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Accidental Gunshots Vex LAPD

In 350 incidents since 1985, officers shot selves or one another nearly as often as they were hit by suspects, records show.

August 17, 2006|Scott Glover and Matt Lait | Times Staff Writers

The iconic confrontation in American policing, in which brave officers shoot it out with armed thugs, has occurred time and again in the annals of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Only days ago, what seemed like a routine traffic stop turned into a gun battle when officers pulled over a car only to see a passenger emerge with an AK-47 assault rifle. The gunman sprayed the squad car with about 20 high-velocity rounds, one of which nearly severed an officer's wrist.

As unsettling -- and unpredictable -- as such incidents are, a Times analysis of two decades of police records highlights another danger to officers, one little appreciated even by officials who oversee the department: Officers over those years shot themselves or one another nearly as often as they were shot by suspects.

Since 1985, there have been more than 350 accidental discharges by LAPD officers. There also have been more than a dozen so-called friendly fire incidents.

Though the resulting wounds tended to be less serious than in gun battles with suspects, scores of officers and more than two dozen suspects and bystanders have been injured in incidents that department officials blame on careless handling of firearms.

"Any officer being shot for any reason is an unacceptable number," said Police Commission Vice President Alan Skobin, who is one of two commissioners assigned to review accidental discharges of guns. "Unfortunately, when you have a large number of people who frequently handle weapons, there will be accidents. You just hope that there aren't serious consequences."

Last month offered up a sad example: The 3-year-old son of an LAPD officer got hold of his father's 9-millimeter service handgun as they sat in a pickup truck at a traffic light in Anaheim. When the child pulled the trigger, a bullet passed through the officer and left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Officials say that kind of tragedy is rare, but department records don't track accidental shootings not committed by an officer.

The vast majority of accidental shootings the department does monitor are avoidable and generally the result of careless or reckless conduct.

Over the last five years, the number of accidents has declined -- as have all types of officer-involved shootings -- but such incidents still accounted for about a third of all gunshot injuries sustained by officers.

Some officers have been involved in more than one accidental shooting. However, because the Police Commission this year started withholding the names of officers involved in shootings, it is no longer possible to determine from its public reports whether an officer has a history of negligently handling firearms.

Mishaps commonly occur as officers chase suspects or clean their guns. However, over the years, some accidental gunshots have been highly unusual.

One off-duty officer shot himself in a leg as he sat behind his desk and, according to department records, contemplated "a complex mathematical problem." Another officer inadvertently pulled the trigger when his African gray parrot flew into his face.

One officer accidentally shot his girlfriend in a leg while trying to retrieve a cartridge from his handgun as a "memento" of their date. Yet another officer admitted that he accidentally fired his gun because he was startled by a woman holding a teddy bear. Two officers accidentally discharged their weapons as they handled them at home while watching themselves in mirrors.

Even officers from the department's elite SWAT unit have accidentally fired guns while on duty.

In one case, officers had just completed a highly dangerous operation in which they entered the home of a barricaded suspect. Though they emerged from the house unscathed, one of them errantly fired his shotgun while unloading ammunition from another weapon. Shotgun pellets struck the ground between his feet, with metal fragments ricocheting into his partner's upper leg.

In another case, an officer from the division that studies police behavior and attempts to reduce risk was off duty when he decided to give his fiancee a lesson on the safe handling of guns, according to a department report.

The officer thought he had removed all of the rounds from the cylinder of his .38-caliber weapon when he pointed it at a wall and began to explain "trigger pull pressure." As he pulled the trigger, a round that had been left in the chamber discharged into the wall.

Accidental shootings are not unique to LAPD officers. Statistics from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department show that deputies over the last five years accidentally discharged their weapons at roughly the same rate.

"I don't see it as a problem any more significant than other agencies might have, and maybe, in fact, less significant," LAPD Chief William J. Bratton said.

Police Department records show that 161 officers were injured by gunfire from 1985 to 2005, the last year for which statistics are available.

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