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Randy Sutton

Randy Sutton

Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.
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Patrol

The Challenge of Analyzing a Tragedy While We’re Still Grieving

May 28, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

Shortly after the murders of four Oakland officers by parolee Lovelle Mixon in March, I got a call from Police Magazine editor David Griffith. He wanted me to write a feature article on the Oakland incidents.

To be honest I didn’t want to do it.

I knew that researching the Oakland shooting would be a difficult and unpleasant assignment. Not only was I half a state removed from the crime scene, but I knew from the get-go that getting those close to the investigation to go on the record would prove damned difficult. Not that I didn’t understand why: If I was under a gag order, I’d keep my mouth shut, too.

Meanwhile, others not shy about articulating their concerns given their understanding of the incident can sometimes do so in very assertive terms. And I knew that their comments had the potential to anger the men and women of the Oakland Police Department who served with the murdered officers.

So in writing the article, I had to find my own answers to two questions: How does one encourage reflection and discussion on a tragedy of such magnitude in the absence of incontrovertible facts? And will those facts ever be truly ascertained when most of the principals are dead?

Perhaps the question should be one of whether or not a discussion should even take place so soon in the aftermath of such a tragedy before the release of the official report. For in doing so, we are almost obligated to go out on a limb and ask uncomfortable questions and make unpopular speculations. After all, Monday morning quarterbacking is easy. Being an active participant in the trenches is hard.

So I still wrestled with the question: Was I doing the right thing. Then as I worked on the Oakland article, another mass killing of officers occurred when three of Pittsburgh's finest were shot and killed. Again it was incident to two separate engagements by a lone suspect who—like Oakland’s Mixon—took the first two officers by surprise.

The Pittsburgh incident solidified my determination to go forward with my Oakland article, which was published in our May issue under the title “What Can Be Learned from the Oakland Tragedy.”

Because whether or not one agrees with our take—indeed, whether or not our take is 100-percent accurate given the limitations of what was communicated to us—some of the suggestions and considerations articulated from the experts that we contacted could save the lives of law enforcement officers.

There is precedent for law enforcement tragedies spurring changes in procedure and policy to keep officers safer. Case in point, the Newhall, Calif., incident in 1970.

The California Highway Patrol shootout in Newhall is generally cited as spurring a paradigm shift in the tactical training of patrol officers. And I like to believe that even if Oakland and Pittsburgh are not catalysts for change at a national level then at least some local practices will likely change in their aftermaths. Hopefully sooner than later.

There are some 12,000 officers’ names on the National Law Enforcement Memorial. Our highest mission at Police Magazine is to keep as many names as possible from being added to those walls. One way of doing that is by examining how the names of others got there. That’s what we tried to do with our May feature article on the Oakland Tragedy.

It is our sincerest wish that this article will serve as a jumping-off point for discussions of patrol and SWAT tactics and perhaps serve some minor role in preventing future police massacres.


Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

spartancops @ 5/31/2009 12:50 PM

I can totally understand why you were reluctant to write articles discussng the Oakland incident. Anytime an incident is debriefed you risk the emotions of those involved who were just doing the best with what they had. But if we don't we will fail to learn the lessons taught and will be doomed to repeat them again.

Officers all over the country are asking the question, why? They are primed to receive information about this incident and change their behavior and habits. As time goes by their urgency and motivation fades.

This is a difficult process and a difficult balance. On one hand it is hard to get objective answers from the officers involved when they are still working through the incident themselves. Pushing for immediate answers provides shallow ones that may not be correct or sufficient. But digging deep so fast hurts those who have already suffered enough.

On the other hand, the lessons must be learned as soon as possible to strike while the iron is hot and officers are listening. When finally released official debriefs are often so distant from the time period when they happened that they have little effect on those they are intended to help.

Your articles on the Oakland incident are the best I have seen so far and I think they do a good job balancing the issues involved. Thanks for researching them and writing them.

Scott @ SpartanCops.com

David Moore S-55 @ 5/31/2009 7:24 PM

This one pain cuts deep...never forget to say "Thank You" to those who stand between the wolves and society...During releases have to look at records that got them in the big house in the first place what they have done since being placed in confinement and most importantly Parole follow-up and support! God Bless the families and Oakland PD and citizens who turned out for this dark day - their spirit lives on in those who follow -You made a difference!

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