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What Happens After the Police Shoot Innocent Bystanders?

When the wrong person catches a bullet from a government-issued gun it’s often assumed that such collateral damage is unavoidable.
November 26, 2013, 8:06pm

On Wednesday, a judge ordered the city of Torrance, California, to release the name of the police officer who shot at surfer David Perdue during the February manhunt for former LAPD cop Christopher Dorner, who at the time was out to murder as many of his ex-colleagues as he could. At the time the officer came after Perdue, Dorner had already shot two sheriff’s deputies, killing one, and gunned down the daughter of a LAPD officer and her boyfriend.


Fearful that Dorner might go after a local LA police official next, Torrance cops pulled over Perdue on February 7, asked him a few questions, then let him drive away. A few seconds later a second cop car rammed his truck, and an unnamed officer fired three shots, all of which (thankfully) missed. Perdue’s attorney also alleges that he was dragged from his vehicle afterwards. Dorner, by the way, was black and Perdue is white.

Perdue wasn’t the only victim of the police and their sudden inability to see color during this manhunt. A pair of newspaper carriers—47-year-old Margie Carranza and her 71-year-old mother, Emma Hernandez—were fired on by LAPD officers that same day because their pickup truck apparently looked like vaguely like Dorner’s. That incident provoked a backlash against the LAPD after Hernandez was hit in the back twice and her daughter suffered a hand injury. In fact, Torrance police said they were responding to the report of these mistaken shots when they fired on Perdue. The mother and daughter received a combined $4.2 million from the LAPD for their troubles, while Perdue has refused to settle with the city for the $500,000 they offered him.

Sometimes when police shoot bystanders, it’s not quite as embarrassing as mistaking a white man or two hispanic women for a black male fugitive—and often, victims have a harder time getting compensated for their pain and suffering. According to a recent New York Times piece, wounded civilians in New York have a particularly hard road to travel when they sue the NYPD. As with many other errors made by the police, when the wrong person catches a bullet from a government-issued gun it’s assumed that such collateral damage is unavoidable. “The state’s highest court has recognized that police officers’ split-second decisions to use deadly force must be protected from this kind of second-guessing,” a city official told the Times. That’s apparently true even when it comes to the 2012 incident at the Empire State Building when NYPD officers shot a gunman but managed to injure nine bystanders in the process. Some of these civilians have sued New York City, but the city government is so confident in its position that it isn’t even offering settlements in those cases.


Sixteen people have caught in NYPD crossfires over the past two years, and the city has paid $18 million for similar cases in the past decade—but those payouts mostly came from older incidents. The NYPD is generally insulated from lawsuits filed by bystanders thanks to a 2010 decision by the New York State Court of Appeals that ruled police weren’t negligent when they fired at a robbery suspect who had previously fired at officers even though two bystanders were injured.

However, two women who were injured by NYPD bullets during a confrontation with a disturbed man on September 16 might have a chance to get the city to admit wrongdoing. In that incident, a man who had been walking into traffic near Times Square was fired upon by cops when he acted like he had a gun. That decision is pretty suspect, considering they were in the middle of a crowd and no weapon had been spotted, but if one of the women follows through on her threat to file a lawsuit, she'll still face a tough battle from city attorneys.

No one expects cops to be perfect, especially when they are in life-or-death situations. But firing on unidentified vehicles, as the police did during the Dorner manhunt, is a screwup that goes way past a split-second decision that resulted in a mistake—which is why the LAPD is having to pay out. Generally speaking, making it easier to sue cops might incentivize departments to train their officers better and teach them not to shoot first and identify later.


On to the rest of this week’s bad cops:

- Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, is now punishing jail inmates—many of whom haven’t been convicted of a crime—by forcing them to be patriotic, because he is the worst.

- On October 28, Oriana Ferrell was pulled over by New Mexico state police for going 71 in a 55 mile-per-hour zone. Ferrell then apparently sped away—with her five children in the minivan. The office caught up to her, pulled her over again, and angrily demanded that she get out of car. She did so, but when she tried to get back into the was a scuffle, and Ferrell’s 14-year-old son got out of the vehicle, “rushed” the officer, and was then scared back by the officer’s Taser and the arrival of backup. The first officer smashed the van’s window with his baton and as Ferrell sped away for a second time, just as the police fired three shots. Ferrell and her son were arrested at gunpoint after another brief chase, this one reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour, and the mother was arrested on charges of evading police, intentional abuse of a child, and possession of drug paraphernalia. The fact that cops fired on a van that contained five children—four of whom hadn’t done anything except scream in fear—has provoked “an internal investigation” by New Mexico state police. Ferrell isn’t exactly mother of the year, but the cops’ dangerous overreaction to evasion of a speeding ticket is more alarming than anything she did.


- A married couple who are both former CIA employees are suing Sheriff Frank Denning of Johnson County, Kansas, and seven of his deputies. In the lawsuit, filed in federal court on Thursday, Robert and Adlynn Harte claim they were subjected to an unconstitutional “SWAT-style raid” on April 20 of last year after arousing the cops' suspicions with a purchase of “plant material” at a hydroponic store and some used tea bags the police found in the trash (seriously). According to the Hartes—who are asking for $7 million in total damages—deputies field-tested the tea leaves and found no drug residue. They also saw the Hartes’ hydroponic vegetable garden, consisting of a half-dozen completely legal plants. But in spite of this disappearing probable cause, the cops spent two and a half hours turning the house upside down and frightening the family’s five- and 13-year-old kids. The lawsuit says that the Hartes used to tell their son in particular that the government only went after the bad guys, but “the Hartes could find no authentic words of reassurance for their frightened and bewildered children."

- This month, New York City paid out a $22,500 settlement to Kaylan Pedine, who was arrestedlast year for criticizing stop and frisk. According to Pedine, she simply said she wished the NYPD would stop that controversial program while in earshot of several NYPD cops. Officer Craig Campion seemed to take great offense at this and cuffed her. Pedine, a self-described activist who works for a social justice organization called American Jewish World Service, knew that she had a better chance of getting free quickly if she kept her mouth shut. She says she followed all the police’s commands, and she was soon charged with disorderly conduct, a frequent catch-all for offenses better described as “contempt of cop.” Pedine was detained for only an hour, so it could have been worse, though she had to go to three different hearings before they dropped the charges. That’s when she saw her police report, which claimed she was blocking a bus lane and refusing to move. She sued over that alleged lie and the city settled out of court—costing taxpayers over 20 grand in the process. Campion seems to have so far gone unpunished for his BS arrest.

- According to an Associated Press story published on Friday, Gerardo Hernandez, the TSA officer shot on November 1 at Los Angeles International Airport, lay wounded for 28 minutes after alleged gunman Paul Anthony Ciancia was safely in custody. This might have been because LAPD officer John Long said Hernandez was dead, even though that declaration needed to be made by a medical professional. Long allegedly checked on Hernandez repeatedly, but didn’t request paramedics, nor did several other officers. Not until airport police noticed a pulse was Hernandez taken away in an ambulance.

- For our Good cop of the Week, we’ll go with Suffolk County, New York, police officer Christopher Germano, who did a hell of a job playing firefighter. On Friday, Germano beat firefighters to a burning house on Long Island and used a ladder to reach the second floor and carry down a six-year-old handed to him by an adult. He then lead two other children and several adults to safety. One of the adults was treated for minor injuries, and Germano was briefly hospitalized for smoke inhalation, Good job, officer. Excellent use of police skills.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag