Officers making life or death decisions in an instant
Facing the muzzle of a gun, a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy said he had one immediate thought: death.
Ryan Walter squeezed off eight rounds at the gunman, Donald J. Lafavor. His partner, Deputy Rustin Olson, fired three.
Lafavor survived the gunshot wounds and faces two counts of second-degree assault for allegedly pointing the gun at the deputies, who had responded to a domestic violence report at Lafavor’s Broadway Avenue apartment last November.
Afterward, Walter summarized his relief in an interview with investigators: “I’m glad we have good training.”
That training now is under scrutiny after four officer-involved shootings in the past 2 1/2 months in Spokane County. In three, sheriff’s deputies pulled the trigger. Two – the shooting of an armed property owner in August and the shooting of a reportedly suicidal man with a knife on Oct. 24 – were fatal. Olson, a four-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, was also involved in that fatal shooting late last month.
Law enforcement officials say the job is more dangerous than ever.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently pledged $800,000 to help train police officers nationwide to learn to anticipate and survive violent encounters. He cited the ambush-style shooting deaths of four Lakewood, Wash., police officers in a coffee shop last November. That same incident prompted the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office to begin preparing for ambush-style shootings such as sneak attacks on police cars.
But while acknowledging that police officers have dangerous jobs, some question whether placing so much training emphasis on such unlikely scenarios is helping or hurting efforts to increase public safety.
The concern, said Spokane lawyer Breean Beggs, is that “in training officers to protect themselves from the rare occasion when someone is out looking for them, they are (overlooking) training that is preventing officers from overreacting and killing citizens.
“If you measure the effectiveness by the results, it doesn’t look good, currently,” Beggs said.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich dismisses the notion, suggesting that any community concerns are unwarranted and based on what he considers inflammatory media coverage that focuses only on negative aspects of law enforcement.
“That’s not even taking into consideration what the deputies face, and all the fact patterns behind it,” Knezovich said. “It’s easy to sit back and Monday-morning quarterback.”
Statistics compiled by the Sheriff’s Office suggest you’re more likely to be killed in a tornado than by a deputy sheriff.
Knezovich, in fact, is preparing to present the Sheriff’s Office firearms training as a statewide standard for all law enforcement agencies.
‘You hesitate, you die’
Gayle Yeager has “shot” hundreds of police officers. The 59-year-old volunteer has been helping with Spokane Police Department and SWAT team training for about six years, and she played an armed assailant intent on killing officers in three months of training for Spokane County Sheriff’s Office employees after the Lakewood shooting.
“We taught them to pay a little bit quicker attention so that they don’t die,” said Yeager, who has not worked in law enforcement other than as a volunteer trainer.
Yeager, Catie Padilla, 77, and other volunteers wage a variety of surprise attacks on officers aimed at testing their reaction skills.
“They have to have positive, undeniable probable cause,” Yeager said. “And that’s the key thing we train them on – you make sure you have absolute probable cause before you pull that trigger.”
Volunteers try to help hone the observation skills of law enforcement during the training, because, Yeager said, “you hesitate, you die.”
“Nine times out of 10, we kill the officers,” Yeager said.
Yeager points to her longtime friend, Spokane police Officer Brian Orchard, the last law enforcement official murdered in the line of duty in Spokane County. He was shot to death as he worked undercover in 1983.
“He hesitated, he died,” Yeager said. “You can kill an officer within a microsecond.”
Within that microsecond, officers need to consider all aspects of a situation, from the placement of a weapon to an assailant’s demeanor. And they must remember that assailants can still grab weapons if they drop them.
“It’s very easy to harm someone,” Padilla said. “I’ve put a gun down my shirt before and they didn’t notice it.”
All Spokane County sheriff’s employees attended the ambush training with Padilla and Yeager, which ended a few weeks before Deputy Brian Hirzel shot and killed Pastor Wayne Scott Creach on Aug. 25 in Spokane Valley. Yeager said the Creach shooting was very similar to ambush scenarios rehearsed during the training.
Hirzel told investigators he shot Creach after Creach refused commands and was seen reaching for a gun in his back waistband.
Law enforcement officers are trained to look for such details.
“If we have noncompliance with verbal commands, that right away suggests that any movement toward the officer is to be viewed in a different light,” said firearms expert Thomas Aveni, executive director of the Police Policy Studies Council in Spofford, N.H. Aveni taught a class on deadly force at the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office about a year and a half ago.
“If you do all the wrong things in the wrong context, you’re increasing the likelihood you’re going to get shot,” Aveni said.
Of the 48 officers killed in the line of duty in the United States last year, 15 were ambushed, according to the FBI.
“I think we’d be a little bit derelict in our responsibilities to our staff if we don’t teach them how to deal with those scenarios,” Knezovich said.
A rash of shootings
Every Spokane County sheriff’s deputy carries a firearm. Only a handful carry Tasers.
