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Taking Down One of Our Own

There were other options for taking down a fellow Santa Maria (Calif.) Police officer than a public arrest at a DUI checkpoint.

February 02, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Over on the Police_L discussion list, we've been discussing the shooting of Albert Covarrubias, Jr., a Santa Maria (Calif.) Police officer wanted on suspicion for having illegal sex with a 17-year-old. The 29-year-old officer was working a DUI checkpoint when fellow officers attempted to place him under arrest.

Covarrubias resisted and allegedly fired his service weapon. Another officer then shot and killed the four-year veteran.

The Santa Maria Police Department asserts that time was of the essence in effecting Covarrubias' arrest. And irrespective of the statutory terms involved in the matter—an issue of which I am tempted to opine on, but will refrain from herein—any "witness intimidation" by an armed police officer does warrant immediate action.

Still, it would appear that the situation could have turned out much worse. I also suspect it could have been handled better.

For one, what transpired played out on a public street, presumably within eyeshot of passing motorists. For another, it involved an armed officer—an officer who could well have succeeded in killing another officer prior to himself being killed.

I can't help but wonder why the Santa Maria Police Department, which apparently considered Officer Covarrubias an imminent threat to the community—and whose subsequent actions apparently validated its concerns—didn't attempt to do something different from just trying to hook him up right there in the street.

I wonder why a plainclothes officer from a neighboring PD couldn't have been designated as a "DUI" suspect and the suspected officer tasked with transporting him to jail? Assuming that Santa Maria PD otherwise adheres to good officer safety practices, Officer Covarrubias would have secured his firearm prior to entering the station's lockup. In this manner, the situation would have been moved off a public street; the threat isolated and contained; and the officer disarmed without anyone having tilted their hand.

Had the tilting of one's hand factored into the PD's decision-making process? Had the intimidated witness or someone else tipped Covarrubias off that he was being investigated? Was there some other precipitating factor at work? Because absent such explanations, I fail to see the need for the PD to take the officer down then and there at a DUI checkpoint. Was this a suicide by cop? If so, then why not share that information?

I spoke with a Lt. Come' with the Santa Maria PD, articulated my concerns, and invited him to disabuse me of my intuitions. I asked him to tell me if anything that I had in the various news accounts of where and how the incident had taken place was incorrect. Lt. Come' declined to comment other than to say that the particulars were not going to be discussed at this time, not even in the context of viable alternatives.

And that is his prerogative. But I have always advocated the need to talk sound officer safety practices before all the facts are necessarily in place. Playing "what if..." is a legitimate alternative to Monday morning quarterbacking. It doesn't unduly stigmatize the actions of personnel involved in a particular situation and may well anticipate a similar situation that might play out elsewhere before the day is done.

Time may have been of the essence in Santa Maria. But "essence" does not necessarily translate to "emergent," and the need to act does not supercede sound tactics and strategies normally expected of our profession. Indeed, it fosters their need.

The PD may well have been obligated to shoot Officer Albert Covarrubias. If the actions ascribed him during the seconds immediately preceding the shooting are accurate, officers did what they had to do.

I just wonder if it had to get to that point.

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