Deadly Force

From the Oregonian, Sunday, April 26, 1992 – not available elsewhere online

Are Portland police shooting too much?

Twenty shots to kill a mental patient waving a pellet gun. Thirty-six shots from submachine guns to kill a small-time drug dealer. Sixteen shots to kill a drunken burglar who held a 12-year-old boy hostage — and killing the boy in the process.

Police say those incidents are an aberration. They say they really aren’t shooting too much. They say they shoot only when they have to and Portland has become much more violent.

That may be. But an extended study by The Oregonian suggests that while police may have been justified in all those shootings, they are not well trained to use their guns when the need arises and aren’t well equipped to make gunfire truly an option of last resort.

The Oregonian found:

    * Under Police Chief Richard Walker and then Tom Potter, the bureau canceled all formal training for two years from mid-1989 to mid-1991. Bureau commanders — under pressure to fight gangs, drug dealers and growing violence — decided the city couldn’t afford to take officers off the street to put them in classrooms. As a result, officers went two years with no training in firearms, police tactics and how to deal with combative subjects. Two months after he became chief, Potter restored some training — 12 hours of classes in community policing and cultural diversity. Full, week-long training resumed last summer.
    * The Police Bureau provides little or no special training to help officers deal with mentally unstable people. It also provides little help for officers to control fear when it becomes so overpowering that it warps their judgment or distorts their senses when they have to shoot.
    * Portland police go 14 months between firearms qualification tests — longer than allowed by any of major police departments queried by The Oregonian. Shortly after the Jan. 16 accidental shooting of 12-year-old Nathan Thomas, the bureau said it would propose firearms qualifications every six months, starting in July.
    * The bureau’s marksmanship standards are low compared to many other cities. Phoenix and San Diego, for instance, won’t allow an officer on the street who fails to score at least 84 and 85 points, respectively, in handgun qualifying tests. Portland requires only 75 points on a comparable test. A February list of the Police Bureau’s gun qualifications shows that 218 officers, including Chief Potter, shot with such modest accuracy that they wouldn’t have been allowed to carry a gun in either of those cities.
    * Bureau firearms qualification lists covering approximately the last two years showed that as many as 27 officers were on duty, carrying guns, although they had failed or had not taken the required marksmanship tests. Assistant Chief Wayne Inman acknowledges this happened and the bureau is now checking on it.
    * Police switched four years ago to high-capacity semi-automatic handguns so they could match the firepower of drug dealers and gang members. Yet the people they shoot at are nearly always what Potter calls the city’s “walking wounded” — drug users, drunks and the mentally ill.
    * The bureau’s facilities for firearms training are poor and likely to get worse. The city will soon lose access to the outdoor training range at Camp Withycombe. Without it, police will not be able to train in tactics or drill their “shoot/don’t shoot” skills. The indoor range, which can accommodate only three to four officers at a time, is greatly restricted by the state because of the amount of lead vapor in the air.

Money to replace the outdoor range was cut from next year’s budget by the City Council, as was a request for a $67,000 sophisticated computer simulation range that has won praise by the FBI and other departments. Police officials weren’t aware of the budget cuts until recently and are now fighting to get them restored.

In the last 22 years Portland police have killed 31 people in the line of duty — nearly two-thirds of those in the last seven years. But it was seven deaths in a 13-month period ending this January that caused public concern. Already this year Portland police have been involved in six shootings, the same number as in all of 1991. The latest was a week ago when two policemen fired five shots at a man holding a knife to his chest. The man survived.

Taken individually, the recent shooting deaths were all ruled by grand juries as justifiable and by police commanders as unavoidable.

Chief Potter believes the number of shootings will grow as violence increases and his officers are forced to deal with more cases involving the “walking wounded.”

Taken as a whole, the shootings do not appear to indicate an agency out of control. But the spate of shootings do form a clear picture of a police department stressed by a combination of limited resources, increasing violence and new demands. It is a department that could be on a path to trouble.

The Police Bureau is not solely to blame for its training shortcomings.

