7/25/2004 | Houston Chronicle | By Lise Olsen — A CHRONICLE SPECIAL REPORT Law enforcement experts: More officer training, use of alternate weapons would reduce numbers. Other cities have adopted stricter standards.
This is the first of a two-part series on police shootings.
Law enforcement officers in Harris County have shot 65 unarmed people since 1999, killing 17. These incidents represent more than a third of all local police shootings, but experts call them the most preventable.
After two unarmed teenagers were shot and killed in separate incidents last year, the Houston Chronicle analyzed 189 shootings by officers from 18 local law enforcement agencies in the past 5 1/2 years.
Officers’ actions were ruled justified in nearly all of the shootings examined. A shooting can be legally acceptable if an officer believes someone’s life is in danger.
But only half of those shot by police carried a gun or a knife. Another 7 percent held another object, such as a screwdriver, a piece of lumber or a pipe.
Nearly once a month, on average, police shot someone who had no weapon.
“I can see (shooting) if somebody comes at you with a knife or a gun, but … these people are unarmed,” said Sylvia Gonzales, executive director of the local League of United Latin American Citizens chapter.
The shootings of Jose Vargas, 15, and Eli Escobar II, 14, by Houston police officers outraged community leaders, including those in LULAC.
And the Chronicle found scores of other shootings of the unarmed that have attracted little attention: a naked man shot by a Harris County sheriff’s deputy in the man’s own living room, two unarmed men shot by an HPD officer after they made suspicious movements during a traffic stop, shoplifters shot by off-duty officers.
Several patterns emerged among the 65 shootings of unarmed people that experts said could be addressed with updated policies, alternative weapons and training:
Moonlighting: Twelve people, including teenagers cruising a parking lot and a man pilfering shingles from a construction site, were shot by off-duty officers working security jobs for extra pay. Some of these officers had been assigned to desk duty for years.
Buy-busts: At least eight people were shot by narcotics officers. Raids or other planned operations led to the wounding of three bystanders and the death of another. Two people were shot in the back. In some cases, citizens claimed that undercover officers did not adequately identify themselves before firing.
Mentally ill: At least 10 mentally ill people shot were unarmed or carrying objects such as screwdrivers and pieces of wood. In all cases, responding officers either lacked stun guns or did not try to use them.
Inside vehicles: At least 36 were shot while in cars or trucks. Most were shot by sheriff’s deputies, some of whom put themselves in harm’s way and then fired in self-defense.
“It’s a traumatic event to take a human life,” said Maj. Mike Smith, who heads the Harris County Sheriff’s Department patrol bureau and responds to most shootings. “Most of the time the officers are very shook up, and some are almost in tears. It’s usually not that they did anything wrong. The community has to guard against having these guys so afraid to shoot that they just don’t respond.”
Other cities, pushed by citizen protests and lawsuits, have radically reduced officer shootings by adopting stricter standards and alternative weapons.
“Before, we were shooting people (who had) sticks and guns and broken bottles,” said Phoenix Assistant Chief Michael McCort. “And now, with Tasers, we are only shooting at people with guns.”
The rates of shootings by deputies in the Harris County Sheriff’s Department have remained consistently higher than other large departments in the past five years.
To tackle the problem, Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas recently bought Tasers and announced that deputies are banned from shooting at vehicles. The change came after the Chronicle revealed a pattern of deputies putting themselves in harm’s way and then shooting at unarmed drivers.
Houston’s new police chief, Harold Hurtt, is charged with reducing the rate of shootings by his officers, which peaked in 2003. Last year, Houston had more police shootings per 1,000 officers than Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Phoenix.
It will take more than policy changes and less-lethal weapons to bring those numbers down, said Harris County Precinct 6 Constable Victor Treviño.
Treviño bought pepper spray and new batons for all of his 180 officers, instituted new training and began a top-to-bottom policy review after a pair of questionable shootings, including those of two teenagers outside an amusement center that resulted in the expulsion of a reserve constable.
“You have to change the mind-set,” he said. “We’re here to bring someone to justice — not send them to the cemetery.”
Decision to fire must be made `awfully quick’
Police say the decision to fire is one they never want to have to make.
“You have to walk up and in a split-second decision affect the lives of some people or others,” said a deputy who recently shot and killed someone and spoke on the condition that he not be named.
“It’s awfully quick and it’s tough. We’re not robots.”
Moonlighting officers can make mistakes
Confrontations between officers working off-duty security jobs and unarmed suspects turned deadly four times in 12 shootings since 1999 — typically beginning with a property crime or traffic incident.
Off-duty officers working security shot and injured eight other people after the theft of bicycles, shoplifting or other minor incidents.
Sandy Wall, a recently retired HPD trainer and veteran SWAT officer, said a lone patrol officer would have done better to get a license plate and a suspect description and call for backup.
“People sometimes just get caught up in the situation and pumped with adrenaline and make mistakes,” he said.
Sheriff Thomas said his department will begin to require additional training for all officers working extra jobs.
Other departments around the country have limited extra employment and even barred officers from working security or working in bars, places in which they may get hurt.
