In this update, I explained how corruption works in law enforcement agencies, and how it effects police officers from the lowest ranking officer on the street to the highest ranking officers in the administrative suite. I also explained the realities of police training, particularly as it relates to firearms.
I also revealed some interesting information on Las Vegas Valley Locking Systems, the company that serviced the Costco video system.
As always, those interested in reading the comments that accompanied each original article should visit the Confederate Yankee Erik Scott Archive.
11-24-10 The Erik Scott Case: Update 8.2: Training, Corruption, Confusion and (More) Coincidence
A press release on the business relationship between the Metro Police and Las Vegas Valley Locking Systems (LVVLS) can be found here.
On Thursday, November 13, Phillip Ransom of Kansas City ran out of luck. His old van, the van he drove every day in his janitorial business, broke down just before 6 PM with a series of backfires about a block from his home. But his luck quickly became worse. Someone called the Kansas City Police and reported hearing shots. Worried about his van catching fire, Ransom stepped out at about the time two officers arrived and immediately opened fire, shooting repeatedly at Ransom and the van. Ransom stood by the van, his empty hands up, shouting that he wasn’t shooting. “I guess they couldn’t hear me,” he said. Ransom didn’t know how many rounds were fired: “I wasn’t counting, but it sounded like a lot.” When the smoke finally cleared, Ransom and the officers were unharmed, but Ransom’s van was hit at least three times, and the officers also shot out several windows of their patrol car. The local media story of this incident can be found here.
This incident is not directly related to the Erik Scott shooting. It occurred in Kansas City, MO. The Las Vegas Metro Police were not involved. However, it is mentioned here because there are a number of similarities with the Scott shooting (and many other police shootings). Among them:
(1) The police acted on inadequate information and without necessary tactical awareness.
(2) The police fired without concern for the safety of the public.
(3) The police endangered not only the public, but themselves.
(4) The shooting was unjustified.
(5) The officers panicked in response to a situation that should never have caused panic in a competent, well trained police officer.
(6) The officer’s marksmanship was, thankfully, terrible, as is commonly the case in police shootings. This was not the case in the Scott shooting, or was it?
(7) The officers were never in control of events; events controlled them.
The underlying issue is that of proper training for police officers. I’ll return to that issue shortly. But let’s take a moment to explain something that is hard for many people to understand: How police agencies become corrupt, little by little, over time.
THE HOPES AND CHOICES OF JOHN SMITH:
Officer John Smith has completed his basic academy at the top of his class. He has completed his field training course, riding for months with seasoned officers who showed him the ropes. He has earned his state certification and is a bona fide law enforcement officer. He is about to begin his first shift on his own in a genuine, dirty, poorly maintained, raggedy patrol car, with no one looking over his shoulder. Until this day, he has been, to various degrees, sheltered from many realities of the job, sheltered so that he could focus only on what he needed to learn in the short time he had to learn it. For the first time, he will be alone in his police car. It will, for a few days, seem very large.
The public doesn’t realize that most police officers ride alone, one officer per police car. Officers “partner” only in some cities, and even then, only in some neighborhoods or “beats.” This is done primarily to save money and maximize coverage. This doesn’t offer many opportunities for hip, dysfunctional partner relationships and snappy dialogue as in TV cop shows, but it is much more efficient in a police world of tight budgets, eternally lacking manpower and often, too few fully functional police vehicles.
Officer Smith–he’s suddenly no longer recruit Smith–is on the bottom rung of the law enforcement ladder. He’s a rookie. He, and all new officers, hate that term. Smith suspects he’s smarter than many of the cops he has already met, smarter and more dedicated, and he’s right, but none of that matters. He’s a rookie, and he’ll be expected to shut up, look and listen and try to fit in. His opinion, like the Vice Presidency, isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit. His rookie phase will end only when a new group of cops is dumped on the street and are, by comparison, even greener and more spit and polished than he is. Smith has observed that the way things are done by experienced officers is different from what he has been taught. He knows he has to learn those ways, some more subtle than others, and soon. He wants to be a good officer, even a great officer. He takes a deep breath, urges the loose and floppy shift lever into drive, and begins his first solo shift.
Weeks pass, and little by little, Officer Smith learns the ways of seasoned officers. It seems that just about everyone takes free coffee and donuts, and often many times each day. Shopkeepers seem, if not happy about it, not upset either, and the officers expect it, making no attempt to pay for their snacks. Some officers even expect free meals. Some shopkeepers obviously don’t like that, but they do it and shut up. This bothers Smith, but when he tries to pay for his food, his fellow officers give him a hard time, joking but with an edge, and when he persists, they make it clear–they never directly say it–that this is the way of things and anyone who doesn’t accept it is setting himself apart from his fellow officers. Smith puts his money away. He considers never taking coffee with his fellow officers, but there is no easy way to avoid it entirely without raising eyebrows. He does his best to keep it to a minimum, but over time, this minor worry is displaced by bigger concerns.
