The chaotic, potentially dangerous ending to a high-speed car chase last week has raised questions among high-ranking Los Angeles Police Department officials over the tactics and force several officers used to apprehend the driver.
Tonsha Wilcher, 39, walked into the lobby of the LAPD's Southwest Area station about 2 p.m. Aug. 5, threatened to kill the officers working at the front desk and then fled in his car, according to an LAPD account of the incident.
A wild pursuit ensued, with Wilcher racing recklessly through residential streets in South Los Angeles. Video footage recorded by news helicopters shows the driver of a blue sedan running traffic lights, driving into oncoming traffic and colliding with two cars. At one point, Wilcher drove for several hundred feet down a sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to jump out of the way.
Wilcher eventually rammed into the side of a car and officers quickly blocked him in with their vehicles. At least 11 officers rushed from their patrol units, with some swarming to the driver's side of Wilcher's car with their guns pointed at him at close range. Others approached the passenger side of his car. For the entirety of the standoff, at least one officer had a gun pointed into Wilcher's car.
That, several LAPD officials said, created the potential for a deadly crossfire, or "blue-on-blue," situation. If Wilcher had been armed, or made a movement that one of the officers interpreted as reaching for a weapon, and the police opened fire, they could have inadvertently shot other officers.
Deputy Chief Sandy Jo MacArthur, who oversees training for the LAPD, declined to comment on the specifics of the chase, citing the ongoing internal investigation into the officers' actions. In general, she said, officers are trained at the Police Academy to avoid such dangers.
"We train to always know where our partners are and where other responding officers are so we don't create the risk of a blue-on-blue shooting," she said.
An internal investigation is conducted after every pursuit. If the tactics or level of force that officers used are found to have violated department policies, the officers could be disciplined with suspensions. Whether or not policies were violated, it is likely the officers will be ordered to go through additional training, officials said.
MacArthur said the internal review also will look at whether the officers were right to swarm the car immediately instead of keeping their distance and orchestrating a more methodical arrest, in which Wilcher would have been ordered to get out of the car and lay on the ground. That determination, she and others said, will depend heavily on whether the officers had reason to believe Wilcher was preparing to flee on foot or in the car he hit.
The investigation also will look at the multiple tactics used while trying to subdue and detain Wilcher, who resisted officers as they tried to extract him from the car.
One officer is seen on the video throwing several punches at the suspect through an open car window, while another appears to use an electric Taser on him through a different window. At the same time, more officers smashed the rear window, with one of them jumping on the car to stomp on it with his foot. Officers also sprayed Wilcher repeatedly with stinging pepper spray.
"From the footage I've seen, I would have liked to see better coordination," said Asst. Chief Earl Paysinger, who emphasized that he would await the results of the investigation before drawing firm conclusions.
Robert Saltzman, a member of the civilian panel that oversees the LAPD, and Paysinger said one of the important questions to answer is whether a field supervisor joined the pursuit and took control of orchestrating the officers' response, as is expected, or whether the officers were left without clear direction.
After being doused with the painful pepper spray, Wilcher got out of the car and put his hands on his head. He appeared to resist efforts to handcuff him, which led to a scrum in which several officers forced him to the ground and one officer punched him several times. A bloodied Wilcher eventually was restrained. About 20 officers in total were involved or looked on.
"I have a problem with the large number of officers who were there and the tactics they used to get him out of the car. There just doesn't appear to have been any clear plan," said a high-ranking official, who requested that his name not be used because of the ongoing investigation.
Paul Weber, president of the union that represents LAPD officers, cautioned against judging the officers' actions until investigators heard their version of events. Such pursuits, he said, are fluid, unpredictable events.
"Ideally, in the sterile world that police don't get to live in, it would be nice to try one technique and then another. But that is not realistic," he said.