MoCo law enforcement officers have discharged their firearms at people 25 times in the past decade.
Thursday, November 19, 1998
The story of Charles Vaughn''s death is now well-known in Monterey County. In May, armed with only a corkscrew, he was shot and killed by Seaside police who were assisting mental health workers take him into custody. Vaughn had schizophrenia and there was concern that he was not taking his medication, but he hadn''t broken any laws or bothered anyone.
The Vaughn case has become a rallying cry for rights advocates for the mentally ill. Advocates are concerned that the police''s lack of preparation to deal with a mentally ill man contributed to Vaughn''s early demise, just as this lack of preparation contributed to the death of a mentally ill man in Marina in 1992. Indeed, Vaughn''s family has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the city of Seaside, alleging in part that his death was unnecessary.
But should the Vaughn case also be a focal point for citizens concerned about police use of deadly force generally, not just in cases that involve mentally ill people?
A 1996 report by the State of California''s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) cites "poor tactics, poor judgment, overconfidence, complacency, and rushing in without a plan" as contributing to "the majority" of on-duty police officer deaths. It''s not hard to imagine that these same factors may also have contributed to public citizen injuries or deaths. But how often? And more importantly, does it happen locally?
To get a sense of the magnitude of the issue, Coast Weekly requested records from local police departments of incidents in which local law enforcement officers discharged firearms over the past 10 years. The results of our survey showed that by and large, the use of deadly force is an anomaly. A few cases were nonetheless disturbing, suggesting times in which officer force appeared to make a potentially violent situation worse.
Our research showed that in last decade, Del Rey Oaks reported no shooting incidents. Pacific Grove, Sand City and Carmel reported that there had been no incidents in which an officer shot at a person--only incidents in which an officer fired at an animal that was either dangerous or dying. Marina reported two cases in which officers shot at a person, Monterey reported four such cases, both Salinas and Seaside reported six, and the Monterey County Sheriff''s Department reported seven.
Of the incidents involving officers shooting at a person, there were at least three cases that, at least circumstantially, raise questions about the use of deadly force. One is the Vaughn case. According to police reports, officers chose to challenge Vaughn, repeatedly spraying him with pepper spray. Yet Vaughn''s only weapon was a corkscrew and, by virtue of his being on a roof, he was isolated from passer-bys. In a 1992 case, Marina police shot and killed Fidelino Pascua after they decided to break down the door of his bathroom to get at him. Police reports indicate that officers knew Pascua had a knife, and he was alone in his own bathroom.
Finally, there is the 1995 case of Alan Fettig. Seaside officers went to look for Fettig in the K-Mart parking lot after his wife called police to report a domestic violence concern. According to police reports, when officers found Fettig in his car, they had reason to believe he might be on drugs, and furthermore, they were concerned that he might have a weapon in the car. Police reports state that after Fettig refused to allow officers to search his car, Officer Sean Gillis forced the driver''s side window down and put his arm in the car to try to unlock the door. According to the reports, when Fettig rolled up the window, started his vehicle and began to drive away, Gillis was caught with his arm in the window and, to save his own life, shot and killed Fettig.
In all three of these cases, Monterey County District Attorney''s office investigations exonerated the officers involved, finding that they had acted within the bounds of the law because they shot while fearing for their own safety. In the Pascua case, the city of Marina also won a civil suit filed by Pascua''s parents. No civil suit was filed concerning Fettig''s death, although a district attorney report of the incident stated that the office did not "condone the risky maneuver employed by Gillis.
Perhaps even more problematic to civilians concerned about deadly force is the 1993 case involving 44-year-old Larry Cox.
According to Monterey police reports, officers were called to a convenience store on a report that a man was walking around with a rifle. According to police reports, Cox was getting into a cab with his rifle, when police arrived, and police subsequently followed the cab to a bar. Cox got out of the cab, entered the bar and then came back out within a few minutes. Police records show that it was at this point that officers ordered Cox to stop. Cox began to turn toward the officers and, by police report accounts, he looked to be leveling the rifle. Then police fired the bullets that would eventually kill him.
