Sheriff to L.A. Cops: Be More ... Cautious

The headline was, as headlines ought to be, an attention-grabber: “Deputies chasing armed suspects ordered to be more cautious.” Some questions immediately came to mind: If one is the cautious type, why would he have chosen to become a sheriff’s deputy in the first place? And at what cost does this increase of caution come, and who must pay it?

The story, by writers Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton, appeared in last Thursday’s Los Angeles Times, and it concerned a new directive from Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca to his deputies. “In policing cultures around the nation, there is a tendency for us to put ourselves in harm’s way right away,” Baca told reporters gathered for a news conference at Sheriff’s Department headquarters last week. He wants his deputies to be more reluctant to place themselves in the line of fire. “You don't have to go barreling in on every case and then find yourself in a position where you have no choice but to use your gun.”

Which may sound reasonable enough, as far as it goes, but in cities like Los Angeles, one must always be suspicious of political motivations behind any changes to law enforcement policy, no matter how reasonable they may sound on first hearing. And indeed in the Times story there are hints that there are reasons other than the safety of his deputies that has led Sheriff Baca to urge more caution when confronting suspects believed to be armed.

“The new tactical approach was recommended by a panel of veteran deputy training officers that Baca convened in September after a rash of shootings,” write Blankstein and Winton. “The sheriff said he asked the panel to answer a defining question in law enforcement: ‘If a person who you believe is armed runs from you, what should you do?’”

Thus Sheriff Baca seems to have concluded that his deputies have been involved in too many shootings, and that since he is powerless to regulate the conduct of those who present a threat to deputies, he must reduce the number of shootings by circumscribing the deputies’ response to those threats.

The sheriff’s new guidelines are encapsulated in a 30-page booklet titled “Split-second Decision, The Dynamics of the Chase in Today’s Society” (available online in pdf format here). The booklet serves as a useful primer on issues surrounding the use of deadly force by police officers, including the applicable California and federal laws. And it presents a series of actual scenarios in which Los Angeles deputy sheriffs were suddenly forced to make life-or death decisions. Reading through the booklet was at times spine-chilling for me, for it brought back memories of experiences of my own that were similar to some of those presented. No matter how many cop movies you may have seen or how many police procedurals you may have read, until you have experienced it you will never know quite how it feels to be suddenly confronted by a person you believe is trying to kill you.