Locally, only Pasadena police and Treviño, whose officers were involved in two shootings in as many years, have banned regular bar work.
Drug buy-busts provide opportunity for confusion
On the log of police shootings kept by the Harris County district attorney’s office since the 1980s, undercover narcotics officer Mark Prendergast’s name is listed six times. His partner and two other colleagues at HPD narcotics are listed three or more times.
Many of those shootings happened during so-called “buy-busts,” when undercover officers pretend to buy or sell drugs. If everything works right, uniformed patrol officers move in after the deal to arrest the suspects.
But narcotics officers countywide have shot unarmed, and some innocent, people.
A U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent shot and killed a 19-year-old father of two accidentally during a Harris County drug task force bust on April 6, 1999. Federal officials settled three lawsuits in that case but refused to disclose the amounts.
A $30,000 settlement is pending for the family of Lanny Blaine Robinson, whom a pair of undercover HPD officers picked up on April 19, 2000, after they asked him to lead them somewhere to buy drugs. Prendergast said he shot Robinson on the way after Robinson threatened his partner, who was driving, with something shiny. Robinson, a 49-year-old AIDS patient, had a small knife found still sheathed in his pocket after he died.
U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. refused to dismiss the lawsuit against the officer, finding that Prendergast’s version was supported by “scant circumstantial evidence.”
In Pasadena, police officers have been involved in two separate shootouts involving buy-busts in which three people were killed and one injured. Two of them were unarmed.
Pasadena Assistant Chief Larry Rahr acknowledged that some narcotics arrests could be better planned, and he said undercover officers should avoid participating in arrests.
“People get all pumped up and … sometimes you’re dealing with different agencies with different policies on when to fire,” he said. “It’s important to have teams who work together all the time.”
Mentally ill present police toughest choices
Some of the toughest choices arise when officers encounter the mentally ill, some of whom wield weapons and are determined to attempt “suicide by cop.”
In seven of 10 cases involving police shooting the mentally ill, officers were summoned by someone concerned about a person’s mental health or because that person was causing a disturbance. One was killed just days after he had been picked up on a mental health warrant and released because he did not qualify for hospital admission.
Learning how to better deal with the mentally ill became a focus at HPD after the controversial 1999 shooting of Sheryl Ann Seymour, a schizophrenic who called an ambulance for help when she sensed the onset of a psychotic episode.
Officers killed the 5-foot Seymour when she approached them with a knife.
Since then, HPD has trained a quarter of the force to join its Crisis Intervention Team — an effort that exceeds those of other departments — though team members are not deployed as often as needed in part because of staff constraints, according to HPD records.
Few other departments have provided training or tracked incidents involving the mentally ill. Only two of the six Harris County constable offices — Precincts 1 and 5 — have sent officers to the training. Tomball has sent only one officer.
“Training can make all the difference in these situations,” said officer Frank Webb of the Crisis Intervention Team. “You have to teach officers who are used to being authoritative and using force that they have to look at these people differently.”
Vehicle shootings account for 50 percent of incidents
By far, the most common place unarmed people have been shot in Harris County is behind the wheel. Vehicle shootings account for half of the cases in which unarmed people were shot or killed since 1999.
Sheriff’s deputies shot 19 unarmed people in cars and trucks over the time period.
HPD officers also shot 11 unarmed people in cars and trucks, three of whom died. Jason Arboleda, 21, and Vargas both were shot by moonlighting officers — Arboleda in 1999. In the third case, 25-year-old Jose Medina, a passenger, was killed after the driver of a car struck a patrol officer on June 3, 2001, according to an HPD news release.
Deputies, HPD officers involved in most shootings
Nearly 80 percent of the shootings that the Chronicle examined involved officers from the two largest departments, HPD and the Sheriff’s Department.
Within HPD, the rate of police shootings per 1,000 officers in recent years has been similar to rates at police departments in Chicago and Philadelphia. But it is generally three to four times higher than the shooting rates recorded in New York City, where leaders have taken steps to reduce shootings.
The Sheriff’s Department has consistently had a higher rate of shootings than the sheriff’s departments near the nation’s largest cities.
In Cook County, Ill., around Chicago, no sheriff’s department deputies, 500 of whom work patrol, have shot anyone since 1999.
Harris County, with 750 in its patrol division, has had more than 50. Nor have any of the deputies employed by Philadelphia County been involved in any recent shootings, though none work patrol.
Neither Cook nor Philadelphia County officials allow deputies to work off duty as security guards.
Maricopa County, which surrounds Phoenix, also has had fewer shootings per 1,000 officers, as has the enormous Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Both of those departments have much stricter use-of-force policies than does Harris County.
Gonzales, the LULAC leader, said her group, along with the NAACP, is pushing for reforms. Too often, local civil rights leaders say, officers shoot people who pose no real threat.
“How many times do we have to say, `My son was unarmed but gunned down by a police officer who said he was threatened,’ ” said activist Quanell X, who led two recent protests of officer shootings.
“We want to see action. We want to see a desire to change these ways and make the killing stop.”