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Firing While On Duty: When Police Use Deadly Force


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. A police officer draws a weapon and fires. We see that on TV dramas every night. But what actually happens afterwards? Do investigators check the flight of every bullet? What kind of questions do officers face, and what kind of sanctions if they messed up?

What changes if somebody's killed or injured? And what questions will a cop ask him or herself the next night, the next year, for the rest of their lives? If you're a cop, call and tell us what happened after you discharged your weapon. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a viral video appears to show U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban dead in Afghanistan. Marines, how does this happen? Email us now. The address again is talk@npr.org. But first, what happens after police officers open fire? We begin with David Klinger, a former cop in Los Angeles and Redmond, Washington. He now teaches criminology and wrote about the use of deadly force in his book "Into the Kill Zone," and joins us by phone from Houston. Nice to have you with us today.

DAVID KLINGER: Thanks for having me on again.

CONAN: And this is both your area of study and your story.

KLINGER: Yes it is.

CONAN: What happened?

KLINGER: When I was a young police officer in Los Angeles, four months out of the academy, a crazy guy with a knife tried to murder my partner, stabbed him in the chest, knocked him on the ground. I was on the other side of the street. As I'm running across the street, the suspect jumped on top of my partner and tried to drive the knife through his throat.

My partner managed to grab the suspect's wrist and prevent that from happening. When I got to my partner's side a few seconds later, I tried to disarm the suspect, wasn't able to and had to shoot him.

CONAN: And it sounds like there couldn't be anything more clear cut, yet I suspect you've been thinking about that off and on ever since.

KLINGER: Not ever since, but it took me about 20 years. The first 20 years, there were some difficult moments. And then about 10 years ago, I said: You know what, Dave? It does nobody any good. The situation's behind. And as you pointed out, Neal, there really wasn't anything else that could be done. And I came to peace with it, and I've been fine ever since.

CONAN: Now as you have approached this from a professional standpoint, did you find a lot of studies of police officers and how they used their weapons and what happened afterwards?

KLINGER: There hadn't been a lot of studies back in the late '90s, which is what led me to do the study that I did that led to my book. And basically, for "Kill Zone," what I did - it was a study that was funded by the United States Department of Justice, interviewed 80 cops around the nation who'd been involved in shootings. And one of the things I asked them about was what happened in the aftermath.

And to make a very long story short, the vast majority of officers in the short term have some notable disruption in terms of intrusive thoughts, in terms of maybe an inability to sleep or something like that. But after a few weeks, for most officers, those problems dissipate. And so the long-term consequences for most officers are actually quite good. Only about 20 percent of the officers had any sort of negative consequence that lingered past three months.

CONAN: And in the majority of cases, as in the vast majority of cases, as in your case, the investigation that succeeds an incident like that finds that the officer was not at fault, did nothing wrong. But these are - these are tricky moments for a police officer, no?

KLINGER: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, my situation was, as you pointed out, clear-cut. I knew exactly what I was dealing with. It was an individual who was trying to murder a fellow officer. Sometimes it's not so clear-cut.

I've been in numerous situations when I was a young officer where I could have shot, but decided not to because the posture of the suspect, because the way he or she was manipulating the gun in their hand, that type of thing. And also circumstances where officers shoot, they think there's a gun, it turns out there's not a gun. Then it becomes highly problematic. So...

CONAN: A case just in Texas in the last couple of weeks of an eighth-grader holding a realistic-looking toy, and it turns out that he was shot to death. Obviously, we're going to have to wait for the investigation to find out all the details there, but this happens too often. And wow, those officers must feel terrible.

KLINGER: Yeah. You know, police officers sign up to protect the public from dangerous threats. And when, as in the case you just mentioned, everything appears to look like I have a serious threat. Here's an individual who has brought a gun to school, you know, guns in our sanctuaries. We cannot let this individual kill children. And then it turns that it is a not-gun or a replica gun or a toy gun, that's got to weigh very difficult on the officers.

And, you know, some of the 80 officers that I interviewed for "Kill Zone" had been involved in circumstances where they shot people, fully believing that the suspect was armed with a deadly weapon, and it turned out it was a replica or something. And the officers had a very, very difficult time dealing with that.

CONAN: Joining us now is Lawrence Mower, a reporter with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He wrote a series last year on the use of deadly force by police officers. Among those he spoke with was David Klinger, who's also with us today. And he joins us now from KNPR in Las Vegas. So nice to have you on the program with us today.

