Police Shootings Stir Queries About Policy

From the Oregonian, January 19, 1992 – not available elsewhere online

A little more than a year ago, two Portland policemen fired 22 rounds of ammunition at one suspect in one shooting incident. Last week, three policemen shot 16 times at a man holding a boy at knifepoint.

Those totals were far greater than the number of rounds fired in single incidents reported by 12 U.S. police departments, according to survey by The Oregonian.

In six such shootings in the last 13 months, Portland police have killed seven persons. In 1990, there were two fatal police shootings.

Before that, Portland police had not killed anybody since May 1988, when an officer being held hostage in a Southwest Portland motel killed one of his two abductors.

Portland police say it is hard to compare incidents nationally or otherwise. Each situation is different. And comparative national statistics do not exist.

Still, the Portland casualty list has raised questions about the Police Bureau’s firearms policy. Police and other officials heard from a number of concerned callers after Thursday’s shooting in Laurelhurst. Two of the police shots hit the youth held hostage, killing him.

“There is a perception out there of too many shots fired,” Portland Assistant Chief Wayne Inman conceded. “It certainly gives us pause to wonder about perception.”

William A. Geller, a Chicago-based consultant who advises U.S. police departments on deadly force policy, thinks it’s reasonable to examine the national trend toward police use of high-capacity, rapid-fire, semiautomatic pistols.

“There is a relationship between the number of times a person is struck by bullets and whether they survive or not,” he said.

“I’ m not opposed per se to the semiautomatics, but you’ve got to have very good policy and training to go with it. Those are issues that deserve public attention.”

About half the 800 officers on Portland’s force use semiautomatic handguns, said Lt. Roy Kindrick, training division director.

He wants all of the force to eventually switch to one weapon, a 9mm semiautomatic.

The Thursday shooting occurred when three policemen tried to subdue Bryan T. French, 20, who was holding a knife to 12-year-old Nathan Thomas. Both were killed by police gunfire.

In December 1990, two policemen fired 22 shots at Mari Lynn Sandoz, hitting her 20 times, after she pointed a replica of a semiautomatic handgun at them.

French had left a note to his mother saying, “I hope to die tonight.” Sandoz, too, was suicidal and left a note that she wanted police to kill her.

In April, three policemen of the Special Emergency Response Team, rescuing a hostage bank teller, shot Michael L. Henry nine times with semiautomatic carbines.

Henry had told the teller he wanted to die.

In May, SERT officers, using submachine guns, shot Leonard Renfrow, a suspected crack dealer, 28 times. Renfrow pointed a derringer at the officers as they tried to serve a search warrant at his home.

On Dec. 15, an officer shot Johnny L. George six times after he stabbed the policeman in the shoulder.

“It may be overkill,” Kindrick said, speaking of the number of shots fired in the different incidents. “But all of our officers are still alive — and those who chose to use deadly force against them are not alive.”

Consultant Geller isn’t sure that police nationally are firing a lot more shots with the new weaponry than with the old.

They’re firing more, “but nothing on the order of the incidents you’ve described” in Portland, he said.

Geller said most people seem to resolve the debate by saying the type of weapon is not as crucial as how the police are trained to use it.

Kindrick and fellow instructors, Sgts. Veryl Behrens Jr. and Eric Brown, said Portland police are trained to fire their weapon in two ways.

There is single-shot training and something that used to be called “double tap” training, where an officer fired twice, then checked the results.

The double-tap method is a throwback to the “six-shooter” days, when an officer needed to be concerned about conserving ammunition, Kindrick said.

With the advent of semiautomatics, “double tap” became more a figure of speech, he said. Kindrick said Portland’s officers aren’t trained to squeeze off a certain number of shots at one time, but they’re definitely not trained to empty their weapons.

Kindrick, Brown and Behrens said the public should view each shooting as a distinct incident with its own special circumstances.

The number of shots an officer may fire has more to do with those circumstances than what kind of weapon is used, Brown and Behrens said.

If officers have cover or distance between themselves and the suspect, or a combination of both, they have more control of the situation and probably will fire fewer shots, they said.

Even the French-Thomas shooting Thursday illustrates that point, they said.

Two officers outside the home fired their guns. With the advantage of distance from French, who was on a stairwell inside the house, the officers felt protected enough to try to drop him with a single shot each.

Officers inside the house heard French counting down from 10 and threatening to cut the boy. They had to rush forward and act quickly.

“It’s not like you can call `timeout’ and strategize and come back,” Behrens said.

The officer who shot Johnny George found himself face-to-face with the teen-ager who had sunk a blade into his shoulder.

“Are you going to fire a couple of rounds and stop to see if he dumped the knife? I don’t think so,” Brown said.

Behrens and Brown said an Aug. 27 fatal shooting illustrates better how tactics control the number of shots fired. A police marksman with the advantage of cover fired a single shot to kill Michael Patrick Malloy, who had just shot an escaping hostage.

“I promise you,” Behrens said, “there will be shootings in the future where an officer fires once or twice.”

Geller said it’s hard to make sweeping judgments about police shooting incidents because facts and figures are scarce.

He said he and other researchers didn’t even know how many people the police kill nationally every year, much less what proportion may or may not have been necessary.

Even less is known about incidents in which police fire shots but don’t kill anybody.

One reason so little is known, Geller said, is that “most records on police firearms discharges are kept confidential for possible use in disciplinary or criminal proceedings,” keeping them away from researchers.

“From a safety standpoint, what we are doing is working. Officers are still alive,” Kindrick said.

Inman said he and Chief Tom Potter trust the judgment of the Police Bureau’s trainers. “We are not the experts,” Inman said of the bureau’s command staff.

Kindrick said he was aware of a growing negative public reaction and said citizens have a right to question bureau tactics. “We’re not locked into this,” he said of current methods. “We’re not going to defend this to the death.”

No immediate, dramatic change is planned.

Although information about police shootings is difficult to come by, police across the country say no officer wants to be part of one.

“I’ve known of policemen over the years that have killed people and that have never been the same,” said Col. Bernard Gannon, chief of the Providence Police Department in Rhode Island. “In one particular incident, this one police officer almost lost his life because he was reluctant to use his gun after killing someone the previous year.”

Adds Bill Robinson of the San Diego Police Department:

“That’s an officer’s worst nightmare.”