The LAPD Doth Protest—And Shoot—Too Much

Christopher Dorner's truck
Christopher Dorner’s truck

It has been nearly 15 years since I carried a badge. In that time, I’ve been disheartened to watch police philosophy devolve in far too many places from one of service, sacrifice and selflessness to self-absorption and isolation from the public officers serve and represent. Officers who once understood and accepted the risk inherent in their chosen occupations, men and women who took seriously the responsibility of being under arms, now hold no principle so dear as finishing each shift unscratched, and have no qualms about doing everything and anything—or nothing—to see that happens. Worse, their supervisors and leaders not only allow, they abet this deadly conceit.

PJ Media contributor and LAPD Officer Jack Dunphy recently wrote of the aftermath of one of the bizarre incidents related to the February, 2013 Christopher Dorner murders and manhunt: the shooting of two innocent and entirely unthreatening Hispanic women delivering newspapers in Torrance, CA by eight LAPD officers who unleashed a fusillade of 103 rounds of handgun and shotgun fire at their pickup truck. Not only did they wound both women—who miraculously lived and quickly won a $4.3 million dollar settlement—they managed to shoot up seven nearby homes and nine cars.

Police detectives investigate a shooting incident involving a truck in Torrance

[Disclaimer:  I am also a PJ Media contributor.  My PJ media article archive may be found here.]

The occasion is the recent release of the official LAPD report on the shooting, and the obvious unwillingness of the LAPD to hold anyone accountable for the near-murders—but for the officer’s abysmal marksmanship—of two innocent women. Dunphy’s article is a surprising and alarming apology for all involved, from Chief of Police Charlie Beck to the judgment and shooting ability-impaired officers involved. My surprise and alarm is inspired by Dunphy’s departure from his usually professional policing philosophy. He begins with Shakespeare:

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, Shakespeare tells us.  And while the worries heaped on the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department may not rival those that kept Henry IV awake into the small hours, it’s safe to say that, some nights, Chief Charlie Beck does a good bit of tossing and turning before drifting off.

Beck was reasonably worried not only about Dorner and the safety of LAPD personnel and their families, but less reasonably about the politics of punishing officers. And while some police executives are far too quick and anxious to punish officers for the slightest honest error, it appears that Chief Beck can’t bring himself to punish officers that represent a clear and present danger to themselves, their fellow officers and the public. As you read, remember, these officers nearly killed two entirely innocent women and shot up a neighborhood in the process.

There is no question that Dorner was a madman and rabid killer:

In writing about it now, it’s difficult to capture the atmosphere of trepidation that pervaded the LAPD when it was discovered that Dorner had written of his desire to take revenge for his firing on the parties whom he, in his diseased sense of morality, held responsible. The department was all but paralyzed by the logistical demands of protecting all of the personnel determined to be at the greatest risk and their families. Beyond that, officers’ nerves were frayed by the thought that Dorner, tutored as he was on how the LAPD operates, and armed as he was with who knew how large an arsenal, might turn up anywhere in the city or even at an officer’s home and claim his next victim. He had written in his Facebook manifesto that he would extend his vengeance to the families of those with whom he held his grievance, and he showed himself to be true to this threat by selecting Monica Quan [daughter of a police captain turned lawyer that represented him at his termination hearing] and even her fiancé as his first victims.

Any competent officer knows that the world is full of murderers and sociopaths of all kinds, but this scene was set by the LAPD itself:

Patrol officers from the LAPD’s Hollywood Division were hastily assembled and sent to Torrance, Calif., in the South Bay section of Los Angeles County. It was in Torrance where there lived an LAPD captain who, by virtue of his being a member of the trial board that voted to fire Dorner, was considered to be one of his priority targets. The captain had in fact been specifically named in Dorner’s manifesto, and adding to the fraught atmosphere was the fact that someone believed to be Dorner had been seen at the captain’s house prior to the first two murders.

When two women drove into the neighborhood at about 5:30 in the morning on their daily newspaper route, officers engaged in an urban version of a b-grade war movie:

…this group of LAPD officers opened fire on two women, Margie Carranza and Emma Hernandez, who were delivering newspapers in the neighborhood and whose truck bore a resemblance to Dorner’s. Over 100 pistol and shotgun rounds were fired at the truck but, incredibly, neither woman was killed.  (Carranza and Hernandez later settled their lawsuit against the LAPD for a reported $4.2 million.)

wrong-make-model-color-dorner-shooting-police-state
Even the Internet found the LAPD’s decision to shoot up a random vehicle absurd.

One can only imagine the “atmosphere of trepidation” these two innocent women felt as LAPD bullets struck them. It is here that Dunphy begins to defend officers that made fundamental mistakes that but for the grace of God would have resulted in two murders. Their truck “bore a resemblance to Dorner’s” only in being a pickup truck. It was a different brand, a different configuration and a substantially different color than Dorner’s, and lacked the mass and outsized tires of his truck. In addition, the difference in appearance between Dorner—a very large and muscular black man—and the “two slightly built Hispanic women”—as Dunphy put it—could scarcely have been greater. Yet Dunphy felt that cooler heads should prevail in determining discipline, heads and hands that seem far too ready to pull the trigger and far too forgiving of those that do:

But Chief Beck was surely aware that a harsh punishment would have been poorly received by his cops, most of whom would admit, if only to themselves, that they may have been just as likely to fire on the two women as those who actually did. Indeed, there were those within the LAPD who said that the shooting, though clearly mistaken, was forgivable under the unique conditions that prevailed during the Dorner manhunt.

