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One-on-one in the backyard

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by Columnist Greg Meyer
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A true story recently ended in a county jurisdiction with a reputation of being very favorable toward law enforcement:

It was a gun-burglary crime involving a suspect who had a record for assaulting officers. A long, dangerous pursuit. A cold, dark night. A minor crash. And the foot chase is on.

You’re in plainclothes. You have your gun and handcuffs. But no pepper spray or TASER. Your back-up officers are closing in. Or so you think.

Over the fence you go. In the dimness you see the suspect trying to get over the next fence. But he falls. You’ve got him at gunpoint. He gives up. Or so you think.

He gets up, but only into a crouch. You see his hands, empty but near his waistband, then near his ankle. He won’t stand up. He won’t lie down.

“Hey, come on, officer . . . can we just talk about this?” The suspect is trying to take the advantage. You know your reaction time will be slower if you’re talking, slower if you’re thinking about how to answer him.

He remains crouched, but edges forward. You back up. And you’re still by yourself.

You size him up. You’re about evenly matched.

You command him to stop, to lay down. He ignores you, and keeps talking, and keeps drag-stepping toward you.

You’re backed up against a fence. Nowhere to go. Through your training, you are aware that officers have been disarmed and shot with their own weapons in such encounters. You’re running out of options.

“Lay down on the ground! You take one more step forward, I will shoot you!”

He lunges.

You shoot, one round.

He goes down, you handcuff him; he has no gun.

Of course, your back-up officers finally make it to the backyard at that moment.

The guy is wounded. He later tells investigators he was on a seven-day meth binge. He gives three different stories about what happened in the backyard, all of which make you out to be a paid assassin.

You give one version. You’ve always been truthful, including now. Your shooting is obviously justifiable. So you think.

So the District Attorney files criminal assault charges, felony level. Against YOU!

For the next two and a half years, your life is upside down. What about your family? What about your house? What about your job? What about your pension? What about being a cop in jail if you are convicted?

Your lawyer contacts Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Research Center and me to be your expert witnesses. We submit our reports in mid-2006, with opinions that the shooting was reasonable under the law (Graham v. Connor).

Fact: According to the FBI, many officers have been murdered in the United States while making arrests when alone. Frequently, officers are murdered with their own weapon when they are attacked and overpowered by suspects:

Killed With Own Weapon: In the United States, in the 10-year period 1995-2004, the FBI reports that 54 law enforcement officers were murdered with their own weapon, representing 9 percent of the total 594 officers (of which 531 were on-duty and 66 were off-duty) who were murdered.

Killed While Alone: In the United States, in the 10-year period 1995-2004, the FBI reports that 213 law enforcement officers were alone when they were murdered, representing 40 percent of the total 531 on-duty officers who were murdered.

Killed By Firearms Within 5 and 10 Feet of the Assailant: In the United States, in the 10-year period 1995-2004, the FBI reports that 268 officers were murdered within 5 feet of their assailant, and 107 were murdered within 10 feet of their assailant. This represents nearly 3 out of 4 (or 71 percent) of ALL officers murdered by firearms (545) for which investigations were able to determine the distance between the officer and the assailant.

Killed While Making Arrests: In the United States, in the 10-year period 1995-2004, the FBI reports that 157 law enforcement officers were murdered while making arrests, representing 26 percent of the total 594 officers who were murdered. Of those 157 officers murdered while making arrests, 21 (or 13 percent) were murdered in arrest situations involving burglary suspects, including chasing or pursuing burglary suspects.

[Source: Annual FBI report, “Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted, 2004".]

The District Attorney is not impressed. He doesn’t budge.

But, fate rears its head, and in November 2006, a new District Attorney is elected. He reviews the case. He throws the charges out a month before trial is to begin. Nice save.

I received the following in an e-mail from the involved officer:

    “I wouldn’t even know where to start; the emotional rollercoaster it has been for the two and a half years has taken its cost both financially and emotionally. This last week has actually been more difficult as it’s hard too handle when you’ve been in a certain mindset for some many months and over night it changes.

    “I have never lost focus on what’s been the most important thing that is I can see my daughter’s smile each and everyday and be thankful. Boy could it have been different.

    “I’m hoping for sake of sanity, that I’ll be able to guide other officers experiencing critical incidents to overcome some of the fear and help them through difficult times.”

As usual, such incidents raise more questions than answers.

Chase someone by yourself? Happens all the time.

Pepper spray or TASER someone who is resisting, but may have a gun? Tough call, needs dynamic training and practice, and preferably a back-up officer prepared to use lethal force. Best to have all options on your belt, all the time.

Go hands-on with the guy? Re-read those FBI stats.

I never figured out what caused the original District Attorney to regard this as a criminal matter.

I do know that this officer is alive.

And there’s a message in that.

Greg Meyer, a retired Captain from the Los Angeles Police Academy, served for 30 years, including eight years as a commanding officer. Greg is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Force Science Research Center, a member of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).