In his statement to the police (a statement included in police reports), the cab driver claims that it looked like Cox was trying to put the rifle down when police shot. Moreover, there is no record in the police report of Cox had threatening anyone with the weapon. He''d been in and out of a store, a cab and a bar with no incident, and police were later to learn that Cox had gone to the bar to meet someone he was intending to sell the rifle to. Police reports indicate that Cox''s blood alcohol content was .307--four times the legal limit for driving under the influence. Nevertheless, police reports state clearly that there were no bullets in Cox''s rifle.
Recently asked to comment on the Cox case, Monterey Police Captain David Fortune explained that the case did prompt an internal review of training policy and directives, and that the department concluded against making any protocol changes. An officer "can never make the assumption that [a gun] isn''t loaded," says Fortune. If an officer answers a call concerning an armed man, "his senses are going to be heightened and his anxiety level is going to go up."
Balancing the need for officer safety with the need for judicious use of force is perhaps the crux of debate about excessive force. A review of the local cases involving the use of such force in the past decade showed that a majority involved police officers being directly shot at or assaulted in some fashion.
For example, in a 1992 case, Salinas police records show that police were called to the scene of a man began breaking out the windows of a house. When an officer made contact with the suspect, he came at her with a broken piece of glass. In another Salinas case, when an officer stopped to cite a man for drinking in public, the man came at the officer and, in the course of a tussle, reached for a gun held in his waistband. In a Marina case, officers were in the process of searching for a suspect in a store robbery when the suspect began to fire on them from his car.
According to POST Special Consultant Mario Rodriguez, most incidents in which an officer must decide to shoot don''t leave time for careful deliberation. Rodriguez explains that most discharge situations show up "pretty unexpectedly" and that "most of the time you have no idea you''re about to use deadly force."
And POST''s data on officers killed in the line of duty reflects this immediacy. Nearly two-thirds of deadly attacks on officers in California occurred within two minutes of the officer''s initial contact with the attacker, and between 1990 and 1994, three officers were killed after encountering a suspect who appeared to be "completely calm." A POST report notes that "in all three cases, the suspect presented no perceivable threats before suddenly and brutally murdering the peace officers."
It''s not surprising then that police training emphasizes officer safety--specifically, teaching an officer to be ready to defend himself and to be ready to shoot. Less clear is whether that training is balanced with instruction about how to slow down or diffuse a situation when an officer has more that two minutes to react.
When asked about officer training generally, POST Public Information Liaison Tom Hood eagerly begins describing training simulations that involve "military gaming," and he launches into a discussion on how officers must make "judgment calls" in just a "split second" on whether or not to shoot. But when asked about whether officers are taught negotiation or other training that might help them diffuse a situation, his response is less enthusiastic, "To a certain extent."
Rodriguez''s response is similar. He notes that "we do include in our curriculum some information on what might be going on in suspects'' minds." But Rodriguez believes that the ability to slow down and diffuse a situation is "not something that...can be taught." There are just "too many variables," he concludes.
Although POST tracks and makes available data involving suspects assaulting officers, it''s very difficult to get information about officers who shoot at suspects. Nevertheless, Hood claims that litigation over shooting incidents is used to shape policy and police officer training.
Still, no one in the individual police departments or in city, county or state government offices we surveyed collects data concerning officer firearm discharges. Other than a police department''s own internal review, there is no routine mechanism for monitoring over time either an individual officer''s performance or an entire department''s.
The public''s ability to review police performance is also limited. Protected by the California Public Records Act, cops'' personnel records generally are not available for public review. Police reports of an incident are generally considered public information. But even this mechanism for public review failed in one Monterey case--a case for which reports crucial to understanding the factual scenario of a shooting are sealed in personnel files.
As a result of Charles Vaughn''s death, Monterey County citizens and police chiefs are now working together to find methods for taking mentally ill people into custody without resorting to lethal force. If these efforts succeed, mentally ill people and their families may feel more secure about how police will respond in times of crisis.
But Marina Police Chief Roger Williams remains unconvinced that there is a panacea for the use of deadly force. "People are going to die as long as they confront armed law enforcement officers," says Williams. "We still don''t have a very effective non-lethal way of taking people into custody." Neither does the public have a very effective method for reviewing police performance. cw
Additional research by Steven T. Jones.