LAWRENCE MOWER: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And I was interested, just given what David Klinger was just saying, yes, I think we hear about it often when police officers fire their weapons with tragic results. We don't hear about it when they don't.

MOWER: No, that's true, absolutely. And these are still relatively rare incidents. Here we found that, you know, metro police, Las Vegas Metro Police, the big agency here, shoots their - you know, fires their weapons at people around 17 times a year, and they are relatively rare incidents.

CONAN: And relatively rare, nevertheless, it seems that at least there, the investigations that follow have - is it fair to say universally cleared officers?

MOWER: Almost. What we found was that: One, there was a lot of shootings here. Also that the department was very reluctant to learn from its incidents, learn from its shootings, and that they were reluctant to hold officers accountable for them. And really, the review process in place was fairly lax.

In the last decade, Metro's review board had cleared 99 percent of officers who were involved in any kind of incident, serious incident like a shooting. And - but also, the criminal review process was fairly lax, also.

CONAN: Reluctant to do that because they feared for morale, because why?

MOWER: Well, it's interesting. The board that they had set up here - and they still do have set up here - was dominated by citizens. And what we found kind of interesting is we talked to the citizens, and they were very much, very pro-police. They had difficulty holding officers accountable for these incidents.

Oftentimes, it was the officers on the board who were harder on their own officers than the citizens were. But, you know, what you've heard over time from police also is that, well, we don't want to second-guess another officer's decision to use deadly force because these incidents are so rare, and they're not as clear cut, often, as, you know, an officer beating someone up. Well, many officers would not justify that. So - go ahead.

CONAN: I was just going to ask David Klinger to come in and say, is that - is the experience there in Las Vegas, do you think, replicated across much of the country?

KLINGER: In terms of the sense that most shootings are held to be justified?


KLINGER: Yeah, absolutely. And a dispassionate observer who looked at the investigative case files of the vast majority of shootings would have to come to the same conclusion. There are some bad shootings. There's no doubt about that. And when I say a bad shooting, I mean one where a police officer didn't make either a good-faith mistake or some other thing that would come up that we would say, gosh, you know, we don't like this. We don't - we wish it hadn't happened, but it's perfectly justified.

There's a term of art called awful, but lawful. So sometimes officers are involved in shootings that don't really sound that good, but the law says it was an appropriate use of force. So if you take the ones where it's clear-cut justified, then some of these other ones, there's only going to be a few where an officer is clearly out of bounds.

CONAN: Let's get a caller involved in the conversation. We want to hear from police officers today. What happened after you fired your weapon? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Jeff is on the line with us from Houston.

JEFF: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JEFF: Well, this happened a few years ago when I was in narcotics. On my way after home after shift, a car driving erratic early in the morning. I pulled the guy over, just, you know, to see what was going on. When I came back with his license, he fired rounds into my chest. So, of course, I fired back. He ended up - it became fatal. And after my paid time off and everything, you know, for their investigation, it was justified.

But I guess it was just - it was more hard for me to get over because of the age and that it was just, you know, I had lots of friends with kids that age. And it was just - you know, to this day it's still hard.

CONAN: I assume you were wearing a Kevlar vest?

JEFF: It went through.

CONAN: It went through.

JEFF: I was what - I got hit with armored rounds, unfortunately. They figured out afterwards, about a month later, that he had picked them up off of a friend, that his dad was military. And that's where, apparently, he got them from. So, you know, he hadn't been in any trouble, nothing. And I was just - you know, I was going to give him a verbal warning, and (technical difficulties).

CONAN: I'm afraid we're losing your cell phone, Jeff. Are you OK? Are you doing OK? I think we've lost him, and I apologize. We certainly hope Jeff is doing OK, and can understand his anguish.

This is an email we have from Isaac in St. Paul, Minnesota: I'm an attorney for a police union in Minnesota. I was also living in New York City at the time of the Amadou Diallo shooting, which was widely portrayed as an example of trigger-happy cops. Now that I've worked with police for several years, I have a much better appreciation for the dangers they face and the split-second decisions they have to make.

I don't know if the Diallo shooting was justified, but I know now just how complex some of these cases really are. And David Klinger, that, of course, was the case where a man in the Bronx was thought to have a weapon and was, I think, hit 41 times.

KLINGER: Yeah. To make a very long story short, the officers believed that they were dealing with a criminal who was pulling a gun on them, and it turned out that he was pulling a wallet. And that's one of those ones of, you know, lawful but awful, where the officer misperceives - I've written about it, and Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Blink" gives a very, very good, detailed account of how it is that his officers came to perceive it the way that they did.

