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Oxnard's Rate of Killings by Police Tops Many Cities'

Law enforcement: The five slayings by officers so far this year equal the number reported by the LAPD and exceed figures for many other areas.

September 09, 2001|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oxnard police have fatally shot more people in the first eight months of 2001 than peace officers in many U.S. states and major American cities kill in an entire year, a Times analysis of recent figures shows.

Oxnard's five police homicides this year equal the number reported since January by the Los Angeles Police Department, whose jurisdiction is 22 times larger than the 170,000-resident Ventura County city.

Among California's major cities, spokesmen said homicides by police this year total zero for San Jose, two in San Francisco and six in San Diego. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has recorded eight.

Only 16 states reported more than five police homicides for 1999, the last year for which the FBI reported justified killings by officers. Ten had no fatal shootings by police and seven reported only one.

In contrast to Oxnard, New York City, the nation's largest municipality, with 8 million residents, reported nine justified police homicides in 1999, according to the FBI.

"It's absolutely extraordinary," said Richard Holmes, head of the homicide unit for the Ventura County district attorney's office. "Oxnard didn't have any for three years, now they've had just a torrent."

The recent shooting death of Robert Lee Jones, a distraught 23-year-old man, by Oxnard police while he was hiding in his bedroom closet prompted an uproar. The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People has called for a federal inquiry, and the state attorney general's office has started an investigation. A sixth Oxnard crime suspect was shot by police, but survived.

Police have said four of the shooting victims were mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. And Police Chief Art Lopez acknowledged that his department needs more training in how to deal with mentally disturbed suspects. The City Council, expressing concern, is set to discuss the issue Tuesday.

One expert says the spate of fatal shootings by Oxnard police raises questions not only about that agency's training and tactics, but also highlights problems police have had nationwide in subduing mentally ill crime suspects without killing them.

"That's a lot of shootings for Oxnard," said D.P. Van Blaricom, a former police chief in Washington and an expert in police tactics.

"It is part of the police's job, unless you train officers differently, to go in with their usual take-charge attitude," Van Blaricom said. "But for the mentally disturbed, you have to reverse that process. They become defensive. And if you continue to press the attack, you'll end up with a shooting."

Van Blaricom said beanbag shotguns and pepper spray--both nonlethal weapons used against Jones--are often not effective against a mentally disturbed suspect. He said many police agencies, including San Diego's, are equipping officers with Taser stun guns that have a range of 22 feet.

But the most effective tactic, he said, is simply to back off and give the suspect time to calm down if no one else is in danger.

He said several large police departments, including those in San Jose and Portland, Ore., have copied a model developed in Memphis, Tenn., where officers receive 40 hours of special training on mental illness and how to avoid confrontations with mentally disturbed people.

"A lot of this depends on the culture of the organization," Van Blaricom said. "Are they shooters as opposed to utilizing alternative tactics?"

Jones, who was suffering from depression, was killed Aug. 24 after his mother, worried that he might hurt himself, called police in hopes they would take him to a hospital for treatment.

Oxnard police have said officers had no choice but to use lethal force against Jones, because their lives were in danger when he moved toward them from his closet holding a 13-inch knife. A final determination of whether the shooting was legally justified won't be made until the district attorney completes an investigation.

Attorney Alan Wisotsky, who represents Oxnard in police lawsuits, said the city is wrestling with whether changes need to be made because of this year's shootings.

"I don't think anyone quarrels with the fact that this was an incredibly unusual year for Oxnard police officer shootings," he said. "The question we're asking is: Why were they grouped the way they were?"

Wisotsky said shootings do not reflect a state of mind or a tendency toward violence by Oxnard police officers.

A Times analysis of all 31 fatal police shootings in Ventura County during the last decade shows that Oxnard's officers--whose jurisdiction includes about 23% of county residents--were responsible for nearly half of the law enforcement homicides.

Oxnard Police Have Killed 14 Since 1992

Oxnard's rate of officer killings per capita during that period is about the same as Ventura's, but far higher than that of officers in the Simi Valley and Santa Paula police departments, or the county Sheriff's Department.

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