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Bullets don’t “stop.”  Something–or someone–stops them.

Maggie Brooks

One of the nightmares of every professional police officer is making a mistake, particularly a deadly mistake.  Just such a mistake happened in Arlington, Texas on August 1, as the Star Telegram reports:

Margarita Brooks was homeless and with her dog Thursday when a man spotted her lying outdoors and called police to check on her.

After searching for a bit without success, body camera video shows, a rookie Arlington police officer walks along a sidewalk with a fence on one side and grass and thick trees on the other. From about 100 feet away, he calls out to her.

‘Hello? Are you OK?’ the officer asks. ‘Is that your dog? Can you –‘

The dog runs toward him. ‘Get back!’ he shouts as he himself retreats.

The officer fires his gun at the dog and halts its advance.

But at least one of the three bullets hurtled past the mixed-breed, part Labrador retriever and pierced Brooks’ chest. Suddenly the encounter became a grave blunder. The officer killed a person he had been dispatched to check on.

‘Oh my God!’ Brooks screams on the video. ‘The police shot me!

Police body cam footage as the officer fires.  The dog is in the upper center of the image, under the officer’s hands.

This case appears to be no more complex than that. The officer–his name has not been released as this is written–saw the dog running toward him and fired three shots,only one of which seems to have grazed the 40-pound dog.  Unfortunately, at least one of those rounds struck and killed Brooks. Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson categorized Brooks’ death as ‘unintended,” which appears, given what is currently known, to be as self-evident as it is accurate.

Everything about this call is an absolute tragedy,’ he said. ‘Our hearts are broken for the Brooks family and the police officer involved.

Also tragic is the inexperience of the officer involved.  Experience does matter:

The 25-year-old officer graduated from the police academy in February and finished his field training on July 1, Johnson said.

Johnson declined to offer an assessment of whether the officer’s decision to fire on the dog was appropriate. Sharing such an opinion would be presumptuous, he said. [skip]

‘Clearly this is not the outcome that the officer wanted, nor is it the outcome that the department wanted,’ Johnson said.

Unlike in many such cases, Chief Johnson is doing precisely what he should, and saying no more than he should.  The officer has been administratively suspended, and the APD will conduct criminal and internal affairs investigations, again, precisely what should be done.  No police official should have anything to say until both are concluded.  Additional details:

The officer was sent to check on Brooks, who was known as Maggie, because a man called 911 and reported about 5:15 p.m. Thursday that a woman was unresponsive in the grass, police said. The city’s fire department and paramedics were also dispatched.

The officer arrived around 5:20 p.m. and he and the other personnel could not initially find Brooks, police said. The caller later directed the officer and the others to the location where she was last seen.

When the officer found Brooks near Cantor Drive and North Collins Street, an unrestrained dog was near her, police said. The location is behind a shopping center.

Brooks was apparently homeless and was often seen with her dog and her boyfriend near a shopping center, according to people who knew the couple.

Acquaintances of Brooks said she was a regular in the area of the Seville Commons shopping center, near where she was shot.

City officials told WFAA-TV, the Star-Telegram’s media partner, that Brooks was the daughter of an Arlington Fire Department captain. The fire department did not give the captain’s name.

Various people who knew Brooks and who observed her dog said it was not aggressive and was friendly to everyone.  This does not, of course, mean it could not have been aggressive toward the officer, but there is, at the moment, no conclusive evidence it was–more on this shortly–which will be a significant factor in this case.

I can never say this enough: we are strictly responsible for each and every bullet we fire.  Even police officers, who might theoretically be afforded some degree of a benefit of a doubt, are bound by the same rules governing the use of deadly force as everyone else, as Mohamed Noor and the Minneapolis Police Department recently discovered.  Let us examine the general issues involved that determine whether any use of deadly force is justified.

Generally speaking, one may not use deadly force unless they–any reasonable person–reasonably believes they are facing the imminent threat or serious bodily injury or death.  There are four primary considerations:

Innocence: the defender must not be the initial or unlawful aggressor. People engaging in mutual combat can’t claim innocence. Because they’re actively trying to harm each other with no way to tell how far the conflict will go, they’re not engaging in self-defense.