And anybody that's interested in learning about that particular case would do well to take a look at that chapter in the book "Blink."

CONAN: We're talking about what happens when police use deadly force. If you're a cop, call and tell us what happened after you discharged your weapon. 800-989-8255. You can send us an email: talk@npr.org. We'll have more in just a minute. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. When police officers respond to a call, enter the home of a suspect or even make a routine traffic stop, they never know what might happen next. In New Orleans this morning, police investigating a shooting inside a house tracked a vehicle they believed contained the gunman. New Orleans PD says one of those in that vehicle opened fire on police; that person was then shot and killed by police officers. An investigation will inevitably follow.

So police officers, tell us, what happened after you fired your weapon? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guest is David Klinger, a former police officer with the Los Angeles and Redmond, Washington, police departments; and Lawrence Mower, a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal is also with us. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Burt(ph), Burt with us from Reno.

BURT: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

BURT: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BURT: I have a different perspective on this entire scenario in that I was a supervisor here in Nevada for the Nevada Highway Patrol, and I do believe firmly that training the officers that work on that department will keep the number of shootings to a minimum, and they know when they can fire their weapon and when they should not fire that weapon.

And I'm not saying for one moment that officers should be - should jeopardize their safety by not firing when necessary; however, there are instances where by law you can fire that weapon and kill someone, and it could have totally been avoided.

CONAN: I understand that. In your police department, were there investigations?

BURT: Absolutely there were investigations.

CONAN: Were you in charge of them?

BURT: I was in charge of some of those.

CONAN: And that must be very difficult to investigate your fellow officers.

BURT: It is difficult; however, right is right and wrong is wrong, and I might be the minority when it comes to law enforcement officers, but I believe that the citizens that you serve should be provided with highly trained professionals so that in the event of a shooting, the question as to whether that officer was justified or not could be minimized.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call, Burt, and Lawrence Mower, you wrote in your series in the Las Vegas Review-Journal several instances in which officers would have been perfectly justified, by law and by circumstance, to have opened fire, did not and proved to be right.

MOWER: No that's true, and your caller brings up a good point in that, you know, the vast majority of these things are legally justified and perhaps even morally justified, too, in the vast majority of the time. But what we found is that some of them can be avoided by tactics and really looking at, OK, did the officer place themselves in a position of danger.

For example, we had a case here where officers trying to apprehend a - a person who was fencing stolen goods, they caught him coming out of the store. The person, the suspect jumped into the passenger side of a car. One officer went to the passenger side of the car to try to pull him out. Well, the driver took off.

And now the officer is in a situation where they're being dragged, and the officer is in a situation where either you shoot to kill the driver and stop the car, or you, you know, let go and be crushed by the car potentially.

CONAN: So difficult choice.

MOWER: Absolutely, and that's a case where, you know, the officer was certainly legally justified and had no other option in that situation, but nevertheless, it could have been avoided, and other departments that have policies that say don't reach into running or - basically don't reach into vehicles.

Well, Las Vegas police don't have that kind of policy.

CONAN: There was also a finding that you made that suggested that police officers involved in shootings, if they're involved in several shootings, well, yes, circumstances can mount, and someone can be unfortunate, but nevertheless, it does seem to form a pattern.

MOWER: Well, sometimes. What we found was that - I mean, some officers in a lot of shootings are in, for example, the SWAT team, where you might be more prone to have a lot of shootings, and you can't really make a moral judgment based on that or, you know, a personnel judgment.

But what we did find is patterns of officers being involved in multiple shootings, sometimes they had other disciplinary problems, and some of their shootings were, you know, problematic to say the least. One cop we looked at was involved in three fatal shootings in five years, and in each of those shootings, the person who was shot was a vagrant. There were no witnesses to any of the shootings, and the officer's judgment was highly questionable by people inside and outside the department.

And yet the officer was allowed to stay on for a number of years until he was fired for disciplinary reasons.

CONAN: David Klinger, is it widespread that, as Lawrence Mower says, in the case in Las Vegas, that police departments are reluctant to try to draw lessons from their shooting incidents?

KLINGER: What I found is that most of the agencies around the country are actually quite interested in drawing lessons. And for example my old agency Los Angeles, one of the things that they have been doing for many years is having essentially a tactical review of the incident to say what could the officers have done differently, if anything, in order to either reduce the likelihood of a shooting or to reduce the likelihood of collateral damage, you know, a citizen being damaged, injured, so on and so forth.