One night he answers a call to back up another officer who has stopped a possible drunk driver. The shift supervisor, a Sgt., arrives a short time later and they both stand by, watching and listening as Officer Jones, a long time officer who seems to be well respected, makes the arrest. The man tells the officer he had “three beers” before starting for home. Watching the field sobriety tests administered by Officer Jones, Officer Smith is troubled. He isn’t seeing any signs of intoxication, and he is surprised when Officer Jones arrests the man. Smith makes a point of sticking around after the shift and stealthily taking Jones’ report on the arrest from the in basket before the Sgt. can read it. Smith is confused and upset when he reads the report, a report of terrible performance on the field sobriety test by the man Jones arrested, performance that Smith did not see. Smith considers talking to the Sgt. but replaces the report. He’s confident that the Sgt., who also saw what happened, will deal with it. The next day, Jones is back as always, joking with the Sgt. The driver is convicted on the strength of Jones’ report. Smith has no idea what’s going on, but he doesn’t dare speak up. After all, the Sgt. did nothing even though he had to know–didn’t he?–what happened. Smith is determined to watch more carefully and to keep his mouth shut.
Officer Smith continues to watch and learn. One day he helps other officers make an arrest after a short high speed pursuit. After helping take down and handcuff the car thief after a short foot chase, he is holding the man on the ground when two officers rush up and deliver several kicks and baton blows to the thief who is not resisting. Smith is shocked, but does nothing as the officers withdraw. He notices a Sgt. watching the entire matter. Later, he meets privately with Officer Hanson, an experienced officer he thinks he can trust. He tells him what happened. He tells Hanson that the officers, at the least, committed an assault, maybe even a felony aggravated assault since they hit the man with batons. He tells him a Sgt. was present. Hanson is sympathetic. He asks for the names of the officers and the Sgt. When Smith tells him, he quietly nods and tells Smith to forget it and not to mention it in his report. Smith is amazed. He’s almost speechless. He begins to protest, but Hanson cuts him off and tells him to drop it for his own good, to forget all about it. He saw nothing; he knows nothing. Hanson is friendly, concerned, but firm. He makes it clear that pursuing the matter will only harm Smith and no one else. Smith takes his advice, but worries about it and doesn’t like it.
A year has passed. No one calls Officer Smith “rookie” anymore. He likes that. He has seen many instances of questionable, even illegal behavior on the part of fellow officers, and he doesn’t like any of it, but he knows better than to speak up. So far, no one has ever asked him about anything he’s seen, no prosecutors, no defense lawyers, no supervisors or higher ranking officers, so he has not had to make a decision; he has not had to testify against a fellow officer. He has become used to leaving some things out of his reports and “forgetting” some details, but he does his best to be honest. Still, he worries about the day he might be asked directly, under oath, and he has to decide about committing perjury or telling the truth. Even if a higher ranking officer asks about something, he has to worry. Is it a trick? Does he really want to know the truth and will he do what’s right, or is he just trying to find out if Smith can be trusted to be “one of the guys?” He’s pretty sure he’d tell the truth–he’d like to think so anyway–but he’s also certain that would be the end of his police career. He doesn’t think anyone would try to harm him or his young, pretty wife–she’s so proud of him; he hasn’t told her of his worries–but he has lingering doubts. Those doubts will soon be entirely dispelled.
It happens one night when he responds to a domestic violence call with two other officers. Two more experienced officers have arrived just before Smith and tell him to cover the back door of the house. Moments after taking a good position in the backyard, Smith hears three gunshots in rapid succession coming from the front of the house. Grabbing his radio, he calls in shots fired, and drawing his handgun, rushes around the front of the house to find a middle-aged man on the ground, blood gushing from multiple chest wounds. A woman, his wife, is on the steps of the house, screaming and trying to get to the man. One officer who has a sick look on his face is restraining her and the other officer is covering the man with his handgun. The officer yells at Smith to cuff the man, who is not moving. Smith holsters, rolls the man over, and handcuffs him, then rolls him back over and tries to find a pulse. There is none. His eyes are open, staring blindly, his expression one of great surprise. Stunned, Smith asks what happened. The officer tells Smith that the man charged him with a knife. Smith looks around, but can’t see a knife anywhere. The other officer tells Smith to call an ambulance and wait at the end of the long driveway to direct them in when they arrive. Smith nods and does as he’s told.