Police officers generally have the presumption of innocence. It’s their job to go into harm’s way, and they act under “color of law.” They can’t avoid conflict like most citizens can.

In this case, the officer seems to have been acting under color of law, merely doing his job.  There appears to be have been no malice on his part, and there was no issue of mutual combat.  Innocence is therefore not really a factor.

Imminence: One can’t use deadly force again a possible attack, or against an attack that might happen at some time in the future. The danger must be real, clearly about to occur–within mere seconds of occurring–or already occurring.

The approach of the dog obviously fulfilled the element of imminence.  It was running toward the officer. 

Proportionality: the threat can’t be of humiliation or minor injury. If the only thing in jeopardy is hurt feelings, even a slap to the face might not be proportional. A reasonable person–in this case, a reasonable police officer–must believe they’re facing a threat of serious bodily harm.

NOTE: Andrew Branca is the current authority in the use of force.  Go to this article for information about his indispensable book. Anyone carrying a concealed weapon should have, and regularly refer to, it.

Here’s where the officer appears to be in trouble.  Was he really facing a threat of serious bodily harm or death?  That a dog might be running toward one does not, by itself, represent an imminent threat.

Reasonableness: A reasonable person–in this case, a reasonable police officer–-of the same knowledge, abilities and in the same circumstances would be compelled to use deadly force.

Generally, the standards applying to the use of deadly force against an animal may be more relaxed than the standards applying to human beings, but the realities of shooting apply regardless.  In this case, the question is whether the officer’s actions, given all of the circumstances he or any reasonable police officer knew or should have known at the time, rendered shooting the dog–actually, at the dog in this case– reasonable. 

ANALYSIS:  Maggie Brooks was shot and killed–unintentionally–by the officer.  He fired three shots (at least).  The mere fact he shot and killed her does not mean he violated the law, though it could be a violation of APD regulations.  Obviously, if his acts constitute crimes, that would be a prima facie violation of police regulations.

It is not enough for a police officer to meet the elements necessary for the lawful use of deadly force.  He must also use the minimum force necessary.  He must also be aware of his backdrop: if he fires, are people nearby in danger?  He must consider the likelihood of over penetration of his ammunition even if every round strikes his intended target.  This is a primary reason police forces uniformly use hollow point ammunition: it tends to provide the greatest probability of quickly stopping an attack, and also tends not to over penetrate.

Any officer must also be certain of his shooting abilities, particularly under stress.  As I’ve often pointed out, most police officers are not good shots.  They tend not to be gun guys and girls, and there are innumerable examples of officers getting into gun fights at arms length, emptying their handguns, and hitting nothing but the surrounding scenery.  Go here for an article that explains this unfortunate reality in detail.  Police officers tend to be particularly bad at hitting moving targets, virtually all of their usually inadequate training taking place at known ranges while squarely facing stationary targets of never-varying size and shape.

In this case, I have only a brief body camera excerpt released by the APD, and media accounts, upon which to base analysis.  The excerpt to which I’ve linked is the most complete I’ve been able to find, more so than The Star Telegram’s video.  I therefore may be wrong in ways I cannot easily anticipate, and as always, I’ll make any necessary corrections in the future.

The dog has stopped and is turned as it flees.

While the video is unclear–bodycams have real limitations–the officer, before firing, says: “Are you OK?  Is that your dog?” and an unintelligible female voice answers. He says: “Can you…get back…?”

The video show him rapidly backpedaling while three quick shots are heard.  He stops and begins moving forward again.

Brooks can be heard screaming, but it’s not intelligible until “Oh my God–the police shot me.”  What sounds like a sob can be heard, and Brooks isn’t heard again.

The officer calls “shots fired,” and continues to walk forward, his handgun at low ready, and says: “Ma’am; get ahold of your dog.” The dog has already retreated and is out of sight by this point.

The video ends as he begins running toward her. She is never visible during the run of the video.

It is not clear if the dog was aggressive, or was merely trying to greet the officer.  He appears to have fired when the animal was some 25 yards away.  It stopped and retreated at about 15 yards (it’s hard to judge distance on bodycam video).  This could be significant for several reasons:

(1) If may not have been possible for the officer to actually determine the dog’s intentions from that distance.  He may have simply panicked when he saw it come toward him.

