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Police Shootings Present a Murky and Sometimes Tragic Issue

August 05, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Six weeks of sampling other communities around the United States can make you soft-headed when you return home. Orange County's eccentricities aren't really unique, you tell yourself. Same things go on all over the country. Then you settle in with the local newspapers the first day you're home and all that flaccid thinking goes down the tubes.

One of our congressmen--you read--brings down the umbrage of his associates by entering the graphic details of homosexual love practices into the Congressional Record. J. Danforth Quayle, whom I thought I left safely behind in Indiana, is thinking about buying a home in Orange County so he can spend golfing weekends here. Our sheriff--always with an eye to the needy--urges that a 213-acre ranch confiscated from a drug dealer should not be made available for the homeless or a county jail or any one of a number of urgent social problems but rather should be used as a retreat for needy cops. And police chases in Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa end in a wild spree of mostly police bullets in which frightened bystanders are running for cover. Just a routine day back in the old hometown.

This last item got to me most deeply because it triggered the memory of Joe Hines. He was a warm, gentle man who was a fixture in my Corona del Mar neighborhood. He did gardening and odd jobs and did them very well. Many times when I was out digging in my yard, Joe Hines would stop to pass the time of day and offer some sage advice on how to do whatever I was doing easier and better. Our neighborhood was his duchy, and he was in a kind of partnership with all of us to make its exterior as resplendent as possible.

At dusk on Friday, Dec. 17, 1976, Hines stopped by Albertson's Market on East Coast Highway in Corona del Mar to buy a Christmas tree. He had no way of knowing that the store had been staked out by three Newport Beach police officers who suspected that a robber who had been hitting Orange County supermarkets would hit this one. It was Joe Hines' misfortune that the police were right. When the armed robber fled the store, the waiting police ordered him to halt. When he did and turned toward them, they fired a shotgun at him, directly into the Christmas tree area. They missed the robber and killed Joe Hines. Then they captured the robber.

There was an investigation, of course, and the police were cleared, of course, as they almost always are when the district attorney's office is doing the investigating. The shooting was ruled accidental, which it clearly was. The officer wasn't out to kill Joe Hines. But no ruling was passed down on the lethal bad judgment of firing a shotgun in a crowded parking lot directly into a group of Christmas trees that could very well have been hiding other customers besides Joe Hines.

We felt a lot of anger in our neighborhood when this happened, and I felt that anger all over again when I read about the two police chases recently that ended in gunfire in populated areas. The Costa Mesa shooting most closely paralleled the death of Joe Hines. According to the account in The Times, a man robbed the Wells Fargo Bank in the 3400 block of Bristol Street. When his getaway car was spotted by police, the robber sped into the South Coast Plaza parking lot about lunchtime. He was cornered by several patrol cars after banging into a number of parked cars. When he tried to run down an officer who was on foot, the officer fired at him with a .45-caliber pistol.

The bandit was wounded and captured while several dozen frightened people--many of them children--in the parking lot dived for cover. Times' reporters talked with a number of them, including a mother with three small children who pulled them behind a wall, fearing that they might be hit by ricocheting bullets. Happily, no one was. There will be an investigation, and the district attorney's office will undoubtedly find that the shooting was justified.

But no one will ask the crucial question: Did it make sense? Could it have been avoided? And how--if at all--will it impact the possibility of the same thing happening, perhaps with more tragic results, the next time this situation occurs in Orange County?

I asked these questions of Capt. Tom Lazar of the Costa Mesa Police Department. I also asked him to describe for me the department's policy--and how their officers are instructed--when hot pursuit leads into a situation in which civilian lives are in jeopardy.

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