It is easy to sit back after the scene is cleaned up and slowly dissect the decisions of the police officers and supervisors after an incident unravels. It is one thing to find fault and point to the things that the officers and supervisors failed to do when compared to the textbook and/or practical’s as studied in a friendly and unstressed environment. It is certainly something different when the stressful events are unfolding with many unknown factors; therefore, this briefing is not written to undermine any supervisors or their decisions, but it is written to reinforce and remind police commanders of the need for continuous hands-on training to help in limiting the risks. The below is an abbreviated summary, as I read it, from an Independent Board of Inquiry as well as several CNN and FOX news articles and broadcasts. Lastly, considering my background, my examination of this incident was done purely from an internal affairs perspective and not from a tactical viewpoint; however, neither is specifically focused on within.
The department in question has over 700 sworn police officers and sworn reserve officers who serve on a volunteer basis assigned to the same duties and responsibilities as their sworn colleagues. This department also has a cadet program consisting of college students as well as over 300 civilians who provide support services to the sworn officers.
It was in 2009 that this department experienced their most deadliest encounter in their history, resulting in five souls lost, one sergeant seriously wounded, and many officers and citizens exposed to life threatening injuries which all begin with what is mistakenly referred to as a routine traffic stop by two motorcycle patrol officers. [WNI #1: There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop. All traffic stops are unknown.] Once the vehicle was stopped both motorcycle officers approached the vehicle’s driver on the driver’s side. [WNI #2: As one officer approaches the driver, the other officer maintains cover.]
This stop immediately resulted in the taking of two officers which prompted a city-wide police response. Following the murder of these officers the suspect fled the scene prior to any responding police units’ arrival on the scene. Regardless, members of the community rushed to help the officers giving them comfort, first-aid, and CPR while calling 911 in hopes for immediate emergency medical and police assistance. [WWW #1: Community members responding to the assistance of the wounded officers in a helpful and concerned manner.]
Board of Inquiry Report
WNI = What Needs Improvement
WWW = What Went Well
The first responding units arrived at 1317 hours and immediately provided medical support, preserved the scene, identified witnesses, and began a search for the murderer broadcasting a suspect’s description (i.e., “suspect is a male black, 5’8”, 150 pounds, all
black clothing, light skinned, wire rimmed glasses, direction of flight southbound on 74th“) to responding units.
Two minutes later (1319) the first sergeant arrived on the scene and determined that enough officers were on the scene and notified dispatch that the other responding units should look for the described suspect. Also at this time the Area III Lieutenant (#1) arrived on the scene and attempted to bring some order to a very disorganized, disheveled, and chaotic situation, but overstepping the sergeant’s assessment immediately expanding the emergency response seeking all units to respond.
[WWW #2: Lieutenant #1 responding swiftly, assessing the situation, and attempting to bring order to a chaotic unfolding event.] Furthermore, Lieutenant #1 reached out for an off-duty Captain (#2) informing him in under a minute of the events as they unfolded.
[WNI #3: Explaining such a complex incident in under a minute seems inadequate.] It took the Captain 90 minutes to arrive on the scene. [WNI #4: The Lieutenant never established a command post and never implemented any basic emergency incident management protocols.]
As a result of Lieutenant #1’s reversal of the sergeant’s order, a city-wide broadcast went out that an officer needs help; thus, causing over 115 police units from this department and many outside agencies to respond directly to this crime scene. [WNI #5: After the first Sergeant determined no further response was needed to the scene, the Lieutenant (#1) should not have called all units to the scene.]
The watch commanders from Area I (Lieutenant #2 @ I323 hours) and Area II (Lieutenant #3 @ 1331hours) responded rapidly as well. The two Lieutenant’s met briefly a couple of blocks from the crime scene (without Lieutenant #1) and Lieutenant #3 decided that incident management roles should be de-centralized. In other words, Lieutenant #3 assumed responsibility to plan and coordinate the suspect search; Lieutenant #1 managed the crime scene; and Lieutenant #2 coordinated the perimeter including an attempt to gain some control over the frenzied traffic.
Unlike the textbook, no Lieutenant or the off-duty Captain saw it appropriate to establish a command post; therefore, the city-wide response obviously overwhelmed the on-scene commanders giving way for the dozens of responders to self assign their own activities. (It should be noted that it took 90 minutes before senior leaders (e.g., captains and deputy chiefs) arrived on-scene.)