Even Dunphy seems to lack perspective and training:

These officers, mistakenly but not unreasonably, believed it was Dorner they were shooting at. I doubt if I, under the same circumstances, would have been so disciplined as not to empty at least one magazine.

Is Dunphy really suggesting those officers were justified in firing more than 100 rounds at any pickup truck carrying anyone that happened into that neighborhood because a LAPD bigwig lived there and he might—might—have been a target of a killer? Is he really suggesting that he too would have fired an unknown number of “me too” shots when one of his number opened fire for no reason? We pay the police to be far more disciplined than that, but Dunphy reports that Chief Beck has admitted that the officers “violated policy when they fired on the two women.”  One would hope he would admit at least that much. However, he also notes they will face nothing more than minor discipline and perhaps a bit of updated training:

In taking this action the chief acknowledged that the officers were clearly in the wrong in that they failed to identify their target before firing, but that under the circumstances the mistake did not warrant termination, demotion, or a suspension.

In evaluating the actions of the seven officers and one sergeant who fired on the women, the chief in his letter said that officers “with similar training and experience would not have reasonably identified an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury based on the same facts and circumstances, even in consideration of the misidentification of the truck and prior knowledge of the threat Dorner posed.”

Charlie Beck

Chief Beck has ironically identified the crux of the problem. Until recently, the standards for the use of deadly force—by everyone—were iron-clad and clear.  Only when the reasonable person is faced with the imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death to oneself or another may they use deadly force, and then, only sufficient force to stop the threat. The second the threat ends, the use of force ends.

There is no such thing as “me too” shooting. One may not, seeing someone else shooting, decide to join in, whether for fun, or for the noblest motives. Without being able to clearly and unquestionably identify one’s target—a specific target that is, that moment, putting them in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death—one cannot identify an imminent deadly threat, and therefore cannot shoot. There used to be no squirming around the point, no excuses, no exceptions. Now the LAPD—and too many other agencies—are carving out a law enforcement exception—an exception deadly to the public—an exception with which Dunphy seems comfortable.

Now police officers, at least LAPD officers, need not have a reasonable fear that they—or anyone else—is in imminent fear of serious bodily injury or death. Indeed, there need be no evidence of a threat of so much as possible future bruising. The mere sound of a newspaper hitting a concrete driveway—who knows? It might have hit an officer and bruised him—now seems to be sufficient cause for seven officers and one sergeant to “empty at least one magazine” not at a specific, threatening human target, but at a moving motor vehicle containing an unknown number of human beings: women? Children? Babies? The officers had no idea, but wildly shooting multiple surrounding homes and vehicles now appears to fall into the category of understandable and acceptable collateral damage.

What more must a police officer do to be worthy of significant discipline, to say nothing of criminal charges? Perhaps a day or two of suspension would have been appropriate if they officers killed the two innocent women, or murdered a citizen in one of the homes or cars they ventilated? Or would that too have been understandable, acceptable?

Basic marksmanship, fire discipline and the proper use of deadly force are basic concepts over which every police officer must demonstrate absolute mastery before they are allowed to leave their initial academy classes and field training program, before they are allowed to drive a police vehicle by themselves. Suggesting that these officers may be rehabilitated by means of a bit of retraining is missing the point in spectacular and dangerous fashion.

What professional officer can trust such officers? Not only did they demonstrate a lack of the most basic judgment necessary to function as police officers, they did it in a way that demonstrates that they are irredeemably dangerous, not only to themselves, but to their fellow officers and to the public.

The greatest damage is in the unilateral alteration of the social contract between the public and the police. No one expects police officers to be so timid as to allow killers to shoot them first before shooting back, and the law certainly does not require it. Every person of good will wants police officers to go home unscathed at the end of their shift. But they also need to know that police officers won’t panic and shoot up innocent women delivering newspapers while making the surrounding neighborhood look like a war zone.

The rule of law must apply to everyone. No citizen doing what those officers did should hope to escape decades in prison. No rational citizen should expect to escape the most severe consequences. 

Establishing double standards for the police is untenable, dangerous, and unworthy of the majority of men and women who knowingly undertake a dangerous and noble job. It endangers them—all of them—when citizens cannot reasonably believe that the police will not take them under fire for any reason, or no reason.

Faced with this case, Shakespeare might have observed that Dunphy, and others of similar disposition, doth protest too much, and to the detriment not only of the public, but the police.

Without genuine individual responsibility and accountability, there is no rule of law, for anyone.

Editor’s note: The newspaper delivery truck wasn’t the only vehicle mistaken for Dorner’s and shot up by the LAPD. They also shot up a Honda Ridgeline owned by a David Perdue, a “slight white man.” Prosecutors declined to prosecute the officer in this incident as well.

Police detectives investigate a shooting scene involving a pickup truck in Torrance