When the ambulance arrives, Smith escorts the paramedics with their gurney directly to the man and sees, to his horror, a large generic folding knife, its blade locked open, on the ground near the man. He is certain it wasn’t there before. “Where did that come from?” Smith blurts out. The other officer says “that’s the knife the guy had when he attacked me.” Smith opens his mouth to speak, but catches himself. He cannot, however, keep his face blank. He helps keep people away, and watches what is happening. The other two officers step aside and talk in private, shooting occasional looks at him. A Sgt. arrives and confers with the two officers. He turns to glance at Smith, who is now actively worried. In the background, he sees one of the paramedics gesturing to his partner; the man is DRT: Dead Right There.
The Sgt. approaches Smith and asks for his report. He tells it, all of it. The Sgt. is not happy and tells Smith to stay where he is. A Lieutenant arrives and confers with the Sgt. The Sgt. gestures for Smith to approach and speak with them. The Lt. asks Smith to tell him what happened. When Smith is done, the Lt. does not ask Smith anything. He tells Smith that the knife was there all along and Smith must have missed seeing it initially in all the excitement. Smith is smart. He knows what’s happening. He’s smart enough to do what he has to do and he agrees that he probably did see the knife at first; he must have been mistaken. The Sgt. and Lt. do not smile, do not pat him on the back. They tell him to make sure his report reflects the version of events he has just “told” them, the “right” version. Smith gets the message. He’s sure his “mistake” will be passed on to the division Captain, probably higher.
Officer Smith has a lot of thinking to do, and for the first time, he tells his wife of his worries, all of them. She is horrified and terrified. She is proud of her young husband and had no idea. His choice is simple: Continue as a police officer on this police force and play along. If he does, he’ll be accepted and probably covered if he ever makes a serious mistake. That seems to be the unspoken deal. He can tell the truth, but he now knows without any doubt that the upper echelons of the Department are corrupt and he has no idea who, if anyone, he can trust. Since he has already been complicit in covering up a wide range of misdemeanors and even a few felonies, they could turn on him, frame him. He’s concerned that his life, even his wife’s could be in danger. He could simply wait a decent interval, try to get a police job elsewhere, and resign for “personal reasons,” but he has no idea if things are better anywhere else. He’s heard stories about other agencies, and they’re not encouraging. What does Officer Smith do?
THE NATURE OF POLICE CORRUPTION:
“Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton.
This famous aphorism was part of the dialogue of the original episode of Star Trek. It reflects a simple, yet powerful truth of human nature.
We give police officers a great deal of power, pay them relatively little, often train them poorly, equip them poorly, and expect them to perform superbly with accuracy, superhuman insight, and utter flawlessness. We expect them to do exactly what is right in every situation, to be error free 100% of the time. When they make a mistake, we call, all too often, for their heads. Yet, no one is forced to become or remain a police officer.
Officers know the rules. They know the law. They have to believe that their superiors will protect them against unjust accusations. Unless they believe that they will have reasonable latitude to make honest mistakes, mistakes that will not cause them to be unreasonably and excessively punished, fired and/or prosecuted, it is impossible for them to do their jobs, jobs we rely on them to do well. They have to know that as long as they act within the boundaries of the reasonable exercise of professional discretion, they will be supported. They have to know that their superiors understand those concepts and that they are reasonably intelligent and honorable men and women, just as they expect each officer to be a reasonably intelligent, honorable man or woman.
To that end, agency heads–police chiefs and sheriffs–must establish professional standards of behavior and see that their subordinates–captains, lieutenants, etc.–rigorously and fairly enforce those standards. They in turn must ensure that first line supervisors–sergeants–also enforce those standards. They all must constantly reinforce a number of vital understandings. Among them are:
(1) The police are a part of the community; life is not us against them.
(2) Police officers are public servants and must wield their power fairly and honorably.
(3) Police officers must always treat citizens with kindness and respect, while understanding that some citizens won’t allow officers to do that.
(4) Police officers must never use excessive force.
(5) As much as the public needs the police, the police need the support and good will of the public even more.
(6) Wearing the badge and blue suit is never license to break the law–mostly.
By this I mean that if the police are going to do their jobs and catch bad guys and save lives, they have to break some laws every day. In many states, state law is written such that the police are allowed to break traffic laws only if they are operating with full lights and continuously operating siren on their way to a call. As a statement of noble intent, that’s great. In the real world, it’s ridiculous and dangerous.
Often, officers have a feeling, a feeling based on intuition and experience, that they need to get to a call quickly, even a call that hasn’t been broadcast as a lights and siren emergency. Do you really want to force them to rigorously obey every traffic law in these circumstances, when you’ve heard and reported loud, strange scratching noises at your back door at 3 AM? Do you want to force them to run, lights and siren, to your door, chasing away the burglar long before the officers are close, leaving him free to return another night? Do you want an officer looking for burglars, peeping toms and stalkers in your quiet suburban neighborhood to have to rigorously observe minimum speed limits and keep his lights on, or would you prefer that he be able to be sneaky enough to catch sneaky people?