[WNI #6: With more than 115 Units reporting directly to the scene they did not understand their roles and went unmanaged; WNI #7: Two other Area watch commanders reported directly to the scene; WNI #8: With three watch commanders on scene nobody knew who the Incident Commander was; thus, there was no watch commander assigned to coordinate the efforts or plans; WNI #9: Lieutenant #3 self-asserted overall command and decentralized the command of the large-scale critical incident into three separate and uncoordinated activities, but never declared it; thus, the responding Supervisors believed Lieutenant #1 was the watch commander; WNI #10: Lieutenant #3 acted independently from Lieutenant #1 and ended up leaving most tasks unaddressed and uncoordinated, again failing to establish a command post, staff it or implement the basic elements of the Incident Command System. ]
Identifying and Securing the Suspect’s Location
While at the homicide scene, evidence technicians searched the suspect’s vehicle and located a California Department of Corrections number and followed up with a computer search of databases to identify the suspect and obtain his photograph and other pertinent data. From this document, the suspect was identified, and his photograph was obtained, but not distributed due to the lack of overall incident coordination. [WNI #11: Suspect’s identification and photograph could have been circulated under different circumstances (e.g., incident coordination) furthermore, the rank and file staffing the security perimeters, the designated arrest teams, and the ad hoc entry team were not provided with a suspect photograph and other identifying data when it was developed.]
In the meantime, Lieutenant #1 received from an eyewitness the suspect’s likely location, claiming she saw the suspect, after the shooting, going into an apartment building at 2255-74th Avenue by a female. [WWW #3: Lieutenant #1’s ability to obtain credible information on the suspect’s location.] And while the witness was believed to be highly credible by Lieutenant #1, he still demanded additional corroboration. This additional corroboration came by way of Sergeant #1 (an Area I supervisor) who suggested the use of a certified tracking canine from an outside agency to track the suspect’s escape route. [WWW #4: Lieutenant #1’s decision to use a tracking canine was appropriate.] The Sergeant’s (#2) suggestion was approved by Lieutenant #1, but this canine dog was 45 minutes away.
While Sergeant #2 and Lieutenant #1 wait for the arrival of the canine dog, Lieutenant #3 who was initially assigned to coordinate the suspect’s search was gathering intelligence on the suspect’s location. As such, a fourth Lieutenant who was off-duty received information from a confidential informant that the suspect was located at the same place the credible eyewitness told Lieutenant #1.
In providing more detail, Lieutenant #4 indicated that the suspect was on the ground floor front apartment of that building; thus, prompting Lieutenant #3 (without coordinating with Lieutenant #1) the SWAT team to respond via the police radio (at 1349 hours). After meeting with Lieutenant #4, Lieutenant #3’s confidence in the confidential informant who provided Lieutenant #4 the information was discounted, because the informant did not personally witness the suspect go inside. Regardless and without corroborating evidence because Lieutenant #3 never spoke with Lieutenant #1, he ordered a Sergeant to form a containment perimeter around the suspect’s apartment.
This included an armored SWAT vehicle (“Bearcat”) parked right in front of the suspect’s apartment in direct view of the front apartment windows. [WNI #12: If Lieutenant #1 & Lieutenant #3 actually spoke, they would have immediately had corroborated information on the suspect in the apartment; WNI #13: Suspect search was uncoordinated.]
At the same time the SWAT team was still assembling a Sergeant formed a team of officers to canvass both sides of 74th Avenue where the suspect had been observed fleeing; thus, prompting Lieutenant #4 to order the canvassing officers to take cover because the suspect was probably in the front ground floor apartment facing the street. As pointed out above, there were no basic emergency incident management protocols being followed, no established command post, and no centralized point for the gathering and/or dissemination of information; therefore, all decisions were rendered independently by the on-scene commanders and Sergeants.
Interestingly, with the canine dog only minutes away (1428 hours), Lieutenant #3 changed his mind on using the dog claiming it was too dangerous and that the apartment where the suspect was alleged to be holding up had to be entered first and cleared before sending the dog in. This spontaneous decision was followed by his ordering an ad hoc entry team to be formed from SWAT team members who were on the scene. (This was in violation of the department’s policy, because the full SWAT team had not arrived yet.) [WNI #14: Policy called for the entire SWAT team’s arrival and coordination not an ad hoc entry team.]