The bureau is under intense pressure by politicians, citizens and the media to put more crimefighters on the street. And given the choice of cops vs. improved training, bureau commanders and City Hall chose more cops.

“Once the decision is made that an officer is legally justified in using deadly force, the thing we remember is that deadly is the operative word,” said Jim Willis, deputy director of the Oregon Police Academy at Monmouth.

In Portland, police are guided in when they can use deadly force both by state statute and city policy.

In general, Portland police officers can shoot only to save themselves or some other innocent party from being killed or seriously hurt, or to prevent the escape of certain kinds of dangerous criminals.

Official policy tells Portland police to shoot until the threat no longer exists. That does not necessarily mean shoot to kill in all cases. An officer’s first shot might miss, for instance, and the suspect might immediately throw down his gun and surrender. Police would not be justified in emptying their guns under those circumstances.

Portland police are trained to fire their first two shots at the chest. If there’s still a threat, the second two are to be aimed at the groin and, if the suspect still is a threat, the final two to the face.

Sgt. Gary Crane, who manages Portland’s firing range, said police are always having to explain to people why they don’t shoot guns out of people’s hands.

“That’s Hollywood, that’s not reality,” he said. “Nobody can shoot that well.”

Each instance of deadly force is an individual affair, unique in its details and hard for non-participants to second-guess.

But the public and media began voicing some concerns after:

    * Two policemen shot 22 times to kill Mari Lyn Sandoz, 21, as the mentally disturbed woman pointed a pellet gun at them Dec. 4, 1990. She was hit 20 times.
    * Four members of the bureau’s Special Emergency Response Team fired 19 shots to kill Michael Lee Henry, 19, as he held a bank teller hostage on April 13, 1991. He was hit nine times.
    * Three SERT members fired 36 shots to kill Leonard M. Renfrow, 47, a suspected drug dealer who they said pointed a derringer as the officers served a search warrant in his home May 16. He was hit 22 times.
    * Three policemen fired 16 shots to kill Bryan French , 21, as he held Nathan Thomas hostage on Jan. 16 in Thomas’ Laurelhurst home. French was hit 14 times; Thomas was accidentally hit twice in the head and also died.

It was after the Thomas shooting that the Police Bureau launched a study of all its shootings since 1988. One of the things the study looked at was the possible impact of the higher-capacity semiautomatic handguns.

The bureau found that two-thirds of the 29 shootings involved one to five shots, five cases involved six to eight shots and five cases involved 16 to 36 shots. Thirty-six shots were fired in the Renfrow incident because the three SERT officers who shot used submachine guns. The shooting was over within seconds.

But the bureau’s numbers that Potter says point to a pattern of restraint don’t tell the whole story.

In seven of the 29 shootings, officers fired as part of a group. In those group shootings a few officers shot once or twice, but the average number of shots per incident was 18. The 21 officers involved in the incidents fired an average of more than six shots apiece.

The average result was a person hit by 12 bullets.

A comparison with four similar-size police departments suggests, at least, that Portland police are firing a high number of shots, and maybe more than most departments.

In Portland, there were eight shootings during 1991 in which 15 officers fired a total of 79 shots. The average per officer was 5.3 shots, and the average per incident was 13.2.

However, three Portland officers in one of those cases used submachine guns and fired 36 shots, or roughly a third of the year’s total. But even if that case is left out, the volume still looks high: 10 officers firing 60 shots in five incidents, for an average of 6 shots per officer and 12 shots per incident.

Denver police reported in 1991 that nine officers fired 37 shots in six shootings — 4.1 shots per officer and or 6.2 per incident.

The Buffalo, N.Y., Police Department reported two shootings in 1991 — two officers each firing one shot.

Albuquerque’s totals were 12 officers in eight shootings firing 25 shots — 2.1 shots per officer and 3.1 per incident.

The Minneapolis Police Department reported four officers firing 14 shots in two shootings — 3.5 shots per officer and seven per incident.

Inman said there is no problem with the semi-automatic handguns and the bureau will continue to support their use.