In fact, I'm presently involved in a project with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, another branch of the United States Department of Justice, where I'm interviewing officers around the country and asking them what are the lessons that we can learn from your incident. And it's going to be fed back into American law enforcement, and this is at the highest levels of USDOJ.

And so my experience is that most agencies really do want to learn from what goes on in shootings and in fact, as I indicated, that's something that the federal government is involved in currently.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is John(ph), John with us from Southern California.

JOHN: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JOHN: One of the things that I noticed that your - I'm sorry, the person you're interviewing isn't talking about is the way that police officers are treated after the shooting. It almost feels adversarial in nature. I was involved in a shooting myself a few hours off a training. It was covered by national news, and it was a huge incident.

And, I mean, there was no doubt that I was in the right, but still the fact they take your gun away while you're on-scene, they put you in a patrol car, they separate the different people in the shootings. There's a way that they do it, but it just really feels like they're treating me like a criminal, and I'd like them to speak a little bit about that.

CONAN: David Klinger?

KLINGER: Well, that's unacceptable. One of the things that I do and other people around the country do is train agencies about post-shooting protocols. And to disarm an officer at the scene, there's no reason for that. There's a time and a place to get the officer's weapon for evidence collection, and that's back at the station once the officer is safe, once the scene is secured, so on and so forth.

There's got to be some sort of an adversarial process because there's always the question in our democracy whether an officer used deadly force appropriately. So there has to be a careful investigation of the facts. However, it doesn't have to be adversarial in the sense of trying to make it look as if the officer did something wrong.

When I say adversarial, the district attorney has to take a look at it, make sure everything's squared away. But I agree with the officer: If an agency is not treating the officer with the respect that they deserve - because after all, what happens is they trained the officer, they hired the officer, they gave him a gun, they said go out, and under these circumstances deadly force is appropriate - unless and until there is some evidence that the officer did something wrong, the officer shouldn't be treated like a criminal suspect.

CONAN: John, how long ago was this?

JOHN: It was back in 2005.

CONAN: Do you think procedures have changed?

JOHN: You know, after that happened, I'm sure they probably did. I've talked to other departments, and they also said the same thing that Mr. Klinger said. It's just I'm not sure how often that happens. That was just my take on the incident and what happened with me and with the other officers. There were actually five officers involved. Thirty-eight shots were fired, and eight of them hit him, and he still lived.

CONAN: And - the person you were firing at?

JOHN: Yeah, the person still lived. They had to put him in a coma for a few days, and then he came back out of the coma. He had double the amount of crystal meth that you would expect on a suspect.

CONAN: And were all the officers OK?

JOHN: All of them were fine.

CONAN: And how long did this process take, all told?

JOHN: Let's see, it started about 5 o'clock in the morning. We were probably done by around noon or 1 o'clock.

CONAN: And then how long did the investigation take? How long was it before you got your weapon back?

JOHN: Well, they give you on the (unintelligible), administrative leave for a week, and then you come back. You have to go see a psych first to make sure that you're OK, and that was pretty much it.

CONAN: And have you had any difficulties?

JOHN: No, no problems at all. Yeah, I mean, I think just the main thing, I just felt the way that they treated me at the time, I'm glad that Mr. Klinger spoke to that, that that wasn't correct.

CONAN: All right, John, thanks very much, appreciate the phone call.

JOHN: All right, thank you.

CONAN: And Lawrence Mower, that procedure he described, a week on the beach, administrative leave, is that what they do in Las Vegas, too?

MOWER: That's kind of the norm nationwide is that you give officers time to see a psychologist and really make sure you're OK because it's interesting, one of your earlier callers kind of talked about this was I talked to a cop who was involved in a - in combat in Vietnam, and he was later involved in police shootings. And he said that, you know, in combat it's - not that it's not traumatic, but that you don't - you often don't know who you're shooting. You don't know anything about that person.

But if you're a police officer, you're going to find out everything there is to know about that guy through the, well, usually through the press and through your own - your department's investigation. You'll know that that person had a family, had loved ones, was loved by someone and it's - in my interviews with officers they - a lot of them really struggled with that.

CONAN: And, David Klinger, we find - again our experience with the military is that there is a degree of, first of all, denial and then there's a degree of soldiers and Marines unwilling to report for counseling because - well, they fear, what it's going to make them look like to their fellow soldiers and Marines, and it's also they don't want to be pulled out in the line of duty. Does the same kind of syndrome affect police officers?

KLINGER: I don't know that we could call it a syndrome in terms of how widespread it is, but certainly in my first study that I did for the Department of Justice, the one that led "Into the Kill Zone," several officers did mentioned that they did not feel comfortable talking to anybody in the organization, particularly the police psychologist or psychiatrist because they did not believe that they would be treated well, i.e., they might be pulled off the line. Someone might think that they weren't capable of doing their jobs.

