Are Today's Cops Too Quick to Shoot?

When unarmed civilians are killed, questions arise over how law enforcement officers are trained to deploy deadly force. 
Outrage has erupted in Santa Rosa, California, where Andy Lopez was shot and killed by Sheriff's deputies in October (Noah Berger/Reuters). 

"The deputy's mindset was that he was fearful that he was going to be shot," said Santa Rosa Police Lt. Paul Henry in a news conference, after a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was carrying a pellet rifle in northern California late last month. According to the Sheriff’s department, two deputies first saw the boy holding the plastic gun that resembled an assault rifle on a routine midday round. Federal law requires replica guns to have an orange tip, but the toy rifle Lopez held was missing one. The deputies kneeled behind their patrol car’s doors and shouted to get his attention. As Lopez turned in response, Deputy Erick Gelhaus fired his weapon, hitting Lopez seven times and killing him at the scene.

A teenager holding what appears to be an AK-47 may very well be an alarming visual, and a regular citizen would understandably be frightened and react accordingly. The question now being asked, however, is whether Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran of the Sheriff’s office, a firearms training expert, and a uniformed law enforcement officer entrusted with a gun, should have proceeded with greater caution.

Andy Lopez’s death grabbed national headlines and left a community dazed and in despair, with hundreds rallying in front of the Sheriff’s headquarters in Santa Rosa on Tuesday. The uproar surrounding the tragic death of a young teen is likely what prompted the FBI to launch an investigation into the incident, a review that is very rarely afforded to police officer-involved shootings. Andy Lopez is hardly the first unsuspecting civilian to die at the hands of an officer in uniform, and given the culture of police camaraderie and the protections often furnished to law enforcement officials in use-of-force incidents, he will likely not be the last.

Police-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents are on the rise in cities all across the nation—everywhere from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Milwaukee. In some cases, the growth is striking. In Philadelphia, for example, shootings by police officers rose to the highest level in a decade in 2012, despite the decline in violent crime. It’s hard to know how to interpret the differences in data from year to year: factors like underreported data in previous years and the dearth of national data of civilian deaths by police must be considered.

But police officers who don’t hesitate to draw their guns and shoot in a pinch can be found in cities all over the U.S., as recent cases have shown. Even before Lopez’s death, the issue was in the public eye. In the frenzy of the Christopher Dorner pursuit, LAPD officers mistakenly opened fire on a truck that didn’t at all match the description of the vehicle in question.The two innocent women inside, who were carrying newspapers, were injured from the gun shots and broken glass. Last month, an unarmed man named Jonathan Ferrell was shot to death by police officers in North Carolina while he sought help after being injured in a car crash. Also in September, an unarmed mother in a vehicle on Capitol Hill was fatally shot by DC police after ramming a security checkpoint and striking a Secret Service officer with her car.

The Feds have taken notice. In Las Vegas, for example, following an investigative series on the LVPD by the Las Vegas Review Journal, the Department of Justice conducted a federal civil rights probe, necessitated by “the lack of accountability” in the department. The DOJ cited inconsistent training and tactical errors amongst the 75 findings and recommendations it issued.

Groups like the Stolen Lives Project and the National Police Accountability Project (NPAP), an undertaking of the National Lawyers Guild, are working to demonstrate that this “lack of accountability” isn’t unique to cities like Las Vegas. Members of the Stolen Lives project collect and document news and information about people, like Ramarley Graham from the Bronx, who they feel lost their lives to police officers’ abuse of authority and use of excessive or unwarranted deadly force. Graham, an unarmed 18 year old who was gunned down by NYPD officers who followed him into his parents’ home and shot him at close range, is one of the 21 documented people killed by the NYPD last year. The groups raise questions about underreported or overlooked cases of police brutality, and stress that police misconduct is going unchecked by the justice system.

One question such groups are increasingly posing is whether the lack of consequences for officers involved fatal shootings may be sending the wrong message to future law enforcement agents. Officers who fatally shoot a suspect or even an unarmed civilian are overwhelmingly cleared of wrongdoing following a standard internal investigation of the incident. In New York, for example, no on-duty officer has been indicted for such a shooting since 2007. In Las Vegas, while an investigation found that many of the 378 shootings since 1990 could have actually been avoided, they have each been deemed justified, and no officer has ever been fired because of an on-duty shooting. In Los Angeles, even where the police department has been operating under external oversight, in almost all of the 90 incidents of weapons being fired in a three-year span, the Police Chief found that the officers involved acted appropriately. Normal procedure for police departments usually dictates that an officer involved in a shooting is suspended, sometimes with pay, while an investigation is ongoing. In most cases, the officer returns to duty after the suspension.

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Uzma Kolsy is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Nation, and Foreign Policy.

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