I Shot an Unarmed Man

Stephen Downing
Stephen Downing with LBPD Chief Robert Luna

I pulled the car over for running a stop sign, asked the violator for his driver’s license, registration and insurance verification and then walked the 50 feet or so back to my police car and ran a radio check. He had no criminal record and no wants or warrants. When I started back to his car, he got out, clearly agitated. I ordered him to get back inside. Instead he pulled a gun and shot me before I could blink. I took a hit to the shoulder. He took off running.

I bravely ignored my shoulder wound, took cover behind the police car and fired at his back. I think I hit him with three paint ball rounds, but before I could find out the LBPD academy instructor supervising the scenario declared it to be over.

The scenario was one of three I took part in during the day long Community Police Academy (CPA), hosted by the LBPD last Saturday. I was one of 26 people from the Long Beach Community who signed up to take the full day course, which is supported by a portion of the $600,000 Strengthening Law Enforcement and Community Relations grant awarded to the city last year.

The day started off with an introduction by the Training Division Commander, Alex Avila, who told us the purpose of the CPA was to educate the community about the, “why and how we do what we do.” He made comparisons of public reaction to the outrage toward police actions across the nation, like the protests at Ferguson, Missouri and shared his view that, “the LBPD has fared much better in handling critical incidents and as a result has the community’s trust.”

The thematic woof and warp of each presentation throughout the day was clearly designed to reinforce and assure the attendees that the LBPD can be trusted and the CPA students – once armed with the knowledge of why the police do what they do – should share that knowledge within the community in order to improve upon and maintain that trust.

Commander Paul Le Baron, currently assigned to the detective bureau, gave a dynamic presentation on the laws of arrest with focus upon defining the differences between consensual encounters, detention and arrest, as well as police powers and citizen rights.

The presentation served to arm us for handling the scenarios that were to come later in the day. I saw Le Baron’s segment as being highly important in two ways: first, that it was being presented by a ranking officer with sterling credentials and second, he clearly knew his stuff – all important applications to the recruit training process as well as us civilians.

Academy staff personnel, Sergeant Paul Gallo and Officer Patrick Dougherty, delivered the next module. They covered a wide range of subjects on patrol operations and training and force options. The most interesting – to this student – involved the Emergency Action Team (EAT) concept, designed to minimize force in highly dangerous situations, especially those involving the mentally ill, by employing a team dynamic that affords specificity of leadership, verbal negotiation and escalation/de-escalating use of force applications.

I came away from this part of the day with a real appreciation for the kind of professional out-of-the-box thinking applied by the LBPD in order to deliver the very best of tactical applications to the difficulties of modern day policing.

Other parts of the presentation involved legal authority to use force, case law and discussions surrounding what is known as the “continuum vs. paradigm” concepts of police use of force review and training – a subject of controversy among police professionals surrounding major modifications to use of force training methods implemented in police academies across the country following a Supreme Court decision handed down in 1989 (Graham vs. Connor).

The paradigm concept of training rests upon the language of the Connor decision to favor a continuum less “just be reasonable” standard. Continuum proponents (of which I am one) believe that paradigm training is confusing to the trainee and in an era in which evidence-based policing has become the norm, paradigm training has gained traction absent a shred of research and has produced a higher frequency of controversial police shootings and expensive lawsuits. The LBPD is among those police departments that adopted the paradigm training method.

The CPA patrol operations class also touched upon concepts depicted in slides provided by the Force Science Institute (FSI) that purport to be “scientific” findings related to the human factors of “action versus reaction” often used to justify rationales applied to the review process in police shootings.

This writer commented upon FSI and the legitimacy of their “scientific” findings in this column a few months ago [Sept. 2, 2016 issue] and referenced the discredited junk science used by FSI founder, Dr. Bill Lewinski. Action versus reaction evaluation is an important consideration when police executives evaluate the circumstances surrounding a shooting, but the Lewinski method used by city attorneys to scam jurors in a civil trial does not have a place in the police policy review boardroom – or training academy.

The afternoon sessions involved the “traffic stop” scenario and another in which I was partnered with a classmate who serves on the community advisory board to the LBPD’s East division. We were assigned to handle an officer-produced domestic violence dispute. The academy staff members both overseeing and “acting” in this scenario were absolutely terrific – and challenging.

In the third scenario the academy instructor stood me in front of the LBPD’s brand new use of force simulator – a 180 degree span of computer assisted video screens that presents multiple high-stress scenarios in which trainees make shoot and no shoot decisions. The simulator is a great training tool for officers and we should all appreciate that the city has finally afforded the LBPD a tool that has been standard fare in most police departments for decades.

Following the scenario training we were back in the classroom for a presentation by Lieutenant Lloyd Cox, the officer-in-charge of investigating officer-involved shootings (OIS). Lt. Cox was also an observer at the scenario involving the traffic stop in which I was wounded.

Cox asked the class, “How many of you saw the suspect drop the gun after he fired and started running?” Not one hand in the room went up.

It was his way of demonstrating how easy it is to miss important elements in high stress shootings – and an opportunity to point out the need for the public to be patient when a shooting occurs and wait until the LBPD does a thorough investigation. The fact that the media might report that each of us “shot an unarmed man” needs an explanation that can come only after a detailed investigation – and that often takes months.

The detail of Lt. Cox’s OIS process provided an appreciation of the work that goes into OIS investigations and the time it takes to deliver results to the brass. I have, in the past been a critic of one element of the LBPD OIS investigation policy that prohibits Lt. Cox from interviewing the involved officer(s) and I asked him about it. He defended the policy, acknowledged that the LBPD is the only police agency that does not interview the involved officers, but also stated that the district attorney, who has formally agreed not to interview LBPD officers, “loves the process”, which requires the involved officer(s) – and all officer witnesses – to write a report only. I was not convinced.

We wrapped up with an Internal Affairs presentation by IAD Lieutenant Patrick O’Dowd who stressed the details of the IAD investigation and review process – and acknowledged that in IAD investigations the investigators interview and audio record all involved officers.

The dais then went back to Commander Avila who surveyed the class on their takeaways for the day. When my turn came I said my number one takeaway was the high quality of academy instructors who guided us throughout the day – and was especially impressed with the enthusiasm and absolute joyfulness they had toward their work.

My second takeaway was to comment on the disgraceful physical facilities the city has – for decades – required these police professionals and the trainees to work in – especially considering the millions being spent on a new city hall and the $130 million plan for a new swimming pool complex in Belmont Shore.

The final wrap up was an inspiring talk by Chief of Police Robert Luna followed by each of us receiving a CPA diploma along with a photo op with the chief.

An educated community does help a police department build trust. But the highest level of trust will come only when the LBPD and the city recognize the value of full transparency – and do something about delivering it.

Overall, it was a great day. More CPA’s are scheduled. If interested, Google: Long Beach Community Police Academy and follow the links for an application.

If you get hit by a paint ball – chalk it up to a learning experience. I did.

Stephen Downing is a resident of Long Beach and a retired LAPD deputy chief of police.




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