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Judgment Call : Some Experts Question Police Tactics in Fatal Shooting After Car Chase

March 31, 1996|THAO HUA TRACY WEBER and LILY DIZON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

This part of the televised Valentine's Day chase of Hong Il Kim is clear: With a car on either side of his red Toyota 4-Runner, two police cruisers behind, a concrete wall in front and officers surrounding him with their guns drawn, Kim had nowhere to go.

But when four officers shot the 27-year-old South Korean national to death--while the TV cameras rolled--the incident became muddled with doubts.

Did police have to shoot? Was it necessary for Kim to die?

Officials from Orange, Westminster and the California Highway Patrol, the agencies involved, have said their officers acted appropriately.

But some who viewed videotapes of the pursuit, including at least two police chiefs from Orange County and some of the country's top criminal justice experts, don't think so.

"This was an avoidable shooting," said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice professor who has helped write the deadly force policies for dozens of police departments, from Dallas to Aiken County, S.C. "Judging by the video, there was absolutely nowhere [Kim] could have gone. . . . I've seen a lot of bad shootings. This is one of them."

One Orange County chief, who requested anonymity, agreed: "By God, who are we to take a life if we can come up with other strategies and plans to take a person into custody instead? . . . It appears it could have been resolved without the death of the individual."

The same troubling conclusion has rallied a rare coalition of Asian American and Latino advocates, as well as the South Korean government, to challenge authorities' justification for the shooting and to demand a review of deadly force policies.

Investigations by the Orange County district attorney's office and the departments involved are not expected to be completed for months.

*

The deadly pursuit of Kim has highlighted startling differences in the policies of police departments on when officers can--and should not--shoot to kill.

Officials from the three agencies whose officers were involved maintain that the shooting was appropriate because Kim was gunning the engine of his truck--"a 3,000-pound lethal weapon"--at two plainclothes Orange detectives standing in front of it.

"I don't know if [the officers] could've dived off to the side," said attorney Bruce Praet, a former police officer who regularly represents the Orange and Westminster departments. "If they hadn't, you'd have two officers that are hood ornaments or plastered against that wall."

But Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters said that if officers in his city had been involved in the same fatal confrontation, it would have been a questionable shooting.

"On its face, that's the way it looks," Walters said.

Five police policy experts who reviewed the TV footage of the pursuit and shooting at the request of The Times all said the officers committed a series of tactical errors.

The deadly force policies of many police departments say that officers should not shoot at a moving vehicle, and some specifically state that officers never should place themselves in the path of a vehicle to begin with.

"Given a similar situation in our city, where there's no route for [the suspect to] escape, we would consider this a questionable shooting," said Dallas Police Sgt. Jim Chandler, who investigated officer-involved shootings for 10 years. "When you move yourself out into the path of the vehicle, then there's reason to question an officer's actions."

Had it not been for a citizen's prodding, the 30-mile pursuit of Kim might not have happened.

A Westminster patrol officer was en route to drop off a bicycle at the station when Kim cut off several nearby motorists to make a right turn.

"The turn was so blatantly reckless that one of the drivers made eye contact with the officer, as if to say, 'What are you going to do about that?' " Westminster Police Capt. Andrew Hall said. "At first, [the officer] didn't even want to make a traffic stop. He was in a hurry to get rid of the bicycle that was sitting in his trunk."

*

What started as a reluctant chase quickly escalated, reaching speeds of 100 mph and attracting more than a dozen officers from various agencies--including Orange and the CHP--and a squadron of police and TV helicopters.

Kim led the caravan of police cruisers into the parking lot of an Orange mini-mall. While Kim tried to evade police, a plainclothes officer jogged alongside the truck, pounding the passenger-side window with the butt of his gun.

Police eventually cornered the 4-Runner, ramming it into a parking space with their patrol cars.

With police cars behind him and parked vehicles on either side, four police officers, guns drawn, circled the truck on foot. Two Orange plainclothes officers stood in front, with a CHP officer to the side and a Westminster officer behind.

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