Last month, it made national headlines: "L.A. County Sheriff's Department Wants Its Deputies to Stop Chasing Armed Suspects."
Or so many words to that effect.
When various news outlets trumpeted Sheriff Leroy Baca's "newest policy," they did so with the understanding that patrol deputies in L.A. County would no longer be chasing down suspects known or presumed to be armed. Rather, deputies were to pull up short and coordinate resources so as to effect a containment of the suspect(s).
The catalyst for this change was a spike in deputy-involved shootings: a jump to 16 deputy-involved shootings from nine the year before.
"You don't have to go barreling in on every case and then find yourself in a position where you have no choice but to use your gun," proclaimed Sheriff Baca as he debuted a new 30-page booklet, "Split second decision: The dynamics of the chase in today's society."
The booklet, featuring eight different scenarios involving armed or possibly armed suspects, certainly offers some valid food for thought when it comes to the prospect of chasing bad guys. But something about the way this information was being presented - and the implications of its presentation - concerned me. What did it all really mean?
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has always urged caution regarding foot pursuits. To further drive their points home, they showed pictures illustrating the gory aftermaths of incidents that had claimed the lives of Lawrence Lavieri, Thomas Pohlman, and other deputies who'd initiated ill-fated one-man foot pursuits.
In hoping to deter other deputies from suffering similar fates, the instructors took pains to let students know that sometimes the smarter option was not to chase. One had to look at the totality of the circumstances, and perform a quick cost-benefit analysis. Among the salient points to be considered:
- What was the guy wanted for? (Was it worth pursuing?)
- Where were you chasing him? (Were you behind enemy lines?)
- Could you catch up with the guy?
- What were you going to do if you did catch him? (Would you be tactically and physically in a position to get and retain the upper hand?)
The aforementioned cautionary parables laid out a pretty good case for taking such things into consideration.
Throughout, the impetus for the rhetoric seemed to be nothing more than genuine concern for the deputy's welfare rather than anything else.
But the quotes attributed to LASD watchdog Michael Gennaco surrounding the February 18 press release conveyed a different impression. In a quote from the LA Times coverage of the announcement, Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, called the policy change "a step forward."
"It's intended to teach deputies to avoid gunfights," Gennaco said. "It provides guidance to deputies, and it sets a new bar for departmental expectations of performance."
What exactly was this "new bar" for performance? How was one to be evaluated against it? And was this really a new policy, something that'd been issued as a clear-cut directive for deputies to follow? Or merely a brochure containing food for thought?
The more I saw and read and heard of the coverage, the more it sounded like the department was more concerned with the prospect of killing some moronic unarmed suspect whose actions would virtually guarantee his getting shot at than it was with fulfilling its responsibilities to the public. It didn't make sense that the catalyst should be concern for deputies whose track record suggested that they were getting the upper hand in shootings.[PAGEBREAK]
More questions popped up. Was this just another hole in the dike, eroding law enforcement's ability to do its job?
I decided to speak with someone I knew on the department, someone whose assignment put him squarely in a position to speak intelligently on the matter at hand and to my growing concern: Was the department offering up more softsoap?
"It's all smoke and mirrors," he explained. "The policy is no different than what we've had on the books for years, or what we've been teaching. It's just been re-worded so that it's more clearly understood, something to keep our detractors at bay.
Perhaps it all was just a dog and pony show, something to show the department's overseers, critics, and the Office of Independent Review that it was somehow being proactive in attempting to stem the shooting of citizenry by LASD personnel.
My admittedly jaundiced take on things is colored by a recollection of days when the department was quick to make sacramental offerings in a bid to placate the implacable. But my secret source explained that in recent years the department has not found any use-of-force incident to be out of policy (at least, none so egregious that they were destined for terminations and/or prosecutions). And if that's the case, then great.
...this paradigm shift - be it real, or imagined - still raises concerns as to the driving impetus behind the department's announcement (and truth be known, there are many deputies who don't like the foot pursuit policy and haven't for years).
I spoke with an old friend, Sgt. Eric Lindblom, who has worked the department's K9 detail for the last six years. He's a cop's cop, and remains every bit about arresting the bad guy as when he first hit the streets more than 25 years ago. I asked him what he thought of the policy.
He said he is in favor of it.
"If you're chasing a suspect that you know is armed and he runs into a backyard, you don't want to go back there after him. Let us roll out and help you. It just doesn't make sense putting yourself in a position where you're probably going to get shot."
Lindblom has no shortage of anecdotes to support his contention.
Still, I am left to wonder about those other incidents, the ones that probably cover a majority of those circumstances: What if you don't know whether the suspect's armed or not?[PAGEBREAK]
Would deputies deploy on those incidents where a suspect runs but the deputy isn't sure whether the suspect is armed, or not?
"No," Lindblom asserts. "It has to be something that falls on our radar, such as a felony suspect or an obvious threat to officers."
Lindblom observes that there have been many positive dividends to the perimeter mindset as evidenced by a corresponding increase in the number of suspects captured incident to containments these past few years: "Deputies are quicker to establish containments. It's like anything else - the more you do it, the better you get. And I'll tell you this: Unless the guy gets in a house, we're going to get him. Might he go to a rooftop or a tree when we don't have an aero unit up and we miss him? Maybe. But most of the time, we get him."
To be fair, the department still acknowledges that two-man cars can chase and capture so long as they remain together. But how many two-man cars does the department field? Certainly, a much lower number than one-man cars.
And last I heard, the department had a maximum of three helicopters available to assist some 25 sheriff's stations on containments. There might be as many as five K9s available on a given shift, but ETAs are apt to be extended. (Also, what of deploying on suspects not known to be armed?).
Financially hamstrung, the department is having more and more personnel reassigned back to patrol, either permanently or on loan. Is it fielding as many cars as it once did? Will cars have to roll increasingly greater distances to back one another up on containments? And how effective might a containment be given such constraints?
Lindblom's take gives me some hope. Maybe they will be able to surmount such limitations.
In reflecting on prior conversations with my anonymous confidant, I have to acknowledge hearing some optimism-inspiring news.
He'd said that the days of the old guard - Sheriff Block, the insufferable Michael Graham, et al., - were long gone. That the folks passing judgment on deputies' actions today - from Homicide Bureau to Internal Affairs - were much more sympathetic and realistic in appraising the unique challenges that deputies face every day. Moreover, he couldn't recall a single use-of-force review that determined that the force incident was ruled out of policy (unless it was so egregiously out of policy that it put factors into play, e.g., there were grounds for termination).
My informant acknowledged that the department probably hasn't done as much as it could to alleviate the concerns of deputies who continue to wonder how they will be evaluated in the aftermath of some force incident. At the same time, he notes that the influx of returning war veterans has seen a return to a more proactive mindset. These newer deputies have a tendency to be more aggressive in the best sense of the word, displaying a more intuitive tactical sense and initiative. In fact, their only liability is that you occasionally have to pull the reins on them.
"Hey, you don't have 12 guys coming in the door behind you," he says, repeating what he finds himself telling these new deputies during tactical role play situations. "You've got one. Hold up and wait for reinforcements."
Maybe this new - or not so new - policy announcement is borne of such concerns: A perceived need to rein in a new breed of assertive deputies and head off shootings at the pass.
In the end, it sounds like the press release was just a bunch of "smoke and mirrors." That the department isn't deviating much from what it's been teaching its personnel for years.
At least, that's what I hope.