Imagine the following: You are a police officer in your city or town. You and your partner are counting the minutes till the end of your overnight shift, and as you drive along in the pre-dawn quiet you hear on the radio a report that officers from another police department are in pursuit of a robbery suspect. The suspect has exited the interstate highway in your city, and now the other agency has asked your department to take over the pursuit.
You head off to join the chase, and soon you find yourself barreling along at 60 or 70 miles an hour behind a man who seems just as determined to escape as you are to catch him. He careens down the wrong side of divided streets; he drives down pedestrian walkways; he runs red lights and stop signs with abandon. As the pursuit drags on for more than an hour, early-morning commuters begin to take to the roads, but the increased traffic is no deterrence to the man you are chasing. Finally, as the chase reaches the 90-minute mark, the suspect attempts a U-turn. You begin to make your turn behind him, but you see that the street is too narrow for him to complete his turn. He stops in a driveway, and you bring your car to a stop behind his. You and your partner get out of your car in anticipation of a foot pursuit, but the suspect does not get out and run. Instead he begins backing his car toward you. You have only a fraction of a second to interpret the man’s actions: Is he merely trying to adjust his car’s position so he can keep driving? Is he trying ram your car or run you down? Is he trying to get closer in order to take a shot at you?
What will you do?
This was the situation faced by a handful of Los Angeles Police Department officers late last month, when 23-year old Nicholas Killinger led them on a wild chase that crossed much of Los Angeles before ending in gunfire in Santa Monica. Killinger allegedly robbed a gas station in suburban Agoura Hills, then refused to stop when L.A. County sheriff’s deputies tried to pull him over. Officers from the California Highway Patrol took over the chase when it entered the Ventura Freeway, and the CHP turned it over to the LAPD when Killinger left the freeway in the Hollywood area. The chase came to an end just before 6 A.M. when Killinger, after failing to complete a U-turn, began backing toward the officers who had stopped behind him. Three officers opened fire, hitting Killinger several times and killing him. The pursuit and its violent conclusion were broadcast live on several local television stations, and the incident has reignited the debate over how and when officers should engage in pursuits and use deadly force.
Predictably, Killinger’s family has hired attorney Stephen Yagman, a man who makes his living by suing police officers on behalf of criminals and their families. (In 1997, Yagman represented the family of one of the two suspects killed by LAPD officers in the famous North Hollywood Bank of America shootout. Two trials ended in hung juries.) “That car rolling slowly backward couldn’t possibly have been perceived by any reasonable police officer as a deadly threat,” Yagman told reporters. “It was a cold-blooded, unjustified killing, which in my book is murder.”
Fortunately for police officers and the law-abiding public, Yagman’s book is not authoritative on the matter. Rather, it is the United States Supreme Court that has the final say on whether a police officer’s use of force was reasonable. In 1989, in Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court held that “[t]he ‘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 . . . The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments–in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving–about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”
It’s easy for Yagman to judge the officers’ actions after watching the tape in slow motion in the comfort and safety of his home, but that morning the officers were most certainly faced with circumstances that were tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving. Killinger had driven like a madman for an hour and a half, for a time even driving the wrong way on the freeway. If at any point during those 90 minutes he had simply pulled over and submitted to arrest he would be alive today, but in the end the officers had only an instant to respond to what they perceived as a deadly threat, and they did so with the only means available to them.
Unlike the L.A. Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol, LAPD officers are not currently equipped with spike strips that might have been used to bring the chase to a halt, nor are we authorized to use the “pursuit intervention technique,” in which a police car is used to bump a pursued vehicle and force it into a spinout. Last year, the LAPD enacted a prohibition on pursuing cars whose drivers were wanted only for a traffic infraction. This has sharply reduced the number of pursuits, but the new policy does not address suspects who, like Killinger, flee in cars after committing violent crimes. LAPD Chief William Bratton announced last week he would seek to implement the use of spike strips and other aggressive measures to stop fleeing drivers, but he also said he would further limit officers’ discretion in firing at moving vehicles, which under current policy is “generally prohibited.” These shootings are discouraged because “[e]xperience shows such action is rarely effective and is extremely hazardous to innocent persons.” Whatever else might be said about Killinger’s shooting, no one can claim it wasn’t effective. And in the end, wouldn’t it have been more? hazardous to allow Killinger to continue driving as he had been? Should the officers have been obligated to follow along passively and watch as Killinger crashed his car into some unwary, innocent party?
The LAPD shooting policy reads, in part, “An officer is equipped with a firearm to protect himself or others against the immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury or to apprehend a fleeing felon who has committed a violent crime and whose escape presents a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury to others.” Surely Nicholas Killinger presented a deadly threat that morning, not only to the officers pursuing him but even more so to the innocent people in his path. He made his decision to go out and commit his robbery, then for 90 minutes he callously placed others in danger in his bid to escape. Stephen Yagman will go to court and try to turn Killinger’s death into a pot of gold, but I pray the justice system turns him away empty-handed. We live and die by the choices we make, and Killinger lived and died by his. Police officers have a duty, a solemn obligation, to protect the innocent from criminals such as Nicholas Killinger. Those officers did what they had to do. I would have done the same thing.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.