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5 Cops, 90 Gunshots, 1 Unarmed Man

I first heard about the LCPD shooting of Jonathan Strickland a day or two after it happened. A newspaper article informed that Strickland was a suspect in a domestic violence incident where he threatened his wife with a pistol. Allegedly, Strickland at one point threatened to kill her, held her against her will, strangled her, struck her multiple times, broke her cell phone and tried to force the barrel of the firearm into her mouth. At one point, his wife said, he had intentionally crashed his car into hers. She went to LCPD to report him.

Strickland traveled to LCPD while his wife's statement was being taken, supposedly with the intent to go inside and present his side of the story. Officers saw him pull into the parking lot and, believing he was armed, evacuated the lobby and the west side of the station. For whatever reason, Strickland changed his mind about entering the police building and departed in his car. Officers tried to stop him and he drove through them. A brief pursuit occurred going south on Campo, which was terminated with a PIT maneuver at Hadley and Campo next to the outer wall of the U.S. Postal Service main office. That was where the shooting took place.

A day after I read the article in the paper regarding the shooting, a source dropped me a line and told me that officers had fired on the suspect but no gun was found. That piqued my interest. Not only did I serve 22 years with LCPD, but I also sat on deadly force review boards (on both sides of the table) and have experience in officer-involved shootings and follow-up investigations. I wrote nothing on this site at that time, opting instead to see how it played out in the media. No information regarding the number of shots fired, or even why an unarmed suspect was shot at, was made public by the LCPD.

The LCPD policy regarding deadly force is clear and includes relevant case law such as Tennessee v. Garner (fleeing felon) and Graham v. Connor (excessive force). The former basically states that a fleeing felon must present a danger to the community to justify deadly force, and the latter says that an objective reasonableness standard should apply to a civilian's claim that law enforcement officials used excessive force in the course of making an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure. In the Supreme Court's own words, "The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight."

This presents two questions: is a domestic violence suspect a danger to the community at large; and, is it justifiable to shoot an unarmed man?

When an LCPD officer deployed a PIT maneuver that spun Strickland's pickup truck, the other officers stopped in front of him with their units forming a slight semicircle. Plenty of video is available online. Within a matter of seconds they were discharging rounds at Strickland believing he was armed as he sat in the driver's seat. Reportedly, two officers had AR-15 rifles. One of those officers exited his patrol car but the other remained behind the steering wheel as he fired his rifle at Strickland through the windshield of his own patrol unit (this is not unheard of, especially in a firefight where the officer believes that the engine block under his hood provides better protection than a car door from gunfire coming from a suspect directly in front of him. The officer opts to shoot from inside the car versus stepping out and exposing a larger portion of his body. In this case, the LCPD officer was not receiving any fire from the suspect so I'm curious as to why this particular method was employed).

Allegedly, all officers discharged their firearms at Strickland and at least two of them exhausted their magazines, reloaded, and fired more rounds. A witness told the newspaper that 15-20 gunshots were heard. That was inaccurate. What they heard was a volley of rounds. If you've never stood on a firing range during qualifications with, say, ten shooters on the line who have been directed to fire a set number of rounds during an exercise, the actual number of shots heard can be deceiving. What the witness heard, as opposed to the actual number of rounds discharged in the seconds during which the shooting took place, tells me that the shooting was fast and furious. A video of the incident confirms that.

Ninety bullets fired divided by five officers equals 18 rounds per officer, but because at least two of them reloaded and continued firing that indicates some fired less than others. If you're under fire and trying to eliminate the source of the threat that is understandable, but in this case Strickland had no firearm. It also begs the question: if one is shooting that rapidly how accurate can round placement be?

