Whether you are a regular Joe or a law enforcement officer, the legal legitimacy of armed self defense is a matter of perception. You are allowed to act on what you think you see, instead of what is actually going on.
As a result of mistaken perception, two men of three men taken hostage by another armed with a knife were shot by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies as they fled an apartment, because the three deputies thought that the second man escaping was the armed suspect.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department killed a man earlier this week, mistaking him for an armed assailant. John Winkler, 30, was actually a victim of the assailant.
Winkler worked as a production assistant on Tosh.0, according to the Los Angeles Times. The sheriff’s department said in a statement that Winkler and another man were visiting a friend’s apartment. The friend’s roommate, Alexander McDonald, allegedly took the three hostage at knifepoint. Deputies were called to investigate. The door of the apartment opened and Winkler and another man, who was covered in blood, ran out. Because Winkler was “lunging at the back of the fleeing victim” and “was similar to the description of the suspect and was wearing a black shirt,” three deputies fired at him. He was not armed.
“It was a very quick exit from the residence,” interim sheriff John Scott told the Los Angeles Times. “The appearance was he was assaulting the individual in the front.”
Because of this appearance, Winkler was hit once. The other man, who has not been named, was also hit, even though deputies never mistook him for an assailant.
The latest statement conflicts with the sheriff’s department’s earlier statementabout the incident, which claimed that the other man was not hit. The LASD has not said why it took so long to figure out that its deputies shot two people instead of one. Another deputy told CBS LA that Winkler and the other man “aggressed the deputies.”
After shooting the two innocent men, deputies entered the apartment, found the actual suspect and arrested him. All four men involved ended up in the hospital.
When McDonald was released, he was charged with one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder and one count of torture. So far, the deputy who actually killed Winkler has not been identified nor charged.
If the description of what happened is reasonably accurate, this was simply a tragedy of perception. Deputies arrive at a location having been told that a man in a black shirt had hostages at knifepoint. A man burst through the door covered in blood, with a second man wearing a black shirt and matching the general description of the suspect hot on his heels. At least the first deputy fired because he presumably thought he was saving someone under imminent attack, and the other deputies either had the same thought, or gave in to sympathetic fire.
Law enforcement officers are generally given wider latitude than the general public and are less likely to face charges when perceptions are false, but the general theory holds the same for both. The recent incident of the father who shot his lying daughter’s boyfriend, thinking that he was an intruder, is an example of a member of the general public not being charged for shooting someone who wasn’t actually a criminal threat, but merely appeared to be one.
There are cases of bad shootings where people are clearly committing criminal acts, cases where people are negligent or incompetent, and cases like this where people have just moments to react to the best information their senses are feeding them at the moment. This is an obvious tragedy, but the deputies here were not at fault based upon what we know.