For once, let's tell the story of a wrongful police shooting from the perspective of the victims. A 71-year-old woman, Emma Hernandez, and her 47-year-old daughter, Margie Carranza, were out in the pre-dawn hours delivering newspapers. They would toss them from a Toyota truck onto the driveways of customers.
A year ago today, they were on their quiet suburban route when, without any warning, an LAPD officer aimed his revolver at the driver side cabin and fired a shot. Within seconds, 8 LAPD officers would fire a total of 103 bullets at their vehicle. "We are being shot at, we are being shot at!" the younger woman screamed. She would emerge unhurt. Two bullets hit her elderly mother in the back.
Miraculously, both women survived the barrage of bullets. And L.A. officials would approve a $4.7 million settlement to compensate them for the traumatic ordeal. Luckily, no one else in the neighborhood was hurt, although a civilian review reports that "the investigation revealed there were ballistic impacts located on seven homes and nine civilian vehicles, which consisted of both gunshots and shotgun pellets." They could've easily killed someone else, or one another.
A year would pass before these 8 officers learned their fate. In fact, it was just announced this week. The LAPD agree they violated policy. Their punishment? Retraining.
Press accounts have mostly recounted the incident from the perspective of the eight officers, following the lead of reports by L.A.'s civilian police commission and LAPD chief Charlie Beck. Every one of the officers presumably feels awful about their mistake. And it's easy to feel sympathy for them, hearing the story as they experienced it. The wrongful shooting took place as fugitive Christopher Dorner roamed greater Los Angeles trying his damnedest to kill police officers and their families. If all of these officers felt anxious, fearful and on edge as they guarded the house of a Dorner target, who can blame them? Who wouldn't feel that way, watching a vehicle with tinted windows slowly creep up the street toward them?
I'd gladly buy them a beer (as long as they left their guns at home).
And I can't help but find the decision to redeploy all of them with firearms on the streets of L.A. unacceptable. Here's the Los Angeles Timesreporting on the decision:
Eight Los Angeles police officers who violated department policy when they mistakenly opened fire on two women during the hunt for Christopher Dornerwill be retrained and returned to the field, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said in a department-wide message Wednesday. The message, sent on the LAPD's internal computer network and obtained by The Times, notes his disapproval in the actions of the seven officers and one sergeant. "While I understand supervisors and officers were required to make split-second decisions regarding the perceived threat presented before them I found it to be very concerning that officers fired before adequately identifying a threat; fired without adequately identifying a target and not adequately evaluating cross fire situations," Beck said.
Tellingly, Beck presents his actions as if he needs to defend himself against the notion that he treated these eight officers too harshly rather than not harshly enough. And that suggests LAPD culture doesn't take mistakes of this kind seriously enough.
Virtually every time a police officer is confronted with a decision about whether to use lethal force, the situation is highly stressful by definition. Good training can mean the difference between the best possible outcome and a preventable tragedy. But calm under pressure and split-second judgment can't just be taught to everyone. Even with excellent training and the best of intentions, some people are going to fail to perform when they believe themselves to be in danger of being killed.
Before being put in a situation where an officer fears for his life, it is very difficult to know for certain how he or she will react, any more than you can know how a rookie field goal kicker will perform when the game is on the line, or how an American Idol contestant will perform when first signing on national television.
But people who crack under pressure can be weeded out after the fact.
Among professionals, the stakes are highest when police officers are performing under pressure. Yet they seem to get more second chances than folks in other high-pressure professions, even after the most monumental screw-ups. Let's focus on Officer A, the one who shot at the truck first, and what we know about how he performed in an unusually high-pressure moment. He mistook a newspaper landing on a driveway for a gunshot. He reported seeing the flash of a muzzle coming from the Toyota truck, when in fact there was no flash, because there was no gun in the women's truck. He fired into a vehicle without being able to see the occupants inside. And he believed the truck belonged to Dorner even though it was a different make and color. Is more training capable of remedying all that went wrong? There's no way to know for certain, but I fail to see why we're gambling on that outcome, especially when the trauma of the incident itself could affect his mindset and judgment if Officer A again faces a split second decision. Every police officer is a bet. Officer A is a bad bet to deploy with a gun.
Let's say his re-training is complete.
If you were an L.A. homeowner who heard a potential burglar in the backyard, would you hesitate to call the police if you knew that Officer A would be dispatched? How much would you pay to have them send a different officer instead?
I want to emphasize that I'm not saying Officer A is a bad person.
Maybe what happened that night was a fluke, and Officer A will go on to perform gracefully under pressure for the rest of his career. I hope so. But isn't the public likelier to be better off if he were re-assigned to do police work that didn't involve carrying a gun and making split second judgments about whether or not to use lethal force? It isn't that he should be condemned, or made a villain, for the mistake of his career. If put in a police uniform, any one of us might perform even worse. In his own way, Officer A was himself a victim of Dorner and his actions. But there's a difference between sympathizing with someone's mistake and deeming him the best person to employ carrying a gun in high stress situations.
Some months ago, writing about other instances of police officers shooting (and in that case killing) an unarmed innocent, I wrote that I'd like to see this rule adopted: if you shoot at someone who turns out to be unarmed and innocent of any crime, you never get to work as an armed officer patrolling the streets again. It's automatic. I'd actually amend the rule and give reprieve to police officers who are last on the scene, are misinformed by colleagues, and start joining their gunfire. Perhaps some of the 8 officers who fired on the women in the Toyota acted defensibly.
The general point still stands. Even good officers can make mistakes. But the best evidence we have of someone's skill in these impossible-to-simulate, life and death situations is how an officer performs in the rare instances when they occur. Would my standard occasionally result in the removal of an officer who'd excel if left in place? Sure, but it would also likely reduce the incidence of innocents shot or killed by raising the cost to officers and signaling that there isn't ultimately anything that fully excuses the mistake. Officers tempted to object should think of it this way: The public isn't saying it's certain the officer is incapable. It is erring on the side of public safety to preempt a perceived threat. In that sense, any officers who lost their guns would be policed just as they policed others.
Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.