The Thomas incident also spurred the bureau to undertake an intensive internal examination of its deadly force policies, its training and tactics, equipment and personnel. That report is expected June 1, following a community-wide forum on deadly force May 30.

Nationally, experts in the use of force say the new level of firepower in the hands of police must be linked to better training to help officers use it wisely.

Although the Portland Police Bureau has begun pouring more money into its training division, by all accounts, the bureau has a major task ahead.

Training officers to make intelligent, moral, and restrained decisions in less than a second when someone is pointing a gun in their face is an enormous challenge, said Charles A. Tracy, chairman of the Administration of Justice Department at Portland State University.

William A. Geller, a Chicago-based deadly force consultant for the Police Executive Research Forum, agrees.

“Going to (the new weapons) without training both in how you handle the weapon and in judgment as to how and when you use it is irresponsible,” he said.

Geller — considered the nation’s top expert on deadly force — said he is not bothered by the widespread use of semi-automatic weapons, per se, but by the potential for tragedy in the hands of the inexperienced or improperly trained officer.

“Most people seem to resolve debate by saying that what’s crucial isn’t the weapon,” Geller said, “but more the policies that govern the circumstances under which you can shoot and the training as to how much to shoot.”

Portland’s officers are concerned about the shootings of the past 17 months and are demanding that training, said Capt. Roy E. Kindrick, head of the bureau’s training division.

“We’ve learned that officers have to shoot to stay proficient. They learn confidence,” he said. “But we also need to develop skills to help officers go to cover; we need to focus on other options rather than just draw and shoot.

“They’re just as upset about all these shootings as the public,” Kindrick said.

Geller warns that over-focusing on gun skills without addressing the other needs of the police could do a lot more harm than good.

“You need an overall balance in training,” he said. “Training that emphasizes weapons proficiency to the exclusion of violence-reduction skills, conflict management and so forth can end up putting such fear in officers that they too quickly resort to the weapon.”

Geller’s doubts as to whether more marksmanship training would have helped the police avoid mishaps such as the Thomas shooting are borne out by the bureau’s own firearms records.

The officers in the Thomas incident were, in fact, excellent marksmen who had scored between 90 and 96 on their last tests.

But the three policemen who shot were under such stress that none could recall hearing the others shooting although they stood virtually shoulder to shoulder.

“No officer wants to shoot,” says Bob Day, a North Precinct patrolman, flipping on his overhead lights as he hurried to a call in his busy North Precinct district. “You know you’re going to get picked apart, you’re going to get dissected and hashed over for months by people who weren’t there.”

Day, 24, has never fired at anybody with the .357 Magnum he wears on his hip, but there’s a chance now. The call is a tavern fight where somebody is whaling away with a baseball bat.

“If he doesn’t drop it when we roll up,” the redheaded young officer forewarns, “you’re probably gonna see the gun come out.”

The man dropped the bat.

Portland police draw their guns frequently but seldom shoot.

More than one-fourth of the 238 Portland police officers who responded to a survey by The Oregonian said they pointed their guns at people at least once a week. A similar proportion drew once or twice a month. Less than 10 percent said they never drew.

The Police Bureau doesn’t keep track of how often its officers draw and point their guns, but the newspaper’s survey indicates they do so at least 15,000 times a year.

They end up shooting in an average of seven cases a year.

For the most part, the police pull their weapons as a precaution — making certain kinds of felony arrests, or maybe entering a house with a search warrant.

More than half of the officers in the survey said deadly force was directed against them within the last five years. Most often, the weapon was a gun, either pointed or fired.

Eighty-six percent said they could have shot someone with full legal justification within the last four years, but chose not to.

Decisions whether to shoot or not are so complex, based so much on judgment and circumstances, that most officers aren’t sure themselves why they did some of the things they did.

Gary Crane, the Police Bureau’s range sergeant, still can’t believe he didn’t shoot a man several years ago who aimed a shotgun at him. “Something just told me I could get him to put it down, and he did,” Crane said. “I don’t know if I made the right call, or if I was just lucky.”

Bob Wilson, a sergeant in the Drugs and Vice Division who lost a kneecap in a gun battle with a suspect several years ago, had a similar experience later when he decided not to drop a guy aiming a rifle.

