From the L.A. Times
Killings by police in L.A. County jump sharply
Local law enforcement officers fatally shot 54 people last year, nearly 70% more than the year before.
by Joel Rubin and Sarah Ardalani
The first deadly encounter of 2011 came quickly for police in Los Angeles County, when an officer killed an armed burglar on the second day of the year. The last person to be killed by police that year was shot a few days after Christmas in Palos Verdes after he allegedly beat his elderly father and pretended to point a gun at officers.
Between these ill-fated bookends, 52 other people throughout the county were shot fatally by police throughout 2011 — significantly more law enforcement killings than the county typically experiences. Compared with the prior year, the 54 deaths amounted to a nearly 70% increase.
The high number of killings last year underscores a pronounced jump in the overall number of occasions in which officers fired their weapons at suspects. For example, the 63 shootings by officers from the Los Angeles Police Department
in 2011 were a nearly 60% increase over the previous year.
The rise in killings by police is all the more notable because it occurred at a time when the overall number of homicides in the area had fallen to historic lows. With 612 people killed in the county last year, nearly 1 in every 10 such deaths occurred at the hands of law enforcement officers.
The Times has analyzed autopsy reports from each of the 54 killings by police in L.A. County last year and identified elements that were common to many of them. The review also highlights the extreme, sudden dangers police can encounter in the field and may raise doubts about whether, in some instances, the officers were justified in their decision to open fire.
Among the findings:
|• All but six of the fatal shootings involved officers from either the Los Angeles Police Department or the county's Sheriff Department, which, taken together, patrol the vast majority of the county's roughly 10 million people. The other six were committed by police in Long Beach, Downey and Santa Monica.
• In two-thirds of the cases, the person shot by police was armed with a gun, knife or other weapon, whereas in 12 cases, the person was unarmed. In the remaining few cases, it was not clear from the autopsy reports whether the person killed was armed.
• Eighteen of the shootings — one-third of the total — occurred when officers were dispatched to respond to a report of shots being fired, an armed suspect or an assault with a deadly weapon. In at least 12 of those cases, the person shot by police was armed with a gun, a knife or a realistic-looking replica of a gun. By contrast, 12 shootings were set in motion not with a call for help, but rather with an officer's choice to initiate contact with someone he believed was acting suspiciously. In seven of those cases, the person shot by police was armed with a weapon.
What, if anything, drove the increase in killings by law enforcement officers last year is not clear.
Michael Gennaco, who heads the county's Office of Independent Review, said he's in the midst of examining the unusually large number of fatal shootings by sheriff's deputies to decipher the jump. "Until you really pull each of them apart, you don't know whether it was just a blip or if it is the start of an upward trend," he said.
Some law enforcement officials and researchers, including LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, have speculated that as police refine strategies for identifying and patrolling crime hot spots, they have become more adept at responding quickly to violent situations that lead to shootings. Beck emphasized that most of the shootings by police involved armed suspects. "By and large these are not shootings of misperception or overreaction," he wrote in response to questions from The Times. "They are legitimate responses to serious threats."
So far this year, the rate of police shootings has fallen back to previous levels.
When training to become police, recruits spend scores of hours on firing ranges and in simulation exercises to prepare for the split-second decision they may have to make in the field of whether to shoot at a suspect. The vast majority end up going through their careers never firing their weapon, let alone hitting and killing a person.
Police are authorized to use deadly force only in certain situations. They may shoot to protect themselves or others from an immediate threat of death or serious injury, to prevent a crime that could lead imminently to someone being killed or injured, or to stop a violent felon from fleeing. Officers who fire their weapons must be able to explain why, from their perspective, it was necessary to use deadly force. Controversies often arise when it is not clear to the public or investigators that the officer's decision met the criteria for shooting.
The autopsy reports reviewed by The Times included investigators' accounts of the shootings. Many indicated strongly that the officer's use of deadly force was justified.
On a night in January, sheriff's deputies pulled over Nestor Torres, a known gang member, for driving erratically. Torres stepped out of the vehicle and fought with the deputies, shooting one of them in the face. The deputy's partner returned fire.
The autopsy showed that Torres had ingested cocaine, amphetamines, PCP
and alcohol before the encounter, although it is not known how much his behavior was affected by the drugs. In all but five of the fatal shootings last year, the dead were found to have at least one drug in their systems.
In some cases, however, the decision to fire was less obvious.
In October, Downey police responded to an intersection where an armed man had been seen by a 911 caller. The officers spotted Michael Nida, 31, in the area and believed he matched the description the caller had given.
When the officers confronted Nida, he fled. They gave chase, and one of them shot Nida twice in the back with a rifle from about 20 feet away when he "made a gesture that was perceived as a threat," according to the autopsy report.
Nida was unarmed.
