When officers choose not to shoot

More often than not, officers find ways to de-escalate potentially lethal situations

POULSBO — With 24/7 news coverage about officer-involved shootings — not to mention the fictional body count racked up by TV and movie cops — there can be a public perception that all real-life law enforcement officers are trigger happy.

“How do we begin to address the mother who’s afraid of her child being shot and killed by the police?” asked Bremerton Police Chief Steve Strahan.

Since 2010 in Kitsap County, there have been five cases of law enforcement officers employing deadly force. In three cases, the suspects died of their wounds. In one of those three, the suspect committed suicide after first shooting his underage girlfriend and wounding two officers.

More often than not, Strahan and others say, officers find other ways to de-escalate potentially lethal situations, in some cases not using lethal force when they would have been justified doing so.

“It all comes down to a matter of training, human judgment and interaction,” he said.

Under Washington law, 9A.16.040, in order to justify the use of deadly force, a “law enforcement officer must have probable cause to believe that the suspect, if not apprehended, poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or … to others.”

Every law enforcement officer in Kitsap County has been trained in crisis intervention, Strahan said, and he and his counterparts in Poulsbo and the sheriff’s department believe their officers fire their weapons only as a last resort.

The problem, they admit, is that most of their evidence is anecdotal.

Police departments in Kitsap County and the county sheriff are required to keep statistics of when officers shoot or are shot at. In the past, they haven’t kept records of times when officers might have been legally within their rights to use deadly force but found another way to defuse the situation.

“We don’t always track those incidents,” Strahan said. “Maybe we should start.”

Someday, they may not have a choice. Next year, the FBI will launch a pilot project that will create an online national database of deadly and nonfatal interactions between the public and law enforcement, the U.S. Justice Department reported.

Kitsap County sheriff’s spokesman Deputy Scott Wilson said he already plans to start tracking such incidents, and incoming Poulsbo Police Chief Dan Schoonmaker has indicated he plans to do so also. However, like other law enforcement professionals, they stress that well-trained officers seek nonlethal means to de-escalate a potentially deadly situation as a matter of course.

“Avoiding the use of deadly force is not going above and beyond — it is what officers are trained to do, and what they do each and every day,” the Los Angeles Airport Police Officers Association noted. “Law enforcement training and policies developed over decades are already centered on the principle that lethal force should be a last resort; officers are taught to quickly and accurately assess potential threats and de-escalate situations wherever possible, only using deadly force when they reasonably believe it’s necessary to defend themselves or someone else from imminent death or severe bodily harm.

“All this can happen in the blink of an eye — studies show that officers have a quarter-second to recognize a lethal threat, another quarter-second to draw their gun and .06 seconds to pull the trigger before it’s too late. While injuring or killing another human being is the last thing officers want to do, they need to be able to act promptly and decisively when the need arises.”

Thus, when, in 2015, the Los Angeles Police Department created a “Preservation of Life” medal for officers who found ways to de-escalate potentially deadly situations without the use of deadly force, it was criticized by some police associations.

“Announcing the medal’s creation last November, Chief [Charlie] Beck explained that he wanted to ‘recognize the many times that Los Angeles law enforcement officers are able to save lives by their restraint,’” the Los Angeles Airport Police Officers Association stated.

“Highlighting such lifesaving work is an understandable impulse when media and politicians seem eager to paint all police as brutal, racist oppressors who shoot citizens at the slightest provocation … [But] why the need for a new medal?…

“Offering an award for not injuring or killing citizens insultingly suggests that without such an incentive, police would have no reason not to shoot first and ask questions later. By definition, it implies that preserving life is a rare act worthy of special notice, when in fact it is the overriding goal of those who dedicate themselves to protecting and serving the public good.”

Hesitating can also put the officer’s life at risk. Last month, a female Chicago police officer was severely beaten by a man high on PCP. “She thought she was going to die,” Chicago PD Superintendent Eddie Johnson said. “She knew that she should shoot this guy, but she chose not to, because she didn’t want her family or the department to have to go through the scrutiny the next day on national news.”