And so yes, there is, at least, for some officers sans that because it could redound negatively on them professionally that they want to keep stuff close to the vest as opposed to go in getting the help of perhaps they might need.

CONAN: We're talking with David Klinger, a former police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department and the police department in Redmond, Washington. He's currently professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. He's with us by phone in Houston. His book is "Into the Kill Zone."

Lawrence Mower is also with us, a reporter for the Las Vegas Review Journal. His series on deadly force ran in the Review-Journal last November. He's with us from the studios of the Nevada Public Radio in Las Vegas.

We also spoke earlier about the case of Amadou Diallo in New York and I misspoke. There were 41 shots fired. He was hit 19 times. A caller came in with a correction. We thank them for that. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we go next to Chet(ph). And Chet's with us from Moultrie in Georgia.

CHET: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Chet. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

CHET: Sorry, I had you on speaker. Boy, my attitude's changed listening to everybody's call. I've been through two and they were both completely different. And I don't even know where to start. I get all emotional talking about it.

CONAN: Well, tell us about the first one.

CHET: Well, the first one was just something that a police officer probably would have no problem dealing with. It was an inmate trying to escape and he was also a mental patient. He grabbed another officer's gun and shot that officer in the face right in front of me, and then fired a shot at me, and then we - he ran out. And I chased him out and eventually, well, there was a lot of shooting back in forth and he was eventually shot. That was obviously one of those cut-and-dried situations.

The second one was not. The first one happened early when I was in my 20s. The second one happened in 2005, like the officer you just talked to a few minutes ago, late in my career. And it turns out the guy was trying to rob a Coke machine of all things, and I thought he was trying to - I thought the thing had taken his money so I came up unprepared for an aggressive personality. And when he thought that I was there to arrest him because - I didn't know it but in his vehicle which was parked there were items that he had taken from a burglary.

CONAN: I see.

CHET: And so he assumed that I knew that. And at first he tried to stab me with a screwdriver. I used pepper spray in that situation. And then while he was under the influence of the pepper spray, I was trying to handcuff him and he managed to knock me down, get in the car. And it was one of those situations you talked about earlier. I was...

CONAN: Oh, being dragged?

CHET: ...I was being dragged, so I climbed up into the car in his lap, and the car was going backwards in a circle. And he managed to - I was trying to hold on to keep from the centrifugal force from pulling me out of the open door, and he — while I was doing that, he grabbed my gun and then, when I realized he had my gun, then I - we both struggled for the gun and it - I had the advantage of pressure being on top. And so that's how it ended up.

CONAN: That sounds terrifying to tell you the truth. The investigation that time, how long did that take?

CHET: The investigation took - the first time, obviously, it was completely different. The second time, when the - in Georgia, we have the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and when they got there I actually knew a lot of the - well, I knew all the agents who were there. They arrived shortly after. And then, as a police officer, when they sit you down to interview you after a shooting, you expect that, but when they read you Miranda, you're not expecting that.

CONAN: I bet not. No.

CHET: That - I just - I didn't know what to do at that point. And so I, obviously, when you hear Miranda, you don't know what they're thinking. So I did get an attorney. Everything turned out OK. And another ironic twist in my situation that we're in south Georgia, I was a white officer, the suspect was black, and the family immediately said that racism was involved but the organization that saved me really was the NAACP.

CONAN: And how did that happen? We just have a few seconds left.

CHET: Well, real quickly, I was born and raised here. I've been in law enforcement here my whole life. And apparently, someone from the national organization came down to conduct an inquiry and when he talked with the representatives from chapters in two local communities where I had worked, they basically told him they knew me, they knew my family, they knew my work history. And I had, in 25 years, I had never had a claim of racism or excessive force and then the boy had an extensive record. So that - he got on a plane and went home. So...

CONAN: Chet, thanks very much for the call. We hope you're doing OK.

CHET: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate that. And, David Klinger, thank you for time today.

KLINGER: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: David Klinger, a former police officer in Los Angeles and Redmond, Washington, now at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. And our thanks to Lawrence Mower of the Las Vegas Review-Journal at Nevada Public Radio in Las Vegas. Appreciate it.

MOWER: Thank you.

CONAN: After a short break, more about the controversial video that allegedly shows four Marines desecrating corpses in Afghanistan. Stay with us I'm Neal Conan. It's THE TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.