Florida's 'stand your ground' immunity hearings are unique
Many expect George Zimmerman's lawyers will eventually ask for such a procedure in the Trayvon Martin case. The hearings are unlike other criminal justice proceedings.
by Jeff Weiner
ORLAND0, Fla. — The nation's fixation on the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has led many to question whether an impartial jury could be found for the trial of his killer, George Zimmerman.
But it's possible a judge, not a jury, will decide Zimmerman's fate. Zimmerman says he fired in self-defense, and many expect his lawyers will eventually ask for an immunity hearing under Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law.
Often described as a "minitrial" in which the judge serves as jury, such hearings are unlike other criminal justice proceedings.
The lawyers' roles are reversed, the burden of proof is low and the stakes couldn't be higher.
"If the judge dismisses the case, it's game over," says Eric Schwartzreich, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who has represented multiple "stand your ground" defendants since the law was passed in 2005.
Since Martin's shooting in Sanford, the law has been the subject of renewed debate. A task force created by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to reexamine "stand your ground" will hold its first public meeting this week.
The law allows civilians to use deadly force anywhere they're legally allowed to be, so long as they are not committing a crime and have a reasonable fear of death or serious injury.
When a defense lawyer files a motion for "stand your ground" immunity, a hearing is held that resembles a trial: Witnesses are called and cross-examined, evidence is introduced and lawyers make arguments.
"You basically have a trial before the trial," Jacksonville attorney Kevin Cobbin said.
The verdict is up to the judge. And because the burden to prove "stand your ground" is on the defense, the lawyers' traditional roles are flipped, with the defense on the offensive.
At least in theory, the defense doesn't have much to prove.
In a criminal trial, the state must prove the crime "beyond a reasonable doubt." In an immunity hearing, defense lawyers need only "a preponderance of the evidence" to win the case.
The preponderance standard — the same used in civil cases — is a much lower bar.
"It's 50.1%," Schwartzreich said.
Robert Buonauro, an Orlando lawyer who recently won immunity for a client in a Seminole County case, said you only have to "tip the scale a little bit in your favor."
Still, motions for immunity are often defeated. Cobbin recently asked a judge for immunity in the case of Marissa Alexander, a woman who fired what she described as a warning shot into a wall to deter her abusive husband during a fight.
The "stand your ground" motion was denied, and she was later convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
From the FBI
Journey Through Indian Country
Part 2: Making an Impact on the Reservation
Snow swirled in New Mexico's high plains as Special Agent Mac McCaskill slowed his vehicle at the bottom of a hill on the Tohajiilee Reservation. He engaged the four-wheel drive before continuing slowly up the steep, bumpy track on his way to deliver a subpoena in a violent assault case.
McCaskill had driven an hour from Albuquerque on this 20-degree morning—typical of the distances that often separate agents from their cases in Indian Country—and now he was knocking on the door of a small wooden structure with one boarded-up window. On the hillside just beyond the dwelling sat a rusted trailer and an outhouse. A young woman holding an infant opened the door and told McCaskill the man he was looking for would be back later.
“On the reservation you can't just call someone because many people don't have a phone,” McCaskill said, explaining the challenges of investigating crimes in Indian Country. “Sometimes the best way to get anything done is to knock on doors.”
In the process of knocking on doors and talking to people, McCaskill and other agents working in Indian Country become not just law enforcement officers but advocates for justice and sometimes even role models. (See sidebar.)
A New Mexico native, McCaskill said his eyes were “wide open” when he took an assignment in Indian Country. “Still, it's difficult to comprehend the conditions on the reservations and the kinds of crime we see here,” he explained. “People are living in really difficult circumstances.”
In Tohajiilee, a satellite reservation that is part of the Navajo Nation, many homes lack electricity and running water, and social ills such as alcoholism are rampant. These issues, along with the fact that there are only a handful of tribal police officers assigned to patrol a sprawling area of more than 120 square miles, contribute to a serious crime problem.
“There are terrible crimes that happen on the reservations that go virtually unnoticed by the world outside,” McCaskill said. “If they happened anywhere else, in Denver or in Dallas, it would be front-page news for a week.”
As a result, he said, “we are serving a community that isn't used to getting much service.” Perhaps it's not surprising then that women beaten by boyfriends or spouses, or children sexually assaulted by family members may believe a call to authorities will do little to help them.
McCaskill works hard to change that perception. He patiently explained to the young mother the importance of serving the subpoena—so that the witness will testify, which could help make sure the violent offender stays in jail and no longer poses a threat to the community.
“Our caseloads may be 75 percent sexual assaults against children,” McCaskill said later. “People ask me if it's difficult emotionally to work these cases, and my answer is always, ‘How can you not work them?' These are cases where on a very fundamental level you are able to make a difference in a victim's life by taking an abuser out of the family. When I help a victim and get to know the family,” he added, “I may be one of the few positive influences that they've ever seen from outside the reservation.”
Stopping that cycle of violence on the reservation is “extremely rewarding,” McCaskill said. “We are helping people here.”