Closing Unsolved Homicide Cases in LA, Outside Investigations of Cops’ Use of Force, “Tactical Retreat,” and “Suicide-by-Cop”January 27th, 2015 by Taylor Walker
LAPD CLOSED HUNDREDS OF UNSOLVED MURDER CASES
As part of the Los Angeles News Group’s cluster of investigative stories about the magnitude of unsolved homicides in Los Angeles, the LA Daily News’ Mike Reicher reveals an alarming classification trend in LAPD homicide records.
Between 2000-2010, 596 unsolved homicides—11.5% of the total number of homicides recorded, and a large portion of which came from the Valley Bureau—were classified as “cleared other,” a category for “solved” cases in which no suspects were arrested, and no charges were filed. LA’s “cleared other” homicide cases were often cleared on technicalities, or when the DA’s office decided not to prosecute.
The national average is 4.9% for the classification. The LA County Sheriff’s Department does not clear a homicide unless a suspect is charged.
Here are some clips from Reicher’s story:
The LAPD cleared some of these cases because the D.A. declined to prosecute, but when asked for the reason each case was cleared, police officials did not respond. The data excludes fatal shootings by officers.
Out of all homicides for which the LAPD provided the Los Angeles News Group a case status, 11.5 percent fell into this “cleared other” category. The national average was 4.9 percent, according to FBI statistics from 2011 through 2013, the only published years. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department didn’t classify any cases this way.
When agencies voluntarily report their crime-solving statistics to the FBI, they are supposed to only count a crime solved, or “cleared,” if they make an arrest, or if they have identified an offender and have enough evidence for an arrest but can’t for a reason outside their control. The classic example is a murder-suicide, in which the suspect is dead.
LAPD officials say they follow FBI guidelines when clearing cases. But others outside the agency say they are interpreting the FBI standards incorrectly.
“They should not let the prosecutors dictate if they solve a case,” said Cassia Spohn, professor and director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. “It really confuses the role of the police and the prosecutor.”
The LAPD Detective Operations Manual says that clearing a case, by arrest or by other methods, “means that the detective has solved the crime and has taken all possible, appropriate action against at least one suspect.”
The Sheriff’s Department keeps cases open unless someone is actually prosecuted, said Lt. Mike Rosson of the Homicide Bureau. He said his department strictly follows the FBI rules.
“If we can’t give a family closure through prosecution, why would we want to call it solved?” Rosson said.
THE QUESTIONS POLICE USE OF FORCE INVESTIGATIONS ANSWER VS. THE QUESTIONS OUTRAGED COMMUNITIES WANT ANSWERED
In the wake of non-indictments for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, cries for independent investigations into killings by officers have escalated.
An LA Times editorial says establishing independent investigations may not be the straightforward solution proponents expect.
When a questionable use of deadly force occurs, citizens want to know whether the officer could have done something to change the fatal outcome, whether the officer feared for their life, whether the officer was racist, and whether he or she could have received better training.
The editorial points out that investigations aim to answer just three things: whether the officer committed a crime, whether the officer’s actions violated department policy, and whether those policies are unjust—not the more simplistic notion of whether the killing was “good or bad.”
Here’s a clip:
The police and the policed alike too often view the results of an internal or grand jury investigation in a binary way, conflating what ought to be distinct questions into one: Was the killing “good” or “bad”? That leaves people to conclude, in the event of a decision not to indict, as in the Brown and Garner cases, that the justice system or society as a whole has adjudged the killing to be justified.
The various layers of investigation are meant, instead, to ask at least three separate questions: (1) Did the officer commit a crime? (2) Did the officer violate policy? (3) Is the policy unjust or otherwise unsound?
Those fairly dry questions aren’t necessarily the ones that people ask after a police shooting. They want to know whether the officer who shot reasonably believed he was in danger; whether he was properly trained to defuse such a situation; whether he is racist, and is part of a racist system of law enforcement and justice. But any investigation, whether internal or independent, will have trouble with such subjective questions.