To the reasonable man or woman, the answer is obvious: The police have to be able to break the law, at least in small ways, as long as they’re doing it in the direct pursuit of their duties and as long as they achieve results. But lying about what they’ve done or seen, committing thefts, assaults, engaging in conspiracies? Certainly not, and in honest, professional agencies, these lines are clearly drawn and uniformly monitored and enforced. Every officer in such agencies knows that if he runs into a parked car while operating with his lights off, there is no excuse. He knows that if he hits another car, even driving with lights and siren, he’s in trouble. This is as it should be.
Let’s examine the troubles of Officer Smith to determine how and when things went wrong. Professional departments don’t allow officers to accept gifts, gifts of any kind and any price. This policy, if enforced, minimizes the possibility of the lowest level of corruption, Officer Smith’s entry level introduction. When an officer starts accepting small snacks–coffee and donuts–it’s a small thing to begin expecting free meals. Small business owners who depend on the police for a great many services want to keep them happy, so they shut up and fork over, but they don’t like it. Everyone they tell about it doesn’t like it, and the police look like petty thieves to the public. Officers begin to think they’re entitled, not only to snacks and meals, but things of equal, and eventually greater, value. Even officers like Officer Smith who have every intention of being honest are co-opted. Police peer pressure is extraordinarily powerful. Officers must trust each other implicitly for they hold the lives of their fellows in their hands. Anything that interferes with that trust is not tolerated. Established norms must be observed. And an officer who knows of continuing illegal behavior on the part of fellow officers and chooses not to participate is not trustworthy–to those committing the crimes. Power corrupts.
Not every officer in the most corrupt agency is corrupt. Most are not. But every experienced officer knows who is and to what degree. Honest officers do their best to avoid any real contact with corrupt officers and vice versa, and while it is not possible for honest officers to know absolutely nothing of the illegal doings of the corrupt, they know that they have to be careful about what they see and even more careful about what they talk about. They don’t have much choice; they have to work with those guys every day.
Over time, some officers become lazy. Some are lazy on their first day of work. Police work requires great attention to detail and skill in writing. Many officers are not inherently detail oriented or skillful writers. Many police agencies have bizarre rules that virtually require bad writing, such as forcing officers to refer to themselves in third person and to use jargon: “This officer egressed to the scene of the alleged crime…” Some officers began to see the world as us against them. They believe that every criminal gets away with most crimes they commit (they’re right about that), and they begin to believe that it’s therefore acceptable to exaggerate a bit here and there to ensure convictions. Some officers begin to believe that the deck is stacked against them in every way (they’re sometimes right about that too) and the way to catch up is to make sure that those who deserve punishment get it.
So the officer made up a few “facts” about a field sobriety test. The driver admitted he had three beers, and all officers apply the rule of three, so what’s the problem? The rule of three? Officers routinely take whatever number of drinks a citizen tells them and multiply by three or four to get into the true alcohol consumption ballpark. Blood alcohol results usually bear out the relative accuracy of the rule.
Officer Smith confirmed his suspicions. The officer exaggerated; he lied on an official document. That’s a crime. Smith wisely waited to see what the Sgt. would do. The Sgt. saw what Smith saw. He had to approve the same report Smith read, but he did nothing. The officer got away with it, and a man who was at least somewhat innocent was convicted of a crime he might not have actually committed. Either the Sgt. covered for the officer–he was complicit in a crime–or, or what? Officer Smith doesn’t know, but it doesn’t look or feel good. What Officer Smith doesn’t know–yet–is that the Sgt. may have only skimmed the report, or perhaps he just signed it without reading it. In either case, the officer got away with a crime and Officer Smith learned that crimes are not only committed, but accepted and covered—one way or another–by first line supervisors, very powerful figures to new officers.
Let’s assume that the Sgt. wasn’t covering a crime, but just didn’t do his job and completely read the report. That’s easily fixed. And if he did read the report, he could have easily dealt with the problem by telling the officer that he may have been confusing some observations in his report with another incident. This would give the officer the opportunity to realize that this Sgt. wouldn’t accept exaggerations and to adjust accordingly. If every Sgt. did this, the problem would quickly extinguish itself. If they don’t it grows, and if first line supervisors know officers are violating the law and allow them to get away with it, they are complicit in each and every crime. They become, in effect, blackmail victims, for they know that if and when they try to return to the law, those they accuse will certainly accuse them in return, and all of those reports with their signatures approving them will come back to haunt them. Besides, it’s small potatoes, right? Just misdemeanor crimes, drunk drivers and the like, people who deserve it, right? Who is going to throw away their career, a pension they’ll have earned in a few short years, maybe even go to jail, over that? Power corrupts.
