Insult to injury: CHP and the fatal shot to Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Helus

It’s critical that we ask and answer the questions that arise from this new information

No less a hero than the moment he entered the hail of bullets on the shots fired call at the Borderline Bar & Grill, officials now believe that Ventura County Sgt. Helus may have died from a fellow officer’s rifle shot to the heart, rather the five bullet wounds from the suspect waiting to ambush police.

The record released by the coroner’s office concludes that the attacker-inflicted wounds might have been survivable, but the bullet from the gun of a California Highway Patrol officer – who also heroically entered the active shooting scene – was fatal.

This tragic news on the heels of the Parkland shooting commission’s report and the discipline and resignation of Broward County (Fla.) sheriff’s deputies involved in the incident was another blow to law enforcement credibility to an already wary public and weary profession. 

The flag draped casket of Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Ron Helus arrives on stage for a memorial service for Sgt. Helus at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.
The flag draped casket of Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Ron Helus arrives on stage for a memorial service for Sgt. Helus at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (Al Seib /Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool)

In my experience, police officers react to the findings of investigations like these in one of two ways. They either distance themselves from the perceived mistakes of officers under fire by assuring themselves they would have reacted differently, better, more controlled and more heroic. Or officers engage in defending against critics, citing all the circumstances that justified the other officer’s actions. The public’s response is predictably closer to the first, writing a post-event script that the cops should have followed, without the facts and professional knowledge to interpret the officers’ actions.

There is a pressing argument that police actions that fail to save or harm innocents should be dealt with inside of the profession. The medical world, for example, seldom sees headlines related to the estimated tens of thousands of deaths from medical mistakes. Reviews are handled in house and quietly, in order to reduce future mortality by improved training and practice.

Why can’t law enforcement have the same privilege of privacy for review and improvement?

The answer is simply that cops are taxpayer employees with the power to immediately terminate life and liberty. The majority of police agencies are local, unlike the federal or military model of many other nations. We, as a people, have demanded a close watch on our armed government agents. This has helped preserve our freedom, even at the cost of often being an impediment to the policing.

The result of the harsh spotlight and demand for a timely response to tragic events creates political pressure. The public can be somewhat patient while waiting for an investigation, but every passing day increases suspicion and encroaches on election and budget cycles that ultimately govern police operations. Those with the most political capital at risk may be less concerned with real solutions than public relations and political theater.

What questions must we answer?

What police leaders and trainers want to know about Sgt. Helus’ death, and about what happened at Stoneman-Douglas High School, are lessons on human performance in chaotic conditions:

  • Are patrol rifles the best weapon for low light indoor gunfights?
  • Can the human ear discern direction and location of gunshots in urban environments?
  • Is the push toward single officer response a recipe for confusion for the next responding officers?
  • Is training so embedded that it can survive combat?
  • Can the human eye identify friend from foe under combat conditions?
  • Should patrol uniforms be more distinctive?

Instead of collecting the many questions that need answering, we argue about officers’ individual behavior when faced with a hellish nightmare of sensory overload that no scenario training can reproduce. Then we say we would have done it differently, our training is fine and our policies are sufficient. The public is mollified, the case is closed, and the men and women on the street go back to work with one more cloud overhead. Punishing an officer may be necessary, but merely finding a scapegoat is no way to improve processes and systems.

Yes, the public must be allowed to peer inside these events, no matter how distressing, embarrassing or unpleasant. But police leaders must redeem each and every death and injury, law officer and civilian alike, by looking for real answers after the press releases fade from the public’s memory.

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