(2) The greater the distance, the worse police accuracy.  Even at the range at which most shootings take place–seven feet and less–police officers have an abysmal hit average (again, take the aforementioned link).  Few officers, at the range apparent in the video, could have any hope of hitting a small, moving target, particularly one coming directly toward them. Few could reliably hit an erect, stationary, human silhouette target at that range.  In this case, the officer’s poor accuracy was in line with what one could reasonable expect.

The potentially biggest problem for the officer is backdrop. While there does not appear to be anyone visible in the video behind the animal, the officer knew someone was unresponsive “in the grass,” which should have told him they were down, nearby, prone or nearly so.  Because he had not found her, he could not assume that shooting in that area, in any direction, was safe.  The thick vegetation to his right is also a serious problem.  He had no way to know whether the woman was in that vegetation, or what lay behind and beyond it.

What the video suggests strongly is he knew where she was.  Again, the limitations of body cameras make this difficult to determine with certainty.  He surely was speaking directly to her, so at the least, he knew her direction and relative distance, so he knew the dog was between them.  After he fired and she screamed she’d been shot, he seemed to know exactly where she was, and when she didn’t respond, he began to run to her. I suspect that portion of the video has been withheld because what he found would be horrifying to the public. Was she gasping her last breaths, conscious or unconscious? Surely, she was bleeding profusely.   If this is correct, he has no defense for firing in her direction.

Brooks’ words recorded by the body cam. She is not in sight.

We don’t know the precise trajectory of the bullet that struck Brooks in the chest, nor do we know her position relative to the the officer, but from the video, he was clearly intending to shoot downward toward the dog.  This doesn’t mean he could not have shot higher or lower.  Such wildly inaccurate shooting is common among the police, but for the moment, it seems most likely Brooks was indeed close to the ground, and close enough for the body camera microphone to record what may have been her final words.  She appears to have been aware the police were in the area.

But what if the dog actually was aggressive?  We don’t know if the officer had a Taser, but that’s more likely than not these days. It’s also a virtual certainty he was armed with pepper spray.  It’s also likely he was carrying a collapsible metal baton.  All of those weapons, particularly pepper spray and a Taser, would have been sufficient to discourage an aggressive animal, particularly one of that moderate size.  In other words, if what appears to be the case is the case, he had multiple other effective options short of the use of gunfire.  The horror of it is the dog may have been coming to the officer merely to greet him, or seeking help for Brooks.  Dogs often do that.

But the dog could have hurt the officer!  Yes it could. But police officers–unless they’re far too dangerous to ever be allowed on the street–all understand they face the real possibility of injury or death.  They understand they may do everything right, and still get hurt. They understand they may have to take injury to protect the innocent.  We don’t pay them nearly enough for that, but those are the realities of the job.  Were they not, police officers could simply turn around and walk away whenever presented with so much as potential danger.  Any reasonable office should have known the dog might injure him, but if he fired in Brooks’ direction, she could be killed, and she was.

He fired three times; isn’t that excessive?  In this case, the bullet that killed Brooks was excessive.  If the elements for the lawful use of deadly force are met, one may fire as many rounds as required to stop the threat.  If they’re not, even one round is too many.

Final Thoughts:  This officer is in real trouble.  It’s highly likely his career, at the least, is over before it really began, and it’s possible he could be facing criminal charges.  This, as well as the death of Brooks, is a genuine tragedy.  The APD should also be closely examining its firearms and related training, as well as its hiring policies and procedures. Should this officer, or anyone like him, have been hired and retained?  If not, much must be done.

The enduring lesson of this incident is the importance of using deadly force only as a last resort, of knowing precisely when it may lawfully be used, and of being absolutely sure of one’s backdrop and abilities before loosing bullets that can never be called back.  With firearms, there are no do overs.

Even if this young officer is not jailed, even if he is not sued, his life will forever be defined by those few seconds, ending with: “Oh my God–the police shot me,” forever haunting his thoughts and dreams.