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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Police shooting inquiries must be public, transparent

They say most police officers never fire a shot in the line of duty.

So would it be unusual for an officer to have shot four people in the line of duty, as Spokane police Officer Dan Lesser has? Three of them fatally?

“Absolutely,” said Ronald Scott, a forensics expert and former Massachusetts state patrolman. “I’m not saying this person is not justified. I’m just saying it’s very unusual for a single police officer to have been involved in a lot of fatal shootings.”

“Oh yeah,” said George Kirkham, a Florida criminologist who has worked as a police officer. “It is very atypical for an officer to be involved in even one.”

But what does that mean, that atypical fact? It’s easy to imagine the worst interpretation that people do – and have – assigned to Lesser’s shootings. And there may be, inside each shooting or their subsequent investigations, reason for concern. Lesser has been cleared in three of them, and the review of his fourth shooting is pending.

But it may not say all you think it does. Or it might say different kinds of things than you might imagine. The four shootings might tell a different – a more complicated, various, nuanced story – than a knee-jerk, cop-hating response might indicate.

Scott and Kirkham both emphasized two points: It is unusual for an officer to have shot four people in the line of duty, so much so that it should raise concerns within the department; and it’s entirely possible, based on the circumstances in each case, that the shootings were appropriate, given Lesser’s assignment. He is a member of the SWAT and K-9 teams, which are both called out hundreds of times a year in the most dangerous cases.

In other words, they said, the number of shootings might reflect the assignment and environment as much as the officer. Of course, it might also reflect the officer, they said; both talked about “cowboy” cops who are eager to mix it up and quick to shoot.

“It’s highly unusual,” Scott said. “A department has to take a view at some point and say even though the officer has been found justified in the past, there’s a track record here that is not good.”

Chief Frank Straub, in a detailed and frank conversation about Lesser, emphasized that there is much more to Lesser’s record than four shootings. Straub said he had reviewed a “stack of commendations” for Lesser, ranging from saving suicidal, would-be jumpers on the Monroe Street Bridge to life-saving roles for people having heart attacks and victims of stabbings. Straub called it a “long history of saving people.” Lesser is an 18-year veteran, and he’s someone Straub called a “highly active police officer,” one who responds quickly to the most dangerous, most difficult calls.

“You have an individual who has clearly distinguished himself in the department,” Straub said.

Straub went through each of the first three shootings Lesser was involved with, pointing out that each involved significant public dangers: an armed student at a high school, an armed suspect near a restaurant, and an armed and suicidal suspect in a van. Some people have raised questions about at least two of the shootings, and former prosecutor Jim Sweetser has criticized the investigation into the 2011 shooting of James E. Rogers, arguing that investigators failed to thoroughly, exhaustively investigate the case.

And yet – whether you use the term “cowboy” and take a dim view of the modern SWAT-style cop, or whether you use the term “highly active officers” and see someone who puts his life on the line to protect the community – there is no doubt that when people take up arms and threaten or injure others, the officers who go into those situations are doing something the rest of us very much need them to do. I don’t believe that puts their actions beyond the reach of community judgment – in fact, I think it makes scrutiny even more paramount – but that is the context in which such shootings occur. Those of us who stand safely outside those situations and judge should at least keep that in mind.

“Until you’re in a situation when you’re confronted with someone who’s pointing a firearm at you, I don’t think you can completely understand,” Straub said. “These are incredibly horrible situations for people in our profession to deal with. Nobody takes these incidents lightly.”

Straub noted that Lesser had been cleared in three of the shootings and was hopeful – based on what he knows of the fourth case – that the same result would come in the fourth.

Straub said Lesser’s SWAT team and K-9 unit assignments put him in the most dangerous circumstances. In the past 12 years, the SWAT team has been activated 454 times; Lesser was involved in 277 of those, or 61 percent.

In a relatively small department, Straub said, someone with Lesser’s skills and background rotates into SWAT duty more than an officer in a larger city might.

The K-9 units see similar types of action, Straub said. Last year, K-9 officers were called 605 times; so far this year, K-9 officers have been activated 427 times.

“I think, unfortunately, we are encountering more and more individuals who are armed with a firearm and we are encountering more and more individuals who are not afraid to use those firearms,” Straub said.

The truth is that when an officer makes a judgment and fires, that situation is unknowable to all of us who are outside it. That is why it’s crucial that thorough – over-the-top, bending-over-backward – investigations of the shootings are done in the public view. This is where public trust must be fostered and grown, and it’s the area where omissions and breakdowns can exact a steep cost.

Some believe that’s what happened in the Rogers case. Sweetser argues that investigators failed to pursue questions and potential conflicts in the case; it does seem, in that case as in others, that the investigation would look much, much different if the police were trying to make the case against a suspect.

Scott, the Massachusetts forensics expert, said he believes many investigations into officer shootings lack rigor.

“They do not investigate it as if it was a homicide,” he said. “They investigate it as if it was a police shooting and don’t devote the same level of scrutiny. … It’s almost as if they’re saying the shooting is probably justified, so there isn’t much investigation we have to do.”

Straub said SPD does take the use of force seriously, in each individual instance and as they accumulate. He said the department reviews every use of force, every time an officer draws his weapon, with an eye toward making sure things are done right and improving in the future. SPD shootings are investigated by sheriff’s and Washington State Patrol investigators. Meanwhile, there is a larger, ongoing effort to address use-of-force questions in the department that involves a wide range of responses to a citizen panel.

“We are looking at these things very, very seriously,” Straub said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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