Officer Smith does his best when he witnesses, close enough to be spattered with blood, officers assaulting a criminal who is not resisting arrest. He witnesses what is arguably a felony. Seeing a supervisor nearby, and knowing enough, he confides in an experienced officer, a man he thinks he can trust. In a sense, he’s right, and the officer looks out for Smith, saving his job, and perhaps even saving his life. Smith is beginning to understand that corruption reaches everywhere and that there is nothing he can do about it except do his best not to be corrupt. He knows that until he gets a great deal more experience, he will have no idea exactly who to trust, and he is beginning to worry that even the highest ranking officers are corrupt, and he’s right. Power corrupts.
What he doesn’t know is that in order for this level of corruption to exist, it must be allowed, even abetted, from the top. Line officers don’t know about many of the complaints against them that are received and handled by their superiors. In corrupt agencies, they rarely know about such complaints because they are never investigated, therefore there is no need for them to be questioned about their actions or reports in a given case. In fact, in corrupt agencies, high ranking officers often actively hate working cops. They think they’re stupid and they don’t trust them. They’ve allowed, though inattention, incompetence, acceptance or all three, themselves to become implicitly blackmailed. Turning on officers, even incompetent, dangerous officers, is directly dangerous to them, not only politically–always a huge concern for higher ranking cops–but criminally. Even if they have provided competent, professional training, they must ignore violations of that training. They must keep up appearances, but nothing more. Anything more is dangerous, dangerous to them, and they do what they do–not to protect their officers–but to protect themselves, first, last and always.
Finally, Officer Smith stumbles into a botched shooting. An officer has, without justification, in a panic, shot and killed an unarmed man and has tampered with evidence to try to justify his mistake. Smith doesn’t know how fortunate he is, fortunate only in that this incident has occurred very early in his career and he has the chance to make the right choice. Smith now knows, without a doubt that the highest ranking officers with whom he regularly has contact are corrupt. He suspects it goes all the way to the top and he is right. Officer shootings, particularly those in which people die, cannot be easily swept under the rug. They bring headlines and unwanted political and public attention. In order to tamp down that kind of attention, to successfully stonewall that kind of public interest and outrage, the entire resources of the agency—even other agencies–must become involved. Strategies must be discussed and implemented over time. Unwritten, unspoken procedures must be formulated, understood and automatic. Political chips are distributed and cashed in. Favors are begged and granted. Witnesses are intimidated, evidence is mishandled, lost or destroyed, and business goes on as usual. It has to. If it does not, if the first substantial crack appears in the wall, the entire structure can collapse, crushing everyone within. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Imagine, gentle reader, that you are Officer Smith. You’re young, dedicated, hard working, idealistic. You believe that the police should be, must be, honorable, that little children should look up to them and that they should be worthy of their awe. You believe that it’s your job to protect women, to comfort those who need it and to catch the bad guys, to make them pay for the harm they do, for the misery they cause. And imagine that you have just learned, in a way that cannot be ignored, that you’ve fallen into a police agency that dashes your hopes and turns your dreams to dust. You can no longer ignore it. You must make a decision.
The easiest decision, in a way, is to simply go on for a short time, find a new job, and resign. Because they think you’ve played by the rules, they’ll give you a good recommendation. That’s part of the deal too. Thank your lucky stars you weren’t completely corrupted and you can step back from staring into the abyss before the abyss stares too deeply into you. You’re young. You can remake yourself into what you want to be, and if you find that no police agency is free of corruption, you can always give up and do something else. You’re young and you have not fully come to the dark side.
You can tell the truth. But who can you trust? They probably won’t try to kill you or harm your wife–maybe–but it doesn’t take much to achieve the same result. Maybe the next time you’re in a jam, your back up will be delayed, the dispatcher will misplace your call for backup or help. Things get lost, mislaid. You’ve seen it happen and wondered. It’s no one’s fault really, particularly in your agency. You can go to the feds, but what if the fed you contact is a pal of the Sheriff? What if he just doesn’t care? What if your problem isn’t on the currently politically correct action list, a list you’ll never see? If the feds get involved, it could blow wide open, everything could come tumbling down, you could be a hero…no. Never a hero. No matter what happened, you’d always be an outcast to some. At best you’d be a curiosity, even a fool. Most people don’t care to know the whole truth about anything that doesn’t directly involved them. Takes too much time and energy. No. It’s not going to end well for anyone no matter what happens.
