or unnecessarily cursing at people...any number of things that could be prevented by appropriate supervision and peer pressure).
At least a few cases have involved the failure of bosses to listen to the troops asking for better equipment. Ask LAPD Officer Archie Nagao. Facing three robbers armed with high-capacity semi-automatic handguns in a jewelry store, Archie killed one of the robbers but was shot through the neck while armed with just a six-shooter. His partner, Duane Curtis Johnson, was shot and died on the floor. Archie survived. It was December 19, 1984, in Chinatown. As a young sergeant, I happened to be the second unit at the scene. Sure enough, we got semi-automatic handguns after that, after years of asking for them. This case is detailed in the third book in the series, “Blue Lives Under Fire: Shootouts,” which is pending publication.
“Blue Lives Under Fire: Shootouts” will feature several shootouts involving the Los Angeles Police Department, including the 1974 Symbionese Liberation Army shootout and the 1997 North Hollywood bank shootout. It was a miracle no officers were killed during the latter event ‒ although several were shot ‒ when dozens of officers armed only with handguns and shotguns took on robbers armed with fully-automatic military rifles in a 44-minute gun battle that should have lasted less than 44 seconds. LAPD got police rifles for a lot of patrol cars after that.
The book also details shootouts involving individual officers who lost their lives or nearly did in one case. That one surviving officer was shot and flat-lined a couple of times but is alive because a doctor decided to give it one more try. It is the story of LAPD Officer Stacy Lim.
Off duty in front of her own house, having been followed home by a car full of gang members who wanted to steal her truck, Stacy was confronted and shot in the chest, wounding her heart and kidney and destroying her spleen. Before she went down, she managed to shoot and kill her would-be killer.
Stacy always told herself, “Today is not the day.” Thanks to her courage, physical conditioning and that mantra, that day was not her day. Lessons learned? Stacy chose to be armed off duty at all times, and that saved her life. And this lesson is pretty important: Stacy learned the hard way that when someone is pointing a gun at you, there is no time to give a warning. Stacy tried to give a warning, and she got shot in those split seconds. Thank goodness she lived to tell us about it.
The public and the media do not seem to understand that these facts of life and death confront officers every day. But many officers who are now dead in their graves know the dangers too late. And we must learn from them. That is the hard truth of these books.
How do we reduce these tragedies?
Great leaders stay ahead of the game. They provide proper policy, training and equipment needed before tragedy strikes. These leaders follow up to make sure their officers are doing the right thing on the streets, and they will correct them when they do unsafe things. Guiding, training and caring enough to provide correction when warranted goes a long way toward reducing these tragedies in our profession.
Steve Cooley and Bob Schirn are on a mission to lower the number of these tragedies. By writing frankly about the cases of peace officers murdered throughout LA County, and sharing the legal aftermath and the lessons learned, this book series can make a difference.
These books should be widely read in police academies, supervisor schools, by prosecutors and attorneys who defend police officers, by tactics trainers and by anyone who cares to learn how we can reduce the number of officers who are murdered.
Taken to heart, these books will save lives.