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When Cops Kill: An Insider’s Perspective

Daniel DeLeon was inspired to write this article after reading Michael Shermer’s July, 2015 column in Scientific American titled “Outrageous: Why Cops Kill.” DeLeon thought readers might gain some insight hearing an answer to the question of why cops kill from a cop himself. He begins with some background, and then considers the many circumstances in which cops find themselves that can lead an incident to escalate into violence.


I am a white male 34 years old and grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles area for most of my life. I served in the U.S. Army with 2nd Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment. I did a tour in Afghanistan, finished my time in the Army and went on to obtain my college degree. Finally, at the age of 26, I became a police officer with what I consider the greatest department in the world—the Los Angeles Police Department.

One of my earliest memories as a child was of my grandfather’s answer to my question about what I should be when I grow up. His response: “Son, do what makes you happy. So long as it keeps a roof over your head and food on the table, do it.” My immediate response was, “I want to be a police officer.”

Why? I don’t know, and I cannot remember any experiences with law enforcement at that time that would have led me to want this. I guess you could say it was a “calling” for me. I geared my entire life toward the goal of becoming a police officer.

As I grew older in my childhood, I always had this strong desire to want to protect others who were being harmed. Even though I was a skinny little kid growing up, I never hesitated to … start a fight with a bully who was picking on someone. I always played scenarios in my head of what I would do to help if I ever saw someone in a life-threatening distress.

DeLeon's class graduating from the academy in 2007

DeLeon’s class graduating from the academy in 2007

I did my best to stay out of trouble, never doing drugs and never committing any crimes short of a traffic violation or using Napster. I knew a tour in the military would instill within me the disciplined mindset, and it surely did. I knew education would benefit in giving me the writing and legal skills needed to survive in my chosen career.

The Los Angeles Police Department was my only choice. Growing up as a kid and seeing the LAPD’s uniform always impressed me—it seemed like there was no other like it. Seeing how the officers of the department carried themselves motivated me to be that officer some day. Most of all, a personal experience with a single LAPD officer set it all in stone.

When I was around the age of 6, my parents were going through a custody battle. My mother was drinking and using drugs regularly, and I did not wish to be around her. One day it was my father’s turn to have custody of me, and I told him that I did not want to be with my mother any more. Long story short, a lone LAPD officer showed up and talked to me in private. I told him everything my mother was doing and that I did not want to stay with her. He said, “I’m going to make sure you’re safe, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that happens.” That resonates with me today and has been a guiding force in what kind of a police officer I am.

My academy date started on March 05, 2007. Having been in the military and, more specifically, in a special operations unit, my expectation of how rigorous the LAPD academy would be in tactics and discipline was not especially high. I do not say this to sound demeaning—the standards of tactics and discipline set by my military experience were placed beyond near imaginable limits. But my opinion changed very quickly. The LAPD’s training curriculum and corps set a very high standard.

Tactics and discipline were its two main area of focus, and officer safety was a pinnacle of almost everything we did. “Never turn your back on a suspect.” “Always watch the hands.” “Never leave your partner’s side.” These were a few of the principles drilled into us. Self-defense, tactics, and firearms were also a significant part of our training. It was also the one area that caused recruits to drop out.

The second area the training focused on was domestic violence and the mentally ill. We were told early on that the vast majority of our work on patrol would be dealing with these problems. The main focus for both was tactics, more tactics, and knowing the law. Most of our hands-on scenarios in the academy were dealing with these two areas. One wrong move in a scenario involving domestic violence or the mentally ill is that your “victim” could turn into a suspect, and then there’s a chance that you or your partner could get your gun taken away.

The rest of our academy training was learning the law and how to utilize it in our career to avoid violating a citizen’s civil rights. In my opinion, it was not enough training for someone with absolute zero knowledge of criminal justice. Thankfully, my degree was geared towards this field. Overall, the training was excellent, but as with any career your learning does not stop after schooling.

Our probationary period was one year long (technically 18 months with academy included). Your first six months is called phase 2, where you have to work with a P-3 Training Officer. Your last six months is called phase 3, where you are allowed to work with another field officer. I was very fortunate to have the assignments and training officers I had while on probation. I had a total of four training officers during my first six months. Each one instilled in me a strong work ethic.

My first training officer could have been a comedic juggler because he could make you laugh to the point of crying while at the same time juggling multiple different tasks at once. There were no sit-down lunches for us. We packed our lunch and ate it on the way to another radio call.

My second was very hard on officer safety and tactics and showed a more common sense approach to these fields. His approach opened my mindset to police work as being more shades of gray and not as black and white as we were taught in the academy. Thankfully this one liked to sit down for lunch and take his time to eat.