Prosecutors, grand juries, judges and trial juries determine whether an officer committed a crime, not whether a deadly encounter was handled properly from beginning to end. But investigations must tell us more than whether an officer is a callous murderer…
MORE ON USE OF FORCE: POLICE AGENCIES EXAMINE “TACTICAL RETREAT” AS TRAINING METHOD
A new police training technique called “tactical retreat” has been cropping up in law enforcement agencies’ reevaluations of training approaches.
In this training method, officers are instructed to withdraw from certain suspects or situations until reinforcements arrive.
Supporters of this idea say tactical retreat could save lives on both sides of the badge. Both St. Louis city and county police chiefs are considering this approach as they analyze their current policies for possible revision. But some critics say tactical retreat could give a suspect the upper hand, potentially making the situation even more dangerous.
Law enforcement leaders in other jurisdictions, like Richmond, California, are seeing fewer officer-involved fatalities after implementing scenario-based training like tactical retreat.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Christine Byers has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:
Had [Darren] Wilson been coached in tactical retreat, Stoughton said, he instead might have stepped on the gas to drive away from the encounter, and kept Brown in sight while waiting for backup.
Wilson “could have been trained to do something different to allow him to apprehend Michael Brown without putting himself in a situation that made him feel deadly force was the only safe response,” Stoughton explained. “Train police officers to avoid putting themselves in danger, and you will see them use less force to get themselves out of danger.
“That’s good for everybody.”
Chiefs of the St. Louis and St. Louis County police have said in recent interviews they are reviewing training with the principles of tactical retreat in mind.
But it’s a delicate dance, warned Sam Dotson, the city chief.
“Society has to realize that we pay police officers to keep us safe. And if every criminal knows, ‘If I confront an officer, they will take four steps back, that’s my escape route,’ then that becomes the new norm.”
Tactical retreat can be a hard sell to police traditionally trained to subdue an adversary — and to keep pouring on force until that is accomplished. Most departments have policies that provide discipline for cowardice.
Gabe Crocker, president of the St. Louis County Police Association, called the tactical retreat concept “cowardice retreat,” and complained that it is “shameful” to consider.
“Why should we have to change law enforcement nationwide to make exceptions for this violent few when what we should be doing is making it harder for this violent few to have such a powerful lobby on their side?” Crocker asked. “Police officers are trying to uphold the laws of society and protect people. Instead, people are labeling us as aggressive and people who need more training.”
A misjudgment with tactical retreat could get an officer killed, said David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who urges caution in the way it’s used.
“If you retreat, you’re giving the guy an opportunity to win the fight, and you have to be bold,” said Klinger, a former Los Angeles officer. “However, if you have the advantage of horsepower, you should break away.
ANALYZING AND QUANTIFYING LA’S “SUICIDE-BY-COP” DATA
LAPD Inspector General Alex Bustamante examined 35 cases of “suicide-by-cop” in a 30-month span, and presented his findings to the Los Angeles Police Commission. Bustamante identified nine common indications that a person has used a police officer to help them commit suicide (for instance: when a person tells officers they have a gun when they actually do not).
Bustamante calls on the LAPD to go over their policies regarding these kinds of encounters with potentially suicidal people and the mentally ill, to determine whether there are some ways to avoid tragic outcomes.
KPCC’s Frank Stoltze has more on the Bustamante’s report. Here’s a clip:
Most incidents do not include suicide notes or people yelling for officers to shoot them, so its impossible to determine how many officer involved shootings are in fact suicides.
The inspector general urged the LAPD to review its policies regarding suicide by cop to determine if there are ways to avoid such scenarios. He also identified six recurrent features in the incidents:
The subject calls 911 or takes some other form of action to prompt an encounter with police officers;
The subject does not attempt to leave the scene, but instead actively seeks confrontation with officers;
The subject makes verbal threats to kill officers and/or tells officers to shoot him;
A subject who is not, in fact, armed with a firearm verbally indicates that he has a gun;
The subject brandishes or simulates a weapon in a manner that appears to threaten officers with death or serious injury; and,
When officers do not initially resort to the use of force, the subject does not comply with verbal commands and instead escalates the apparent threat until such time as force is used against him.