Depends on distance and weapon, really. If someone is attacking me with a deadly weapon, the closer they are the more accurate I can be with round placement if I'm shooting fast. A rifle would typically be more accurate than a pistol in this scenario. Increasing the distance in rapid fire decreases the accuracy. Look at the vehicle Strickland was sitting in, the shots are all over the windshield and various parts of the vehicle and the officers appear to be within 15-25 feet of him, which is close. The real proof that rapid fire is no friend of accuracy is the fact that Strickland was only hit 12 times out of 90 shots fired. That is a 13.3% average, which would be a failure if attempting to qualify, but also indicative of heightened adrenaline in a street confrontation versus plinking rounds into a stationary paper target. Additionally, I do not know if the 12 hits were whole bullets or fragments, or if forensic examination has matched up whose bullets went where. Were any pulled from his body during surgery? Which officer and weapon did they belong to?

Before going any deeper into this, let me say that there is justification for shooting an unarmed suspect. Every cop out there can tell you stories about suspects who refused to show hands and claimed to have a gun. The phrase for it today is "suicide by cop." If a suspect keeps his hand(s) concealed behind his back, or under a shirt or coat, and claims to have a firearm, I am obligated to believe him (or her) and respond accordingly. Of the several times it happened to me I did not shoot. Circumstances dictate reaction. The Use of Force policy may justify me shooting under those circumstances, but like every cop that ever worked a beat you listen with your gut and not rely on what policy says you are justified in doing. If I, and my fellow officers, had capped every son-of-a-bitch that policy allowed us to shoot, funeral homes would have been doing brisk business. But like most cops we used our heads. I even had two separate events in my career where a suspect had gun in-hand and I did not shoot. Again, circumstances dictate reaction.

The Strickland incident happened on March 11, 2021. Almost two years later we are hearing for the first time about the number of rounds that officers discharged. And the only reason we heard about that was because of the civil lawsuit filed by Strickland's attorneys in federal district court. Strickland's attorney is John Burris, who represented Rodney King. He is saying that officers fired on Strickland because he is black and that if he'd been white he would not have been shot at.

So why the lack of transparency by LCPD? How come the public didn't know how many shots were fired until just a few days ago? That's an easy answer. Just look at the title of this particular blog. Not a very nice headline in a newspaper if you are a chief of police, right? Admit to nothing and hope it goes away, only in this case it came back to bite the city on the rear end.

On top of the number of rounds fired, Campo is a busy street and a dividing line between businesses and Mesquite Historic District residences. The shooting was on the other side of the stucco wall that separates the main post office back lot from the street. A lot of people work in that post office. Not every round that strikes a windshield or metal of a vehicle will necessarily penetrate, sometimes they can deflect and/or fragment and follow the path of least resistance.

I don't hold the officers on the scene completely responsible. Under stress, cops respond the way they've been trained. They always have, they always will. Officers cannot control where an incident occurs and how the suspect reacts, but they can control their subsequent reactions. Who trained them to unload that many rounds on a suspect where no firearm was seen? What is going on in LCPD deadly force training that five officers would open fire on a person sitting in the driver's seat of a vehicle who doesn't have a gun?

By Strickland's own admission he was "acting" like he had a gun. He said he was moving his hands like he was armed, but frankly I'm not sure what that even means from the perspective of sitting in a motor vehicle. I've pulled over felony suspects in vehicles who reached down or across as if they were going for something, presumably a weapon under the front seat or in the glovebox, but my response was never to open fire. It was to yell at them to show their hands (some were armed, but their efforts to elude police during pursuit had sent the handgun bouncing around and they could not locate it when finally stopped. One even said to me, "You motherf-----s are lucky I couldn't find my gun, I'd a killed all of you").

Was Strickland holding his hands as if he were gripping a pistol? If so, am I not obligated as a police officer to see a weapon in those hands before opening fire? There is a huge difference between a suspect seated in a vehicle and one standing several feet away claiming to have a gun and not showing his hands. A suspect sitting in a vehicle moving and ducking is not uncommon; what is uncommon is opening fire without seeing an imminent threat of danger, and doing so within seconds of the stop.

The point of this particular blog is not to demean the officers. What I am addressing regards two issues, the first being the obvious: what kind of training are the officers receiving with regards to deadly force? I've read the policy and it is comprehensive, but sometimes what is on paper and what is actually taught or talked about as being acceptable behavior can be open to interpretation. What's said in the classroom is not necessarily a reflection of what is verbalized in the locker room.