Knezovich said the electric shock devices were never intended to replace the use of firearms in a potentially deadly situation; they’re intended to reduce officer injuries by supplying another nonlethal tool.
“There’s no guarantee the Taser’s going to work,” said Eric Johnson, Taser expert for the Sheriff’s Office. For the device to work properly, two metal probes must connect to the intended target. Johnson said Tasers are effective about 60 percent of the time.
“If you have one chance to end the threat and you go for (a Taser) … you may yourself be a victim,” he said.
Some Sheriff’s Office employees also carry pepper spray, but like Tasers, trainers say using it comes down to a personal choice by a deputy.
Some people believe “we have this Bat belt on” that can be used to defuse any situation, said Mike Brooks, pepper spray expert for the Sheriff’s Office. That’s not the case.
Said Knezovich, “It really comes down to what you’re comfortable with and what you’re willing to carry on your body.”
Deputies aren’t trained to use a specific weapon in a specific situation because “every situation is completely different,” said Rick Johnson, firearms instructor for the Sheriff’s Office.
But, he said, “There’s a simple philosophy. … I’ve never seen anybody get hurt by complying with law enforcement. It just doesn’t happen.”
A week after Creach was shot and killed, Knezovich said at a press conference that deputies “were able to save the lives” of people they shot on three previous occasions.
A review by sheriff’s officials in one of the shootings said the deputies may have jeopardized their own safety by assisting the suspect after he was shot.
In that case, deputies rushed to Michael E. Young after Young was shot outside his home at 11709 E. Fairview Ave. after a friend reported him as suicidal. He survived several gunshots and is facing first-degree assault charges.
“Was it possible their rapid response saved the suspect’s life? Possibly,” according to a report by Daniel Knight, lead firearms instructor for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. “But rushing up to someone who was armed and just fell to the ground is dangerous. … The deputies could have stayed in position and assessed the situation for a short period of time before making the approach to ensure their safety.”
Sheriff’s officials recommended additional training on how to respond to injured suspects and to “continue to reinforce the concept of ‘shoot until the threat ceases to exist.’ ”
Lawyer questions choice to shoot
Creach’s fatal confrontation with Hirzel was the first of four recent officer-involved shootings in Spokane County. Less than three weeks later, sheriff’s deputies David Westlake and Thad Schultz fired several shots at a domestic-violence suspect who had arrived back at his home with a gun. Schultz said he believed the suspect, Sean P. Houlihan, fired shots at the deputies, but Westlake has said Houlihan pointed his gun at them but didn’t fire. Investigators still have not determined if Houlihan fired shots during the Sept. 16 confrontation.
Nine days later, an unarmed pregnant woman was shot by Washington State Patrol Sgt. Lee Slemp, a 25-year veteran, while members of the Spokane gang unit and the Quad City Drug Task Force searched an apartment on Lincoln Street.
Then on Oct. 24, Quentin D. Dodd was fatally wounded after two sheriff’s deputies responded to his home on a domestic violence call. Deputy Olson, who was involved in the November shooting, said he shot Dodd after Dodd charged him with a piece of obsidian that had been carved into a sharp object.
The cluster of officer-involved shootings sparked concern – and sometimes, outrage – in the community.
Beggs, the Spokane lawyer, said the Dodd incident, in particular, raises questions about how law enforcement deals with mentally ill suspects.
“It’s not just that there are shootings, it’s that there are concerns with the shootings,” Beggs said. “The question is, could you have done something three steps earlier to make sure the person doesn’t turn on you with a knife?” Beggs said. “It’s possible they did everything right even by the best police practices out here.”
But Beggs questioned why deputies didn’t use a Taser on Dodd after he initially refused to drop the weapon. “If the training is then you’ve got to shoot them in that situation, that would not be the right training,” Beggs said.
Knezovich said the shooting occurred because Dodd charged at Olson. “There are a gamut of things that may have been done differently, but that’s not what happened here,” Knezovich said. “It would have been ineffective to use a Taser on someone that’s running at you.”
Dodd, who tried committing suicide last summer, had repeatedly yelled at Olson and Deputy Todd Miller to shoot him while ignoring their commands to drop the weapon. The deputies exited their patrol cars, and Dodd charged at Olson with the weapon; Olson fired his gun three times, striking Dodd, who was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Dodd’s family is dubious of police accounts of the shootings and deny that he was suicidal. His brother, Charles Dodd, questioned why deputies felt threatened by the 7-inch rock his brother was carrying.
“You look at the thing they call a knife, and it was just a rock,” Charles Dodd said. “It’s just unreal what people can get shot for these days. I just hope something gets done about it. These cops are just getting out of hand.”
Knezovich had a different way to describe the object Dodd clutched when charging Olson: “Our ancestors killed mammoths with those types of weapons.”