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Experts Say Police Can Decrease Rate of Self-Defense Shootings : Prevention: Increased training and enforcement of strict policies have been effective elsewhere, they say. But some local authorities are skeptical.

March 12, 1995|IRA E. STOLL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Can the number of police shootings in Ventura County be reduced?

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Experience and academic studies nationwide show that police departments can indeed prevent justifiable homicides by beefing up training and implementing strict policies, experts say.

"The police in many jurisdictions have been able to reduce the number of killings by police without creating offsetting problems in the crime rate or number of police fatalities," said Bill Geller, associate director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank.

In New York, for example, police shooting rates plummeted after a change in department policy and the creation of a shots-fired review board.

Pressure from the public and from police leadership can play a role, as well. In Los Angeles, police shootings dropped 70% in the four months after the racially charged fatal shooting of Eulia Love in 1979.

And in Newark, N. J., after the police director ordered one of his officers arrested and charged with murder in a fatal shooting, all shootings by Newark police officers dropped by nearly 60% over five months.

Locally, some authorities are skeptical about the possibility of reducing the number of police shootings.

"Preventing a justifiable homicide . . . didn't make any sense to me," said Sgt. Derek West of the sheriff's academy. He argues that if a shooting is justifiable, it must have been necessary to protect someone's life. Fewer justifiable homicides would mean more murders, he said.

Some say that reducing the numbers of justifiable homicides might jeopardize the safety and survival of police officers.

"An officer is not paid to give up his life and take unnecessary chances," said Lt. Craig Husband, who teaches use of force at the sheriff's academy.

Rather than treating justifiable homicide as something to prevent, police groups have, at times, viewed it as something to praise.

Officers who shoot killers on a rampage, such as the unemployed computer engineer Alan Winterbourne, have been honored with the Medal of Valor, the highest award given by the Peace Officers Assn. of Ventura County.

But not all justifiable homicides stop murderers. Oxnard police have in recent years shot a car thief armed with a gun and a flasher driving his car toward a police officer, according to reports.

And Geller said even dangerous situations do not have to end in death. "Bad guys with guns are arrested all the time and nobody gets shot," said Geller, author of "Deadly Force: What We Know."

Local police say emerging technology is a key to reducing fatal officer-involved shootings.

Lt. Patrick Miller said the Ventura Police Department has already spared some lives by shooting people with shotguns that fire small sandbags rather than lethal ammunition. The sandbag-guns, deployed in May, 1994, have successfully disabled dangerous people who might otherwise have been killed, Miller said.

Asked about preventing fatalities, Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Tom Cady also discussed a future full of such sophisticated, non-lethal weapons as chemical sprays and electronic stun guns.

But experts say much of the technology for preventing officer-involved shootings is already available.

The most effective tool, they say, is a strict and concise department policy on the use of force.

The county Sheriff's Department, which patrols a large area but has been involved in remarkably few fatal shootings, has a three-page policy that tells officers not only when they can shoot, but also tells them when they cannot.

It warns officers not to shoot at fleeing people who have committed only petty crimes, and it reminds officers that the Sheriff's Department has always used "extreme caution" in considering the use of deadly force against youthful offenders. It also tells officers to avoid firing warning shots, and to avoid shooting people because they run away.

The Ventura Police Department's policy contains none of those restrictions. And a draft of the Oxnard policy, which is under revision, contains no language about youthful offenders or fleeing petty thieves.

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The 17-page proposed Oxnard policy, however, includes a "use-of-force continuum" chart, with "low force" such as a firm grip or gesture at the bottom of the page, and "deadly force" at the top.

But one lawyer who defends police in shooting cases said such policies can get departments sued and officers killed.

"We don't want officers to say, see, let me go back to that chart, maybe I should be using pepper spray, and in the meantime the officer is getting stabbed to death with a knife," said attorney Bruce D. Praet , who killed a man in 1979 when he was a police officer in Orange.

Training can also play a role in reducing officer-involved shootings, experts said.

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