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Sheriff's Department Alters Vehicle Shooting Policy

Move is designed to prevent 'contagious fire.' Critics say the change is superficial.

June 09, 2005|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca will announce changes today to the department's policy on shooting at moving vehicles. But critics say the new guidelines are little more than semantics.

The new policy was prompted by a wild shootout last month in which deputies fired 120 shots at an unarmed suspect who led them on a chase through a residential neighborhood in Compton.

The rule changes, which are less restrictive than similar guidelines recently adopted by the LAPD, still allow deputies to fire at moving vehicles when there is an immediate threat of death or serious injury.

But sheriff's officials say they require each deputy to decide independently whether such fire is necessary, a change Baca says could prevent the kind of "contagious fire" that prompted one officer after another to begin shooting in the Compton incident.

"Discharging a firearm at another human being is an application of deadly force and must, therefore, be objectively reasonable," the guidelines state. "Each deputy department member discharging a firearm must establish independent reasoning for using deadly force. The fact that other law enforcement personnel discharge firearms is not by itself sufficient to justify the decision by a department member to shoot."

Ramona Ripston, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the new policy simply repackages the rules without fundamentally changing them. Moreover, she said that calling for "independent reasoning" by officers instead of the old standard of "probable cause" muddies the waters.

"There are certain legal standards such as probable cause, reason to believe and reasonable suspicion," Ripston said. "Independent judgment is not a standard that comes to mind for judging behavior."

Baca took issue with Ripston's assessment.

"The ACLU needs to get a new prescription on the glasses they are using to read this policy," Baca said. "Clarity is what this policy emphasizes and it clearly has narrowed the margin of discretion for deputies concerning firing shots at moving vehicles."

Under the sheriff's previous policy, deputies were warned to get out of the path of a moving vehicle. But they were allowed to fire at the vehicle if they believed the person behind the wheel could kill or seriously injure deputies or bystanders.

The new language instructs deputies to employ a more conservative approach, urging them to take cover from a safe distance, train a weapon on the suspect and give specific commands to surrender before considering shooting at a moving vehicle.

"The message is unequivocal that firing at a vehicle will only be seen by the department as a last resort after all other means of action, retreat or movement have proven impossible," said Michael Gennaco, head of the sheriff's Office of Independent Review.

The new sheriff's policy is less restrictive than training guidelines instituted by the LAPD after the shooting death of 13-year-old Devin Brown in February. In that shooting, an officer opened fire as Brown backed up toward a patrol car after a chase.

Under LAPD guidelines adopted in March, officers can no longer fire at a vehicle if the vehicle in and of itself doesn't pose "a threat that justifies an officer's use of force."

Deputy Roy L. Burns, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Sheriffs, said he likes the Sheriff's Department's approach because it does not go as far as the LAPD's.

"It still gives us the opportunity to protect ourselves and shoot at vehicles that are moving," Burns said. "But it does set a priority for the deputies to remove themselves from the danger before shooting."

The new Sheriff's Department rules were crafted by Baca, his top advisors and Gennaco.

Sheriff's officials said they planned to distribute the policy to all 8,000 sheriff's employees in the next two days, followed by hourlong briefings at stations across the county. Deputies also will participate in daylong training exercises that attempt to re-create conditions they may face in the field.

The policy spells out "tactical principles" aimed at teaching deputies to carefully evaluate a situation before opening fire on a vehicle.

They are required to consider where colleagues are positioned in order to avoid problems with crossfire, to consider the safety of the surrounding area if shots were fired, and to follow safe procedures in approaching a vehicle.

"What we are saying is get out of the way, move to cover, move to avoid the vehicle whatever way you can," said Bill McSweeney, chief of the sheriff's internal affairs bureau. "It's a better move because it's a safer move."

Because the guidelines don't spell out specific curbs on firing at moving vehicles, it's uncertain whether they would prevent shootings such as the one in Compton, where 10 deputies fired 120 rounds at pursuit suspect Winston Eugene Hayes.

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