A Cop's Worst Nightmare

It is by far the weightiest decision a police officer must make: Should I pull the trigger?  And though he must reach that decision in less time than it takes to read this sentence, his actions will be examined and critiqued for months or even years, often by people with little experience or understanding of what it’s like to make such a decision.

Last Tuesday at about 3:15 p.m., two Sonoma County, California sheriff’s deputies were on patrol in Santa Rosa, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, when they spotted a male walking down the street with a rifle.  News reports say the deputies stopped, took cover behind the opened doors of their car, and shouted for the male to drop the gun.  One of the deputies then fired eight shots, hitting the male with seven of them, two of which were fatal.  Then came the awful discovery: the male was 13 years old; the rifle he carried was a pellet gun.  Now a mother and father must mourn the loss of their son, and the deputy must bear the weight of having killed him.

Of course, there have been the usual accusations of murder and calls for the deputy to be fired and jailed (see the comments at the Daily Kos story, for example), but a dispassionate look at the shooting must resolve the question of whether, despite what came to light in the aftermath, the deputy was legally justified in his use of deadly force at the moment he pulled the trigger.

Every police officer can tell stories of times when he could have shot someone, when he almost did shoot someone, but for some reason held his fire.  This is one of mine.  I was working a plain-clothes assignment in one of L.A.’s less glamorous neighborhoods.  Some of my coworkers were interviewing two men about some suspected criminal activity, and as they did so my job was to stand nearby and watch their backs.  The neighborhood was such that any white guy in jeans and a T-shirt, no matter how scruffy he might appear, is automatically presumed to be a cop, so though we were in plain clothes I was confident that everyone within eyesight knew we were police officers.

In the driveway next door to where we were standing was a man working on his car, installing a new radio or some speakers, as I recall, and he was kneeling down outside the car as he fiddled with something or other under the dashboard.  The setting was all quite routine and ordinary . . . until it wasn’t.

A young man walked up to the man working on his car and pulled out what to me appeared to be a semiautomatic pistol, pointing it at the kneeling man’s head.  In that moment I was certain that I was witnessing a carjacking or perhaps even a murder.  I drew my pistol and shouted, “Police!  Drop it!”  My two coworkers, unaware of what I had seen but alerted by my cry, took cover and drew their own weapons, and for an excruciating second or two the man with the gun froze in place, neither raising nor lowering it, as three cops performed the infinitesimal mental calculations required before deciding whether or not to shoot him.  At last he dropped the gun, which turned out to be a plastic replica of the one I carried.  The man he had approached was his friend and neighbor, and he had given no apparent thought to the potential consequences of pointing a realistic toy gun at him out on a public street.