TRAIN AS YOU’LL FIGHT BECAUSE YOU’LL FIGHT AS YOU’VE TRAINED:
This is one of the best known police aphorisms. Often ridiculed, it is, nonetheless, true. When everything falls apart in the worst possible circumstances, will an officer panic, lose control of his thought processes and fine muscles, wildly spraying ammunition in the general direction of a target, or will the skills and reasoning so carefully imprinted in his neurons and muscles take over and ensure an appropriate outcome? All of the skills relating to shooting and decisions to shoot require muscle memory and information processing, and these must be learned and regularly practiced. They are perishable skills.
Training is a difficult issue for the police, particularly regarding firearms. Putting an entire agency through a given training course–even yearly qualification–is a time consuming, frustrating and expensive enterprise. Taking people off the street costs time and money, particularly in unionized agencies. Officers will have to be compensated, and there is rarely sufficient money for regular time, let alone overtime, so compensation time is granted, time that can’t be afforded because agencies are always understaffed, so when an officer takes comp. time, their shift is short, often dangerously so.
The depth and quality of firearm training varies widely from state to state and agency to agency. I knew a state agency in the late 70’s that required all of its officers to wear their revolvers in flap-covered cross draw holsters on their left hips. Why? So everyone would look spiffy during inspections. It was, of course, a terrible way to carry a duty weapon because it was brutally slow, particularly for left handed officers who had to go through impossible contortions to draw their weapons. I knew another state agency in the 80’s whose chief firearm instructor demanded that they carried only four rounds in their five round S&W Chief revolvers with the hammer down on the empty chamber. This would have been a reasonable safety precaution in 1880 with single action Colt revolvers, but by the 1980’s all revolvers were safe to carry fully loaded. Even the FBI, at one time believed to be the cutting edge of tactical and firearm instruction, taught what I called the “squat and cover” method of shooting. One would thrust their handgun out in front of them at full arm extension, squat deeply while leaning forward and forming the off hand into a fist, clutching it to the chest roughly over the heart. The idea was that if a round was headed for the heart, it might be deflected or slowed by destroying the off hand. Of course, you would hope that you wouldn’t have to reload thereafter…
Significant improvements have been made in the intervening years, including an understanding that knowing when to shoot is, in many ways, as vital as knowing how to shoot. What has not been universally accepted are effective methods of teaching and testing these skills. As a result, the average American police officer may be, at best, an average shooter with average knowledge of his issued weapon. He may shoot it no more often than the required yearly qualification, and may be allowed to shoot that course of fire as often as necessary to reach the minimum required score, which is commonly quite generous. Weapon cleaning? You’re kidding, right? Not only do many cops not have the necessary tools and oils and solvents, they’d have no real idea how to use them. Because of the expense of the equipment and facilities necessary to use moving, or more complex targets and scenarios, most police qualification takes place in broad daylight on outdoor ranges with paper human silhouette targets posted at known, marked ranges. Courses of fire commonly change little over time. And because of the ridiculously high cost of full power, duty ammunition, many agencies use only lower power practice ammunition, which commonly uses lead bullets of lighter weight which change the recoil, report and muzzle flash characteristics of the weapon. As a result some officers rarely if ever fire the ammunition they’ll carry on duty, and if they do have to shoot for real, find their accuracy degraded by the report, muzzle flash and recoil of unfamiliar ammunition. As a result, mediocre shots often stay mediocre for their entire career. Many officers never become completely competent with, and confident in, their weapons and their ability to deliver accurate fire under stress.
Another important problem is weapon presentation, what some might call drawing the weapon from its holster. Many professional departments employ anti-snatch holsters that do not allow the weapon to be pulled straight out of the holster, but require the officer to release a catch or thrust the weapon forward before being able to pull it up and out of the holster. This does slow the draw somewhat, but with practice this negative drawing, but positive safety, factor can be overcome.
And that’s the problem: Not only practice, but proper and constantly repeated practice. Many officers, unsure of themselves, will not only release the safety catches of their holsters, but push their handguns forward in the holster so they can merely grab them and lift them up when the whistle blows for a round of fire (whistles or similar devices are necessary so officers can hear them through hearing protectors). This may improve times and scores on the range, but is deadly dangerous practice that no competent instructor should allow. All draws should always be done, each and every time, from a snapped and secured holster, exactly as the officer carries it. This is vital so that each officer knows exactly how long it will take him to present his handgun from a snapped holster. And this is only the beginning. Each officer must regularly practice. When I was on the street, I came in 15 minutes early every day and stepped into the small indoor range we maintained to practice weapon presentation drills, including turning to the left and right, and 180° to the back. I did not engage in quick draw silliness, but always worked to be completely relaxed, sure and smooth because smooth is fast. I also practiced holstering and securing my handgun without looking. I always finished with a pinch check to ensure that a round was chambered in my duty Glock and checked to ensure that my magazines were fully loaded and undamaged.