My third and fourth training officers showed me the side of how to work with the community and how to verbalize yourself better to de-escalate tense situations.

My ratings with all my training officers were extremely high. Never once did I receive a “need improvement” or “unsatisfactory” mark on my ratings. Contrary to what many citizens think, a police officer has to meet all standards of P.O.S.T (Police Officer Standards and Training). It’s a book about six inches thick full of check boxes that have to be covered in every area. You are then rated in areas (unsatisfactory, needs improvement, meets standards, exceeds standards).

Unlike most officers in training, I wasn’t kept on probation very long. I was put into a theft prevention unit for a few months and then a surveillance team for a few more. I took this as a sign of respect from my trainers that I had met the standard of being a police officer sooner than most. I can only credit it to my strong desire to be a police officer and the dedicated hard work and discipline instilled in me by my trainers.


One primary concept that was pushed into my head during my entire time I was on probation was officer safety and backing up other units in the field. This was key. We were taught to keep an ear on that radio at all times. If you heard another unit get a domestic violence call, you backed them. A man with a gun, you backed. Mental illness, you backed. A screaming woman, you backed. I felt a sense of brotherhood I had not felt since I was in the military. My third training officer asked me what I liked most about my job so far. My response was that we as officers never hesitate to help your brother and sister in blue. We have a saying who comes first and so on, “Your fellow officer, then citizens, and property.” I’ll share with you a few incidents I had during this time that related to this concept.

My first training officer and I received a radio call of a forgery suspect. The suspect was a teenager who was forging checks in his parent’s name. We arrived at the parent’s house where they told us their son was hiding in the bathroom. Thankfully, we had another unit backing us up. We entered a tiny bathroom with a small sink and bathtub. We announced ourselves. Nothing. My partner pulled open the bathtub/shower curtain and there lay our suspect. He had his hands concealed in his waistband.

This where our training and instinct kicked in. We have a suspect in a bathtub, hands hidden, refusing to get out. My partner drew out his firearm and ordered the young man to show us his hands. He stood up, revealed his hands, and stepped out of the tub. I said “hands on,” meaning I’m the one going to start placing him in a handcuffing. But the suspect began to struggle, and then reached for his waistband. I looked him dead in the eyes and said in a firm voice, “Reach for your waistband, and I’m going to fucking shoot you.” He saw the seriousness in my eyes and complied. We searched his waistband and found a 10-inch kitchen knife. Crisis averted and we, including the suspect, lived to see another day.

This set a strong tone for me that still resonates today. Anytime I have someone detained I have them place their hands behind their back. If they start to move in any way I become more alert. Not only because of that incident but because of many others, and the command we had pounded into our head in the academy, “Hands kill.”

Officer safety is ingrained in our minds from our day in the academy. Our department prides itself in tactics and officer safety above all. This comes with a price, of course, a price we as officers are willing to pay so we can go home safe at night. When your roll calls, which last up to 45 minutes each day, are spent debriefing tactical situations of other officers’ incidents, watching videos of other departments on what not to do tactically, and given scenarios by supervisors, officer safety becomes your entire world. For the most part we do not work single man cars. If per chance you find yourself working solo, you better not be caught answering a radio call that involves a crime and a suspect at the scene. No pursuits, car or foot, if you’re working solo, unless you have a very damn good reason for doing so. A few other “nevers”:

  • Separate from your partner
  • Turn your back to a suspect
  • Talk to a citizen from inside your car
  • Search a building without at least three people
  • Drive without your seat belt on
  • Take your eyes off the suspect’s hands
  • Let a suspect dictate your tactics
  • Eat inside your car

What does all of this training lead to? Rational fear and constant thought in the back of your head that anything can and will go sideways at any moment. The price to pay for this state of awareness is that citizens you encounter will not understand this mindset and the reasons for it. How officers communicate with those they come in contact with plays a significant role in educating citizens on why we act the way we do. In our line of work we call it “dusting them off.” If an officer receives a flier for a wanted robbery suspect, how he or she will handle encountering this person will be very tactical in nature.

Suspects in violent felony crimes, in many situations, are considered “high risk.” This means there’s a high probability that this person may become violent and or be armed with a deadly weapon. By nature, robbery suspects are either armed or use violence to steal property from others. An officer sees someone matching the description of this hypothetical suspect. The officer will draw his gun due to these risk factors, prone him or her out (lay out horizontally), and proceed to handcuff him. The officer’s investigation reveals that this wasn’t the person they were looking for. How the officer conducts himself after that is crucial in educating the suspect on our mindset of officer safety and their rights.