This newly formed and incomplete ad hoc team moved behind the cover of the Bearcat (which again, was parked directly in front of the apartment where the suspect was alleged to have gone). [WNI #15: Putting the Bearcat in front of the apartment and having the briefing in the suspects view gave the suspect the advantage of visually seeing what is going on.] At 1450 hours Lieutenant #3 met with the arriving senior command personnel including, but not limited to, a Deputy Chief who by policy was the highest ranking officer and incident commander; a Captain (#1); a Tactical Commander; another Captain (#2); the Area III Commander; and Lieutenant #1. This briefing took place in sight of the suspect’s apartment and according to Lieutenant #3’s assessment, he believed the suspect was not even there and felt the threat was low. Lieutenant #3’s conclusion was in light of the fact that Lieutenant #1’s pointing out that his eyewitness personally saw the suspect enter the apartment which corroborated the confidential informants’ observations.
Disregarding the relevance of Lieutenant #1’s information, after Lieutenant #3 left the briefing the decision was made for the ad hoc entry team to enter the apartment. Without debate, Captain #1 and the tactical commander concurred with Lieutenant #3’s plan to enter and clear the apartment. In fact, the only thing a Deputy Chief questioned was whether or not medical support has been coordinated nearby. [WNI #16: The enter-and-clear plan exhibited flaws, and it should have been terminated during a competent review by, not less than the Deputy Chief and WNI #17: The apartment where the suspect was seen entering was not an “active shooter” or a barricaded suspect posing an immediate threat to hostages: The suspect was allegedly inside the apartment and at this time was not a threat to the community; therefore, without exigent circumstances there was no urgency to enter the apartment.]
The ad hoc entry team moved into position at 1502 hours. [WNI #18: Lieutenant #3 did not gather routine intelligence on the target location, establish location surveillance or obtain an interior floor plan and building layout; WNI #19: Lieutenant #3 made no attempts to contact the occupants of the suspect apartment using a telephone, public address system or throw phone; and WNI #20: No efforts were made to protect the surrounding residences, no evacuations were attempted, and no background information was gathered for the location in preparation for the enter-and clear operation.] Regardless, entry was made [WNI #21: It is fair to say, Lieutenant #3 prematurely ordered the Entry Team to undertake a high-risk task from a position of extreme disadvantage] and immediately after the suspect’s door was forced open, Sergeant’s #4 entered, followed by Sergeant #3.
Without firing one shot, Sergeant #3 was immediately mortally wounded and Sergeant #4 was shot and wounded in the shoulder. As this unfolded the ad hoc entry team was unable to identify the target as the room was poorly illuminated. Completely unexpected, a female started screaming and emerged from the bathroom running past the entry team. No shots were fired from or at her. (Visibly, toys could be seen in the apartment front living area and rear bedroom.)
As Sergeant #3 was being evacuated Sergeant #4 (while wounded) continued to move into the bathroom. An entry team member, Officer #2, observed the suspect beside a rear bedroom door holding an assault weapon; whereby, the Officer fired at the suspect. As Sergeant #2 entered the room he was mortally wounded; Sergeant #4 rushed the room but tripped due to the dim lighting conditions and fell in front of the suspect who was seated on the floor inside the closet. Sergeant #4 took a shot at the suspect, while on the floor, after seeing the suspect holding an assault rifle with a large capacity magazine and a bayonet. [WNI #22: The use of lethal force did not occur until after the ad hoc entry team encountered assault rifle fire and suffered an immediate fatality with another team member wounded, in a situation where they could not see the shooter and had no idea as to the apartment floor plan.]
At the same time Sergeant #4 took his shot, Officer #2 entered and fired at the suspect along with a Deputy (#1) from an outside agency who also fired at the suspect. After concluding the shots fired eliminated the threat, the assault weapon was removed from the suspect; the two fatally wounded SWAT team members were evacuated; and the suspect was pronounced dead at the scene.
In the end, four sworn police officers were murdered by the suspect who was later shot and killed by the police.
Chief (ret.) Robert A. Verry C.P.M., M.A.
Assistant Professor of Political and Governmental Affairs