“Don’t try to make logic out of this,” Wilson says, “because there isn’t any.”

The handgun of choice in the Portland Police Bureau is the semi-automatic. Seventy percent of Portland police carry them.

“For officer safety, the automatic with a large capacity magazine makes a lot of sense,” said Donald Van Blaricom, a former Bellevue, Wash., police chief and a private consultant on law enforcement.

“With the high capacity magazines, a policeman doesn’t take time to reload after he shoots,” Van Blaricom said. “He puts out a burst and whatever is in the way gets hit. They tend to shoot until the target drops, and that has happened not only in Portland but in every part of the country where they’re using semi-automatics.”

The Police Bureau adopted two general orders in 1988 that allowed officers to begin using the semi-automatics, which hold from eight to 18 bullets.

The semi-automatic harnesses the recoil caused by a shot to automatically reload and re-cock the weapon. One bullet is fired for each pull of the trigger.

Semi-automatics were once shunned by police as being unreliable and susceptible to jamming. But they gained acceptance in the 1980s as the weapons improved and police around the country called for a better gun to respond to what they saw as greater danger on the job — especially the perceived danger from gangs and their new propensity to arm themselves with semi-automatics or submachine guns.

It wasn’t because the semi-automatics were by their nature more deadly or because they could shoot faster — technically, a revolver is actually the faster gun. Instead, it was because the newer guns held more bullets — three times as many in the case of the Glock — and can be reloaded quickly.

It is in a very real sense, a gun for combat.

A problem of surprising dimensions that continues to rattle in the closet of U.S. police departments is the officer who finds it impossible to pull the trigger regardless of circumstances. This is a different issue than a decision not to shoot. It is rarely admitted, let alone faced.

“I know there are a lot of officers in this department, and in other departments, who can’t bring themselves to the notion of having to use deadly force,” says former Deputy Chief Rob Aichele, who retired last June.

“So they’ll find other ways to resolve situations. Sometimes they’ll turn out peacefully and sometimes they won’t.”

Aichele believes that anyone who puts on a badge gives up the right to be a conscientious objector “because deadly force comes with the territory.”

Yet, Aichele, who once supervised the Training Division, estimates “there’s probably an easy 25 percent and it could be as great as half of the people on the bureau who couldn’t bring themselves to use deadly force.”

If this is, indeed, as widespread a problem as Aichele believes, few Portland police are willing to admit it.

Only 1.4 percent of the 236 officers who responded to The Oregonian’s survey said they had failed to shoot because they “just couldn’t pull the trigger.” This would translate into about a dozen individuals bureau-wide.

But 51 percent of the officers polled said they had worked with someone in the last year or so who they thought might be too hesitant to shoot in a deadly force situation.

Only 16 percent were worried that the other officer might be too ready to shoot, while the others cited poor marksmanship or other qualities they found undesirable.

Portland Police Chief Tom Potter is quick to defend his officers — men and women who he says are now being forced to deal with problems that everyone else has walked away from.

He points to 125,000 calls a year where Portland police are dispatched because of an immediate threat to life. He points to 34,000 arrests a year. And he points to an average of 7 shootings a year.

He likens police to a firewall. It used to be that wall of police protected law-abiding citizens from criminals. Now, more and more, said Potter that firewall is “between people I would classify as the walking wounded in our society — the mentals, the chemically dependent people, there are literally thousands of tragedies waiting to happen out there.”

After years of getting by, Potter said, the training division is getting needed money to not only work on firearms but to train officers on a wider variety of skills to implement the bureau’s No. 1 goal of community policing.

The Nathan Thomas shooting “shook the bureau to its core,” he said, “and reinforced the need for us to move more quickly.”

“You can go to any agency and find problems in one area,” he said. “I think we’re far superior to any other police department in the United States in terms of our relationship with the community. You have to look at all of the issues that are facing the police, all of the training that’s required to meet all of those issues, and then determine whether the training is sufficient or not or if there are reasons why they can’t have more training.”