It's the third summer since the start of a nationwide movement for police reform, particularly when it comes to the extrajudicial killing of black men. But according to the LAPD's own reporting, the department still opened fire on 60 percent more people in 2015 than it did in 2014, and 21 percent of those people were black. Of the 38 people the LAPD shot last year, 21 died.
So on Tuesday, June 21, I strapped on a very heavy fake gun and a can of pepper spray, and took part in the LAPD's new police roleplaying drills designed to teach cops to de-escalate situations with the potential for violence.
Last year, before the 2015 police killing numbers had even come out, the LAPD's new commission president, Matthew Johnson, called for a review of all uses of deadly force within the past decade. Johnson found that department guidelines requiring police to demonstrate "a reverence for human life" were lacking in specificity. The commission instead declared that deadly force must be a last resort in order to be considered "in-policy."
The latest change of policy wasn't part of the training on Tuesday.
I was issued a stiff Sam Browne belt with my trusty orange gun and pepper spray, plus an electrified vest that delivered a mild jolt to my belly if it sensed that anyone else's orange gun had shot me.
The LAPD director of training, Luann Pannell, told my group—which included local TV news personalities John Cádiz Klemack of NBC and Oswaldo Borraez of Univision—we were about to enter five "reality-based" situations, each with its own narrative.
Most importantly, we entered each scene with less-lethal measures on hand. That included not just pepper spray, but tasers, and in some cases a beanbag shotgun.
For our first call, we were told that a guy might be trying to break into cars, and sent into a parking lot to investigate. I tensed up, wondering what the surprise would be. Would he secretly have a chainsaw or something? When we found him, he was just a guy in a blue baseball cap, nosing around cars, and acting super annoyed about the cops getting in his face.
I very carefully de-escalated the guy by frisking him and making him clasp his hands behind his head. Was he doing anything wrong in the first place? That information wasn't part of the scene. But afterward, I was asked how I showed "reverence for human life," during that drill. I didn't really have an answer.
Two out of our five situations likely involved mental illness. This makes sense considering that according to the LAPD's 2015 use of force report, "14 of the 38 suspects involved in [officer-involved shooting] incidents, or 37 percent, had an indication of mental illness." One of our scenarios involved a guy alone in his bedroom, trying to kill himself with a knife (and regardless of our personal positions on the right to die, it was our job as cops to prevent his suicide).
The other one was King Bob, who wore a tinfoil crown, and was in the middle of the street trying to get a ride to see—if I recall correctly—some spacemen he needed to talk to.
At one point, desperate to get him to stop moving, I told him to get on his knees. "Get on my knees? For a ride? I tried that last week, and I didn't like how it turned out," said King Bob. I couldn't help feeling like the actor playing King Bob was not painting an entirely empathetic portrait of the mentally ill.
But the most harrowing experience of the day happened upstairs, in a simulation of a rathole apartment (complete with a simulated broken TV) where we answered a report of a man loudly fighting with a pregnant woman. I was assigned to use lethal force in this situation, but not to be the primary negotiator.
I overstepped a bit and tried to take control of the situation.
The man was irrational from the start. I told him to face away from us and clasp his hands on the back of his head, just like I always say in my many dealings with unruly suspects, but he kept pacing and shouting.
"I should have finished you off yesterday!" he told his lady friend.
"Whoa now! Get up against that wall, and put your hands where I can see them!" I screamed, surprising myself with the intensity of my own anger. It didn't feel fake.
But suddenly he had a knife. "I'm gonna finish you right now," he said, walking toward her, eyes on her pregnant belly.
After struggling with my holster a bit, I drew my gun and fired. It was enough to trigger the guy's shock vest, and he fell down between the coffee table and couch, lifeless. I stood over his body shaking and terrified that I'd made the wrong decision.
The post-scene debriefing unfolded as normal, including the ever-present question about how I'd shown "reverence for human life" during the scene. "I didn't shoot him immediately," I said.
The organizer of that scene, Officer Nathan Hooper, pointed out that I'd had options. "You brought in the beanbag. You had tasers on you. You have pepper gas. At any point in time did you consider utilizing that?"
I hadn't. In retrospect, I realize that there was definitely time for less-lethal options, but I had waited until the suspect was determined to use deadly force, and then responded in kind. Despite the fact that I'd waited, pulling that trigger was still a last resort, and in my opinion Commissioner Matt Johnson almost certainly would have agreed that shooting the suspect was "in-policy."
Afterward, Hooper approached me in the hallway and gave me a reassuring handshake. "Great job," he said.
"You saved a life in there."
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