For example, the officer could just say, “You looked like a robbery suspect we were looking for, you can go now.” Better would be: “The reason we stopped you was because you looked very much like this person (shows flier) who is wanted for armed robbery on several elderly people in their homes. Knowing this person is armed, we had to prone you on the ground and draw our guns out for our safety. The reason we patted you down was for weapons only, based on the information we had. It wasn’t a search of your person. We determined you weren’t that person and apologize for inconveniencing you. Do you have any further questions of why we stopped you and did what we did?”

Verbalization and articulation are critical in these situations. Every time I conduct a detention based on reasonable suspicion and conduct an investigation, I give a speech along these lines. Not once has someone argued with my reason for I stopped them. I explained it in a manner that he or she could understand, and also gave insight into my perception.

Prejudice

We all have it, and police officers are not immune to it. A police officer should only use this to his or her advantage, but it is a tightrope to walk, and there are times we fall off it from great heights.

We have a saying, “all suspects look the same.” This is a somewhat confusing statement since no one looks the same. It has nothing to do with color, sex, height, weight, or good/bad looks. It’s a skill set you develop over time. If I see a person standing in front of an open bank on a hot summer day wearing a large, bulky hooded sweatshirt with the hood over their head, and they keep peering inside the bank, even a layman would suspect something isn’t right. They would easily assume that this person may be planning on robbing a bank.

However, if I see someone with a set of tattoos I know to be from rival gang territory, only my training and experience will give me the knowledge this person is somewhere they know they’re not supposed to be in regards to their gang. I will then be using every legal means to obtain as much information I can from that person to ascertain what is going on. Further, we officers, through mere experience, begin to notice physical traits and mannerisms of those who have done time in prison and/or used hard drugs. Tattoos, hygiene, clothing, walk, stance, and eye movements are all a gateway into a person’s past. Given the opportunity, we are more likely to focus on them for legal stops or consensual encounters, as opposed to stopping a soccer mom with three kids for a busted tail light.

This is not to claim that this is a fool proof system. Our perception is our reality and sometimes those we encounter are not who we thought they were. Many times I’m on the verge of starting an encounter with someone, but as I let my brain process further, I realized my mind initially deceived me.

As well, our prejudices may sometimes dictate our tactics and thoughts on how and when we will use force. In a sterile scenario, would I be more likely to use deadly force on the 18-year-old gang member pointing a gun at me or the 9-year-old waving it at me in their front yard? Am I going to be more on guard dealing with a drunk 28-year-old MMA fighter or a drunk 18-year-old woman? At the end of the day, policy and reasonableness are the only barriers we have in controlling this portion of our mind.

Why cops kill

For me, based on my experiences in the military, through my short time as a bodyguard, to the academy, and still today, I have been conditioned to shoot at human beings. The conditioning is primarily from shooting human silhouette targets. As Dave Grossman notes in his important book On Killing this is the most effective way to train a human to kill another human. The training involves conditioning you to overcome the natural desire to not want to harm another human. There are, of course, exceptions to this impulse (serial killers, psychopaths, megalomaniacal dictators and demogogues), but when combined with proper tactical situations and simulations, it had conditioned me to not only be able to shoot at another human being, but when and how to do it. It was like putting the devil within you. You put a shock collar around its neck and only allow it to enter the doors of “Self defense” “Saving Lives” and “Preventing dangerous acts.”

This sounds harsh, I know, but I am blunt on how much responsibility and power our government hands us to serve and protect. Our training comes down to determining when we can and can’t shoot. Thankfully, public policy has evolved to giving more rational guidance to police departments in training officers when and where they can use their weapons. We are mere servants to public policy on this, and we are trained conform to it.

Do police officers look forward to killing someone? Absolutely not. Do we talk about what we would do if presented a situation involving deadly force? Absolutely. If we had the opportunity to go in a situation to stop a deadly threat, would we use deadly force? Absolutely. As Dave Grossman would put it, we are sheepdogs after all. We are the ones running to the gunfire, not away from it. But this does not imply that we want to kill anyone. For me, I feel as though I’m genetically wired to want to stop dangerous people who wish to harm others. What is most important is that I control the primitive reptile part of my brain as much as possible. To do so I utilize the more evolved areas of my brain in making sure I use all resources available to me to minimize risk to myself, my partner, citizens, and yes, even the suspect at hand. At all times we would prefer that all encounters end without having to resort to deadly force.

That said, our brains are the inherent flaw of us police officers. It takes years of training and maturity to ensure a police officer will use deadly force only when they are legally allowed to do so. Only so much training by our police agencies can control this. Ultimately, the officer is going to make a split second decision and act based on the above. However, under threat, one’s brain may go into fight or flight mode, adrenaline kicks in, and a scenario could unfold that leads to the use of deadly violence.