When officers chose not to shoot

Case No. 1

Just before 9 p.m., Dec. 26, 2013, 9-1-1 dispatched South Kitsap patrol deputies Andrew Aman and Greg Rice to investigate a burglar alarm at an Animal Clinic in Port Orchard. There was no indication of forced entry and when Michael Alberts, the owner, arrived and he and the deputies began a walk-through.

Going through the back room, Mr. Alberts noticed something strange. “there’s something in that dog cage covered with a blanket,” he said. The deputies pulled the blanket away — and discovered a burglar wearing a ski mask and carrying a semi-automatic pistol in a holster on his belt.

They told him to come out with his hands in the air.

The burglar reached for his gun.

The deputies chose to disarm the suspect and grappled with the desperate suspect in the cage.

“Despite the employment of force, including strikes and holds, the suspect continued to fight without let-up. Control of the suspect’s arms and hands was paramount, but difficult in a confined space,” the report said.

Even after they managed to take the gun away, the suspect continued a frenzied struggle. Ultimately, it took additional officers to subdue him.

For their actions and professional restraint in a lethal force environment, Deputies Rice and Aman were awarded the department’s Medal of Courage.

Case No. 2

At 11 p.m. March 5 2016, Deputy Ben Herrin responded to a report of a naked man causing a disturbance at a apartment complex on Highway 3 near Gorst. The man was breaking into cars and running out into traffic.

When the deputy attempted to stop him, the suspect attempted to club Herrin with a large metal flashlight that had fallen on the ground during the struggle.

Ultimately, it took five deputies five minutes to restrain the thrashing, sweaty, raving man who told the officers that his last name was “SpongeBob SquarePants.” The man and all of the deputies suffered minor injuries; Herrin was transported to the hospital with a possible fractured hand. Concerned about AIDS, the bloodied deputies were relieved when the suspect’s bloodwork came back negative for HIV.

Case No. 3

About 5 p.m. March 29, 2015, deputies responded to a 9-1-1 call to do a welfare check on a man in East Bremerton who was threatening to kill his estranged wife and then himself with a 9 mm handgun he had purchased the month before. The officers secured a perimeter around the house, then telephoned the man and told him to surrender.

The suspect hung up on them and began to yell and scream, telling the officers to shoot him, that he “wanted to commit suicide by cop.”

A safety and operations plan was developed.

By 8:30 p.m., SWAT had been called out and a search warrant secured. “The suspect said the situation tonight was going to end in one of two ways, either by him killing himself or law enforcement having to kill him” the incident report states. Negotiators attempted to talk the suspect out for hours, but he refused. His daughter, with whom the man was close, spoke to him at length.

Still, he refused to come out and surrender.

At 10 p.m., the street was closed and a bomb robot was used to breach a patio door and a canister of tear gas was fired into the residence. The suspect fired his gun out a window and started yelling again.

The robot moved through the house and found the man hiding in a bathroom seated on the toilet, still holding the gun in his hand.

More gas. This time, the man finally set down the gun and came out of the house.

The siege had lasted almost seven hours.

Case No. 4

About 4:15 p.m. June 22, 2014, a naked, hysterical woman ran into a couple’s home in Port Orchard, sobbing that she had been beaten and held hostage by the man next door. She told 9-1-1 that the man, an ex-boyfriend, had a gun. When deputies arrived, she told them she had been punched in the head “at least 20 times” and strangled her until she blacked out, according to the report. A friend of the assailant’s refused to help her and kicked her in the head.

When the boyfriend went to go get his gun, she managed to escape. She was later transported to Tacoma General Hospital due to bleeding on her brain, the report states.

With SWAT on the scene, the assailant’s friend gave himself up. He told deputies the man had a 9 mm and a .45 cal. pistol as well as body armor.

The man started firing his guns; at least 15 shots sprayed the area, hitting other houses, but no officers or civilians were injured.

Later, the man came out on the front porch and laid down the guns with his right hand, keeping his left hand concealed behind the door. Then he retrieved the guns quickly and slammed the door. A half-hour later he came out again, with both guns pointed at his head.

At this point, the bomb robot, which was positioned at the foot of the porch stairs, sprayed him with tear gas. The suspect ran back inside, moaning, screaming, coughing, and finally surrendered, coming out of the house with his hands up and empty.

Not one officer had fired a gun.