The point is that I was fully confident in my abilities and therefore intuitively knew exactly how much time I needed and had in any situation. I often did not need to draw my weapon when other officers had to draw theirs. I had the time to observe and they didn’t. I also often witnessed the pathetic spectacle of officers engaging in energetic, panicky wrestling matches with their own holsters while I smoothly drew and dissuaded some real bad guys from doing more than laughing.
But more potentially problematic is shoot/don’t shoot training, if a given agency employs it at all. Some of the more professional agencies own and regularly employ sophisticated laser systems that show scenarios on a screen with sound, and record and play back hits and misses. If used properly, such systems can teach officers that they have more time than they imagine before pointing in at a target and pulling the trigger. They can convince officers that they can afford those extra few tenths of a second before shooting. But even with these systems, additional videos with new and different scenarios can be expensive and as always, training time is difficult to arrange. Few officers will, if encouraged to do such training on their free time, actually do it.
Most agencies rely on federal agencies or commercial companies to, from time to time, bring portable versions of these systems around. Of course this means that such training might be available only every few years for a day or two, and many officers won’t be available on those few days. Many agencies never have such systems and either do their best with what they have, or don’t bother, relying only on classroom lectures and demonstrations. Some officers never receive such training except in one brief session at a basic state academy. Some don’t receive even that.
It is here that we return to the officers of the Metro police and the Kansas City Police, officers in two different situations on two different days, but with many facts in common. One of the primary goals of complete, competent and ongoing tactical and firearm training programs is not only to impart valuable knowledge and skills, but to periodically reinforce and update it when better and more effective techniques–as opposed to mere fads–are discovered. Also imperative is record keeping so that an agency has a record, over time, not only of an officer’s periodic final qualification scores, but the details of each course of fire, of their performance under pressure, their ability and willingness to learn and adapt. Ultimately such programs must be diagnostic. They must reveal which officers are potentially dangerous, which officers cannot adapt, who panics, whose lack of knowledge and skill is an accident waiting to happen. Ideally, these officers will be weeded out in basic training, long before they ever hit the street, but such diagnostic functions should never cease. Lazy, undertrained, panicky officers are dangerous in the academy or after ten years on the street.
In both cases, it is reasonable to ask whether these officers were ever effectively, properly trained in the use of force and in handgun employment and marksmanship. In terms of the common results of police shootings, the Kansas City officers, as comical as they may be (in the sense of black comedy), employed their weapons as one would expect in most police shootings, where most bullets fired do not strike their intended targets, even at very close range. The officers barely managed to hit the side of a full sized panel van and thankfully, completely missed the poor man whose only crime was driving an old, backfiring van. Fortunately too, they did not shoot each other, but only their own patrol car, likely pulling their weapons and opening fire through the windows before they were out of their vehicle (the available stories are a bit short on such details). We do not know the exact number of rounds fired by each officer or their eventual destinations, but it is almost certain to be more than the three that struck the van.
This is only one of a great many reasons why the Erik Scott shooting is so unusual. Apparently three officers fired at Scott from very close range from at least two sides, more or less simultaneously, while actually surrounded by innocent citizens, citizens close enough to have been hit by ejected brass. These officers were almost certainly facing each other and were said to have fired only seven rounds, yet every round stuck their intended target–if they are to be believed, a moving target–and there were no misses despite the fact that they all fired–by their own testimony–in what amounts to a panic. We are expected to believe, among all of the amazing coincidences in this case, that the three random officers at Costco that day were world class tactical shooters who fired only a limited number of rounds and that no rounds missed. Miraculously, apparently none of the rounds fired struck anyone or anything else. This is, to put it mildly, highly unusual.
It will be interesting indeed to learn what kind of training records are maintained by the Metro Police, records that should include all manner of training relevant to this shooting, which should include the frequency of firearm training, courses of fire, dates of training and qualifications, kinds of ammunition employed, completion scores, number of attempts required to meet minimum standards, and much more. Considering the performance of the Metro Police to this point, it would not be surprising to discover that such records don’t exist or are, at best, unreliable. If this is the case, it would help to explain much, particularly whether Officers Mosher, Mendiola and Stark should have been on the street at all on July 10, 2010 and whether they should continue to wear a badge.
COINCIDENCE AND CONNECTIONS:
I’ve discovered that Las Vegas Valley Locking Systems, the local Las Vegas security company that has figured so prominently in this case, has a contract to provide video security services to Metro’s two police substations. The press release by the manufacturer of the systems dated 10-02-10, goes into more detail about the high tech nature of the system and of Metro’s requirements for such systems, including immediate video retrieval. This is yet another interesting coincidence in a case overflowing with them.