I’ll use myself as an example. Late one Halloween night we were assigned to patrol Sunset Blvd in Hollywood as high visibility presence to prevent any criminal acts from occurring—a shadow of enforcement as it were. My partner and I were on bicycles watching as gang members drove by flipping gang signs leading to small fights breaking out that ended as quickly as they started. Suddenly, in front of us on the sidewalk we saw a large crowd horseshoed around a wall, and a loud bang went off inside the throng. Everyone scattered in every direction, as one lone man was left holding his stomach. He briefly slumped to the ground, then got up and ran off.

We called for help over our radios and locked the area down. Being that the shooting happened right next to a bar, we assumed our shooter may have gone inside it. We detained everyone at the bar, did our investigation and soon after were notified the victim of the shooting and the shooter were found down the street. Now we are tasked with holding a crime scene awaiting our “CSI” guys to show up collect evidence. Mind you, we were all still on edge and getting messages over our radio of other shootings and crowds breaking out in fights.

While waiting, we looked across the street and could see another fight breaking out. We yelled at the group to break up and leave. As we are doing so, I saw a young man in red clothing pull out a handgun in front of 10 cops across the street and begin firing into the crowd of people that were fighting. As I was closest to the suspect, and every other officer was behind me, I immediately drew out my handgun, intending to shoot this guy to stop him from firing on others. As I was lining my gun site on to his red shirt, I notice people were running behind him, in front of him, and on both his sides. My training told me this was not the time to shoot. Once my sights were lined up on his body and my finger was beginning to squeeze the trigger, the shooter looked directly at me. He began to run down the street while his victims lay on the ground screaming and covered in blood.

Now I had an armed murder suspect running into a crowd of people. My thought was that he could now shoot more innocent lives. I gave chase on foot, stopping a few times to aim my gun at his back, yelling at him to stop or that I would shoot. My background, yet again, was not allowing me to do so because if I did and missed, I would risk striking other citizens. I gave further chase, at which point he threw his gun to the ground, curled up in a ball, and gave himself up.

I look back at this scenario from time to time and wonder what would I have done if I had just a little less training or was a few years younger and fresh out of the military? One will never know. However, I believe my training and prior experiences with split second decisions that pushed my fears and emotions to the test, prevented me from shooting into that crowd of people and possibly wounding or even killing innocents. Would I have been justified in shooting? Hard to say, but in this instance I was able to override my “rage circuit” and make what turned out to be the right decision.

We Are Not Trained to Kill

If you haven’t noticed, I haven’t used the words “to kill”. As police officers, we aren’t trained to kill; we are trained to stop a threat. We are taught that every bullet you fire you are responsible for, but at the same time the most effective way to stop a deadly threat with your firearm is by overloading or “shocking” a body. This is most efficiently done by two paired shots to the center mass of the body. Although our marksmanship demands center “10 ring” shots in various pairs, it is understood that under high-stress situations, that pair will spread. This causes trauma to, say, the lungs and lower abdomen, putting the body into shock. If that fails to stop the immediate threat, we are trained to do a failure drill by firing at their head.

Each deadly force encounter is like a fingerprint—no other is like it. When assessing the reasons for each such event we need to keep this in mind. Police officers are human, although society likes to think that we are above the baser human instincts and emotions. Our training and experience can hopefully control them for the best outcome all around, but perfection, like utopias, is nowhere to be found.

How can we help prevent questionable shootings and teach police officers to control their rage circuit? Training, training, and more training. One of our best tools is hands-on tactical training. The situations presented are unpredictable and never the same. Live training situations are ideal, but when they are not, Force Options Simulators (FOS) are the next best thing. If you are not familiar with an FOS, an officer stands in front of a projection screen while the controller plays an interactive simulation that presents the trainee with a number of options. For each situation, the officer is required to use appropriate force or no force at all. The officer must then articulate to the controller why they did what they did and justify it through department policy.

Although this is time-consuming and costly, agencies across the world, small and large, need to push the envelope with funding to put officers through these training simulations on a regular basis so they are able to efficiently control the quick instinct in their brains and make better judgment calls.

As they say, the brain is like a muscle—use it.

About the Author

Daniel DeLeon was born and raised in Los Angeles and currently serves as a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. He served in the United States Army 2nd Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment as an airborne infantryman and later went on to work executive protection for CEOs and celebrities. His background education is in criminal justice and focuses his off time studying case law, philosophy, and religion.

 
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