Staff Views
L.E. Forum

Police Seek Ways To Avoid Firing Gun
By John Woolfolk and Glennda Chui
Mercury News

Posted on Sun, Jul. 20, 2003

Trained with high-tech video simulators and armed with an array of non-lethal devices from pepper spray to Tasers, police in San Jose and other California cities are among the most progressive in efforts to avoid using deadly force.

But while police cite improvements, it's hard to say for sure how effective those efforts have been in reducing shootings by officers like the one last Sunday in which a San Jose policeman fatally shot a young mother he thought was attacking him with a kitchen tool.

``To come to any reasonable conclusion about deadly force application diminishing as a result of this technology, I'd have to tell you it's just not there yet,'' said Thomas Aveni, a 25-year police veteran in New Hampshire and leading authority on police shootings who has trained more than 12,000 officers. ``The jury is still out on that.''

Police do not routinely report statistics on shootings by officers, and experts say many departments are reluctant to release information for fear of lawsuits. Many non-lethal devices have not been in use long enough to provide meaningful analysis.

The fatal shooting last week of 25-year-old Cau Thi Bich Tran has outraged those who believe the officer should have first tried less lethal tactics. But police Chief Bill Lansdowne has said non-lethal alternatives would not have helped under the circumstances.

Shootings are rare

It is difficult to use the number of incidents as a benchmark for success or failure because shootings by officers are so rare. In San Jose, the community and police officials were alarmed in 1999 when officers shot eight people, killing all but one. Training was intensified and the department has touted the steady drop in the years since: five in 2000, four in 2001, and none last year.

But already this year San Jose officers have shot four people, two of whom have died.

Ultimately, those numbers are driven by circumstance and split-second judgments made by officers responding to threats -- real or perceived. Nonetheless, police officials and deadly force experts say that training and access to non-lethal weapons decrease the number of shootings by officers.

And in that regard, experts say departments in the West, and especially California, are making the biggest strides.

``Some of the most progressive agencies are in California,'' Aveni said. ``I think California is way ahead of the curve on less-lethal force application.''

Police in San Jose and San Diego, for example, train with state-of-the-art ``force options simulators'' that confront them with video images of suspects. The officers shoot real guns with blank bullets, and risk being hit with plastic pellets meant to simulate hostile fire. The exercises teach officers not only how to shoot moving targets, but when not to shoot at all.

Officers in both cities are equipped with pistols, batons and pepper spray. San Jose police must call to request rubber-bullet Sage guns and Taser guns, which fire darts that deliver a 50,000-volt shock. The weapons can be delivered to officers within 15 minutes of a call. San Diego police keep Tasers and bean-bag guns in their cars.

Police see benefits

San Jose Independent Police Auditor Teresa Guerrero-Daley said in her most recent annual report that while it is difficult to prove, the adoption of such training and equipment played a role in San Jose's three-year decline in shootings by officers.

San Diego police Lt. John Leas said technology has benefited his department, too.

``We're finding better-trained officers are more confident,'' Leas said. ``They are not so apt to jump to the handgun to resolve a problem.''

San Jose and San Diego are similar in both size and crime rates. Over the past five years San Jose police shot an average of 0.43 people and San Diego police shot an average of 0.78 people per 100,000 residents a year.

In one regard -- access to Tasers -- two other departments in the West have taken a step further. Phoenix and Sacramento recently put Tasers on every officer's belt.

Those departments report favorable results, though they said yearly figures for shootings by officers were not readily available.

In the first six months of 2003, Phoenix police used Tasers twice as often and fired their weapons only half as much as they did in the first half of 2002, and all of the 2003 shootings involved suspects with firearms, said Sgt. Laurel Williams.

``It has been extremely effective for us,'' Williams said. ``It has resulted in less injuries to officers and suspects.''

Sacramento police also said the adoption of Tasers and other less-lethal gear has prevented shootings.

``It saves a lot of lives on both sides,'' Sacramento police Sgt. Jim Jarosick said.

San Jose police have said costs have prevented them from giving every officer Tasers. The Taser guns used by police run about $400 apiece, but there is added the expense of training, which requires that officers be pulled from duty and replaced.

And while Tasers have become the preferred non-lethal device, there are issues. San Diego has concerns about putting a Taser next to an officer's gun. They cite an October accident in which a Madera officer reached for her Taser to subdue a flailing handcuffed suspect, but pulled her pistol by mistake and killed the man. Jarosick said his Sacramento department's Tasers are bright yellow to avoid confusion.

Whether Tasers or other non-lethal weapons could have prevented last week's tragedy in San Jose is impossible to say. San Jose's policy requires police to use only the force needed to subdue a suspect, and if possible to use spoken commands and non-lethal weapons before firing. The policy allows officers to immediately shoot if necessary to protect themselves.

Experts say departments across the country have similar policies.

Policies are structured that way in part because existing non-lethal weapons have limited range and effectiveness.

``Many of these less-lethal devices put officers at unacceptable risk,'' Aveni said. ``They require officers to get too close and they don't work as often as you expect them to work.''

Police are haunted by an FBI statistic that 85 percent of officers killed on duty died before drawing their guns.

``Most shootings occur within a radius of 10 feet and take no longer than 2.5 seconds,'' Sacramento Sgt. Jarosick said. ``That's not very much distance and not very much time to react.''

But whatever the limits of non-lethal weapons and high-tech training, police experts say it's a worthwhile investment.

``In the older days, an officer basically went hand-to-hand or backed away and resorted immediately to the handgun,'' San Diego Lt. Leas said. ``In the last two years, what we've seen is a more confident police officer on the street, willing to look at alternatives to deadly force.''