While this business relationship does not, in and of itself, prove collusion or wrongdoing on the part of the Metro Police or of LVVLS, certain reasonable inferences might be drawn from it. LVVLS would certainly understand, at the very least, that it would be wise to remain on Metro’s good side. They have, no doubt, a considerable economic interest in doing just that. And while such a relationship does not unquestionably mean that LVVLS and its employees would knowingly participate in a conspiracy, they would likely be careful, as everyone involved in the Metro side thus far has been careful, to say only the minimum necessary to achieve immediate goals (a successful Inquest finding) and to offer nothing further, as they apparently did not.
Another interesting but as yet unanswered question is whether LVVLS also provided the locksmith that Clark County Deputy Public Administrator Steve Grodin, accompanied by an as yet unknown Metro officer (or officers), used to arguably illegally enter Erik Scott’s home and change the locks to keep Samantha Sterner out of her own home after the shooting. Remember that the PA’s office charged the Smith family hundreds of dollars for the services of a locksmith and for their own “services” in carrying out an apparently unlawful search and seizure of Erik Scott’s home and property, but reportedly did not specify the name of the locksmith or his company on the bill. This may be nothing more than an oversight, or perhaps an attempt at concealment. In this case, at this point, it’s hard to know whether it’s either or both. But one thing is likely: The locksmith will have information about the words, motivations and actions of Grodin and the police before, during and after the entering of Scott’s home. The locksmith, providing he was acting in good faith, will likely have no legal liability for the probable illegal entry, but he will almost certainly know some interesting information. No doubt this is information that the Police do not wish the Scott family and their attorneys to have.
THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE:
Because a suit has now been filed, pre-trial motions and proceedings will begin. Among the most important will be discovery, which will include Metro, the PA’s office, the Coroner’s Office, the Secret Service, Seagate and a variety of other entities, making available to The Goodman Law Firm–the Scott family attorneys– all related reports and other documents. Expect this to be a difficult, lengthy and contentious process.
If Metro and the others involved have nothing to hide, if the shooting of Erik Scott was, as they claim, a completely justified police action, there is no reason whatever for any evidence to have been mishandled, lost or otherwise tampered with. There is no reason whatever for the Police to delay a single second in producing every scrap of evidence collected in the investigation. There is no reason whatever for every single witness to fail to testify willingly, honestly, fully and completely and with absolute clarity. According to the Police–to say nothing of several who have graced our comments section–this is manifestly a simple, open and shut case. If so, all the records and evidence should clearly reveal this and Metro should be only too delighted to produce each and every scrap of paper and bit of evidence in pristine, unaltered condition. This would be the routine, daily norm for any competent, honest agency.
Another interesting part of the pre-trial process is depositions, when witnesses, under oath and with a transcript taken, give testimony. It is during this process that a great deal that was not exposed at the Inquest will be likely to be learned, and potentially, substantial panic will set in at Metro. Again, if this is indeed a simple, open and shut case of a legitimate officer shooting, professionally done, all witness statements should be brief, neat and clean and contain few if any contradictions. However, everything that is now known indicates that this will not be the case. In fact the opposite is likely to be true. This process has the potential to break the case wide open as witnesses will, for the first time, be testifying under oath in a genuinely adversarial proceeding with the very real understanding that lying can and will put them in prison and can lead to far more damaging charges. All it will take is one substantial witness to tell the truth, assuming that the truth is different from the Metro version of events. Metro knows, and fears, this.
Should the case actually go to trial, it will become more and more interesting. Again, if the shooting was as cut and dried as Metro and its supporters would have us believe, its officers and leaders will have a very, very hard time explaining every mistake, omission, crime and bizarre coincidence they’ve perpetrated since the echo of the final gunshot died away, actions that would not have been in the least necessary if the shooting was, in fact, a legitimate exercise of professional police discretion. In fact, they will likely have to repeatedly describe and portray themselves as amazingly incompetent as a means of attempting to explain the unexplainable.
It will be very interesting to learn what the Goodman law firm knows about this case and what they will present at trial. I can make some educated guesses, but even if I am correct in the theory of the case I’ve presented here, I will take no pleasure in it, for Erik Scott will still be dead, many lives will be forever irretrievably damaged, and some officers who might have been worthy public servants will be destroyed. It will then be up to the citizens of Las Vegas to determine if they wish to be the employers of their police force or their continuing victims. Sheriff Gillespie may not wish to become too comfortable with his new term in office just yet.
We at Confederate Yankee [circa November 2011, Stately McDaniel Manor] will continue to follow the case as new developments become known. As always, we encourage our readers to help with their valuable ideas, questions and insights, and we encourage the citizens and officers of Las Vegas to contact us with their insights and information that might help to ensure that justice is, finally, done. If we’re getting it right, we’d like to know. If we’re getting it wrong, we’d like to know that as well and will make all necessary corrections.