The second issue I am concerned with is if the LCPD has developed a culture that encourages shooting when other options are available. Before you say I've lost my marbles or have become a traitor or a left-wing liberal whining candy ass, understand that I have no problem with legitimate bad guys getting shot by the police. I've been there. There's a lot of very bad people out there who are armed and would wantonly and willingly kill police officers and that is reflected in the number of attacks on police throughout the country and in this city. Nearly every LCPD shooting I can think of was justified and necessary. That being said, understand some facts:

According to the Washington Post, which tracks police shootings, between January 2015 and April 2020, LCPD led the nation per capita in police shootings.

Amelia Baca, a 75 year-old woman with dementia holding two knives, was shot dead by a police officer who had at his disposal a canine, baton, pepper spray and taser.

I've watched LCPD body cam footage of officers in different incidents firing multiple rounds, rapid fire, from their weapons at vehicles fleeing the scenes of different crimes. Those incidents occurred in residential neighborhoods. The suspects driving were accelerating from the scene and by the time the officer draws and shoots the vehicle is so far away and moving at such a high rate of speed there is minimal possibility of hitting the fleeing suspect. In the old LCPD, an officer would have been heavily disciplined for discharging a firearm under those circumstances.

Now we've got 90 shots fired at an unarmed man. I thought the argument I would hear to justify the shooting would be that Strickland was using the vehicle as a battering ram, but that's not what is being said. We're being told that he was acting like he had a gun while he sat in the driver's seat

Regardless of how someone acts, either there is a weapon in the hands or there is not. There's no "maybe" or "might've been" about that, and there is a huge difference between a suspect concealing his hands behind his back or under his clothing while standing several feet away versus sitting in the driver's seat of his vehicle. And those cops ought to be damn grateful that they can't shoot for shit, because if Strickland had died in that incident he never would have been alive to make the statement that he acted like he had a gun. At the moment, that is the only saving grace for those officers. And it also brings up another point: the statement about acting like he had a gun is not uttered until he's in the hospital, which is after the fact of the shooting.

And one last comment on the danger aspect of this stop because I'm reviewing this with Graham v. Connor in mind, i.e. what a reasonable officer would think and not with 20/20 hindsight. An LCPD officer arrived on scene and crashed into the post office wall hard enough to make his airbag deploy. He exited the patrol vehicle and rather than peek around the corner of the wall at the suspect vehicle, he climbs on to the roof of his unit for a better look, thus exposing his entire body to Strickland. How much danger did that officer feel he was in at that moment? Cops are taught to use solid objects like car engines and walls for protection, not expose themselves to potential gunfire.

I was happy to hear the city manager, Ito Pili, state that he stands behind the LCPD. All officers need to know that, especially in this era of anti-police sentiment. But I would tell Mr. Pili that sometimes standing behind the officers who work for you means taking a serious look at the leadership that sets the tone for how a police department operates. Yes, the city has grown and with that growth comes violent crime, and violence against police officers has definitely increased deadly force incidents, but applying that force in situations where it isn't necessary should not be part of those statistics. Once again, I find myself pondering the question: are cops shooting because they have to, or are they shooting because policy says they can?

Was there internal discipline handed out in this case? When adrenaline is high and cops are scared because they believe a suspect is armed (after all, Strickland's wife said he had a gun), all it takes is for one cop to open fire and the rest will follow suit. How many officers on that scene fired because they figured once the shooting started somebody must've seen Strickland holding a gun? Who shot first and why?

LCPD is going in the direction of Albuquerque and other departments. In 2014, the Justice Department found that “APD engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.” That meant court-mandated goals over a period of time to change the department because leadership failed. That mandate was supposed to last four years and nine years later the APD is still under federal supervision.

Note: Strickland was indicted by a grand jury in August 2021 on various felony and misdemeanor charges. His wife later recanted her statement and said she had lied to police, which is not at all uncommon in domestic violence cases. The DAs office dropped all charges against Strickland due to evidentiary reasons.

Semper Fi.


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