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PD Editorial: What next? Discussing deadly force


<i>Editor's Note: This is the last in a series of editorials on topics we believe the community should explore in the aftermath of the Oct. 22 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy.</i><br>

One of the most confounding aspects of this tragic shooting is that it all happened in the course of 10 seconds.

According to the timeline released by Santa Rosa police, that was the amount of time that passed between the moment the two deputies arrived at the corner of Moorland and West Robles avenues on Oct. 22 and reported seeing a suspicious person with a rifle and the time they reported shots being fired.

But those in law enforcement know that the time to decide whether to use deadly force when confronted with a perceived threat is far shorter than that — more in the order of three-quarters of a second.

The question then is, how are officers trained to respond in that heartbeat of a moment? And moreover, how is that training communicated to the public — and particularly to teenagers — so as they can better understand the perspective of law enforcement when these confrontations arise, whether through misunderstanding or not?

Along with proposals for cameras on officers and civilian review boards for officer-involved shootings, this, too, requires greater discussion because, as the uproar over the Lopez shooting has demonstrated, there's a significant gap in understanding when it comes to how deadly force is and should be used.

Hollywood deserves some responsibility for this. If someone's knowledge of police work is derived solely from television and film, one can easily get the impression that officers only fire their weapons after being shot at multiple times. And then, upon returning fire, they usually dispatch the suspect's weapon with a single shot. In reality, as noted in recent Press Democrat stories, officers are trained not to fire second and not to fire to incapacitate, but to eliminate the threat if they feel their lives or the lives of their partner are in danger.

As Staff Writer Matt Brown reported recently ("Law officers are trained to take out threat, Oct. 26), experts note that training has evolved over the past two decades as mass shootings involving young males, such as the Sandy Hook shooting a year ago, have become more prevalent. Just the day before the Lopez shooting, a 12-year-old boy in Nevada shot and killed his teacher and wounded two classmates before turning the gun on himself. Whether that incident was on the minds of the two Sonoma County deputies that day is unknown. But what should be known is that officers are not only more on edge but are trained to be more aggressive.

In the past, officers were told to contain a gunman and wait for backup. Now they're trained to use more aggressive tactics and use deadly force if threatened, which makes establishing whether force was "excessive" all the more difficult.

In the 1989 landmark Graham v. Connor ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court defining reasonable force, the court found that an officer's intent is irrelevant as to whether the force used was excessive. "An officer's evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force," the court found, "nor will an officer's good intentions make an objectively unreasonable use of force constitutional." A primary factor cited by the court is "whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others."

At the least, this underscores the importance of communicating how officer training is changing. While no one can say for certain at this point whether Andy Lopez heard the deputy's orders in those critical 10 seconds, his death shows how much is at stake when someone is told to drop a weapon, even if they don't believe they're carrying one.

We're encouraged that the comprehensive plan of action approved by the Board of Supervisors last week includes internal reviews of county police training and operations, including policies for use of lethal force.

These deserve broader public review and discussion. And the public deserves more opportunity for input on how sworn officers are trained to make these life-and-death decisions — and what steps we can all take to ensure a shooting like this never happens again.