May 2, 2007 in City

Violent year for police

By The Spokesman-Review
Christopher Anderson photo

A trail of blood marks the scene of a shooting in the front yard of Spokane residents Eric and Patricia Gilberts on Tuesday.
(Full-size photo)

What’s next?

Sheriff’s detectives are investigating the latest shooting by a Spokane police officer, and the prosecutor will decide if it was justified.

In the past 64 days, Spokane police officers have pulled their guns and shot three men, one fatally.

The latest shooting occurred early Tuesday in a Hillyard neighborhood.

So what’s going on?

Most likely nothing, according to various criminal justice experts who say police shootings frequently occur in clusters.

One known factor in these shootings, the experts say, is that a “significant level” of the suspects or victims in such shootings are mentally ill, suicidal or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The number of shootings may say more about the level of violence in Spokane than anything else, said Michael Erp, an instructor at Washington State University’s Criminal Justice Program.

“I don’t like hearing about it,” Erp said Tuesday after the latest police shooting left a 26-year-old man in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the jaw.

The man, identified as Ryan L. Patterson, was shot after allegedly pulling a gun during a struggle with a 20-year veteran Spokane police officer whose name hasn’t been released.

“It pains me to hear the level of violence is up in our community,” Erp said from WSU’s Spokane campus, where he is the director of the Washington State Institute for Community Oriented Policing.

Without knowing all the details of the most-recent incident, Erp said what is known convinces him “the public safety is not as high as I’d expect it to be.”

David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri, said three officer-involved shootings in a little more than two months doesn’t surprise him.

“We don’t understand the circumstances that bring officers and suspects together in time and space, resulting in these incidents,” Klinger said from his college campus in St. Louis.

“But I can tell you there are situations all around the country where there are clusters of police shootings,” he said.

Klinger knows first hand.

While he was a Los Angeles police officer, two fellow officers shot and killed a shotgun-firing man in south-central Los Angeles on July 17, 1981. On duty eight days later, just six blocks away, Klinger shot and killed a machete-wielding man who was attacking his partner.

“There were no other officer-involved shootings in L.A. until the following summer,” said the cop-turned-criminal-justice-professor. “It’s just that these things do tend to happen in batches.”

Just a few years ago in Houston, that city’s Police Department SWAT unit was involved in four shootings in one year. One officer was involved in two of those deadly shootings, Klinger said.

Given the context of how many police officers there are in the U.S. and the number of daily contacts they have with criminal suspects, officer-involved shootings are relatively uncommon.

“We know that any time you have a rare event – and an officer-involved shooting is a rare event – they don’t happen with equal intervals in between,” said the University of Missouri professor, who wrote a book, “Into the Kill Zone.” It details the stories of 113 shootings in various U.S. cities by 80 officers.

Experts who track cop shootings can only speculate why they frequently occur in clusters, Klinger said. “Is it good weather, with more people outside? Is it a spate of gang robberies? We can only guess.”

At the University of South Carolina, criminology professor Bob Kaminski also described how police shootings frequently occur in clusters.

“It just might be you have these three and then go a long time without another one,” he said. “I think you can have these clusters, and it can just be due to chance.”

The pattern that does emerge in the study of deadly force by police, Kaminski said, is that a “high proportion” of victims is under the influence of drugs or alcohol or is mentally ill.

It’s also “a lot more dangerous out there these days,” said retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s Detective Mike Bumcrot. Last fall, he spent two days in Spokane, teaching detectives how to conduct officer-involved shooting investigations.

“In the old days, when a cop told you to do something, you did it,” Bumcrot said. “Now, (suspects) don’t only not do what they’re told, they go home and whine to mommy and daddy if the officer touches them or does something.”

“It’s just a tough time to be a field officer out there because society just doesn’t seem to have the respect for cops that once was there,” said Bumcrot, who investigated 470 homicides and consulted on an additional 200 officer-involved shootings in various U.S. cities.

At the Center for Justice in downtown Spokane, chief attorney Breean Beggs said while each shooting “has unique facts, our community’s work is to adopt policies and training that will minimize shootings in the future.”

Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, he said, “has pledged to review every current policy, and we expect that she will pay particular attention to use-of-force policies for initial contacts with citizens.”

Authorities weren’t saying whether they suspect the latest shooting victim was under the influence of liquor or drugs, but it’s very likely that medical personnel took a blood sample when he was taken to Deaconess Medical Center.

Detectives from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office also will be looking into the man’s background as part of their investigation of the shooting.

Typically in Spokane, shootings of armed suspects by police are found to be justified after a review by prosecutors. Department regulations allow officers to shoot to kill if they believe their lives or others’ are in jeopardy.

That wasn’t the case when Spokane police Officer James “Jay” Olsen chased and shot a man he thought was stealing his truck Feb. 26.

Olsen, a 16-year veteran of the Spokane Police Department, had been drinking off duty at Dempsey’s Brass Rail and was legally drunk when he shot 27-year-old Shonto K. Pete, whose blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit.

Olsen was arrested April 13 on a felony charge of first-degree assault and two misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment for firing at least four shots in two different locations from his personal .40-caliber handgun at Pete. One bullet grazed the running man’s skull; another penetrated a Peaceful Valley home.

Pete was charged with stealing Olsen’s truck.

The third officer-involved shooting occurred on March 24 when police Sgt. Daniel Torok shot and killed Jerome Alford, a 33-year-old homeless man, near Short and Cowley, just east of downtown.

The Sheriff’s Office investigation into that shooting has not been completed and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for review. Authorities haven’t disclosed whether Alford had drugs or alcohol in his system. Family members said he had no history of mental illness.

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