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May 2012
Back and to the Left: The <i>L.A. Times</i> Analyzes a Police Shooting

Imagine working in an occupation in which your most important decisions were evaluated by people who have never performed your job. Imagine further that your very life depended on those decisions and that you had to make them in the blink of an eye. And finally imagine that others could take months to come to a conclusion about what you had done, mulling it over with the aid of reports, photographs, and a 3-D animation of what had occurred.

Such is the situation facing officers in the Los Angeles Police Department today.

On May 7, the Los Angeles Times reported on a police shooting that occurred about a year ago. According to the Times, two undercover narcotics detectives were walking in downtown Los Angeles when they initiated an impromptu buy-bust operation aimed at a street-corner drug dealer. When the suspected dealer snatched a proffered $5 bill from the hand of Detective Arthur Gamboa and then failed to deliver the expected merchandise, Gamboa began following the suspect and demanding the product he had paid for.

The account of the shooting as described in the Times is interrupted with this ominous sentence: "What happened next is not clear." From which the reader is supposed to infer that something untoward surely happened.

Gamboa claimed the suspect stopped and turned around while unfolding a large knife, then said, "I am going to kill you." Gamboa, fearing he was about to be stabbed, pulled his concealed pistol and shot the suspect twice, killing him. When interviewed by investigators, Gamboa insisted he had shot the suspect in the chest.

Again the Times strikes the ominous chord: "An autopsy, however, showed both bullets had struck [the suspect] on the left side of his back, making Gamboa's account impossible."

As with all officer-involved shootings in the LAPD, Gamboa's was investigated by detectives from Force Investigation Division, who interviewed Gamboa and his partner as well as other witnesses. Every bit of evidence at the shooting scene was photographed and its location measured and noted, all for inclusion in an animated 3-D presentation. The FID investigators prepared a report, which was presented to command-level officers who sit on what is known in the LAPD as a shooting review board. The board reached conclusions on three separate questions: 1) Were the involved detectives' tactics in conformance with LAPD policy? 2) Was the drawing and exhibiting of a weapon proper under the circumstances? And 3) Was the use of deadly force justified and within policy?

The shooting review board concluded that the detectives' tactics were deficient in that they engaged in a buy-bust operation without the necessary personnel and other safeguards in place, but that Detective Gamboa was justified in drawing his pistol and shooting when the suspect presented an immediate deadly threat. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck concurred with these findings. But, when it comes to officer-involved shootings, Chief Beck's is not the last word. The five civilian members of the police commission, mayoral appointees, are charged with making the final ruling. And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa makes appointments to his commissions, most especially such a high-profile one as the police commission, not with an eye toward expertise but rather with an emphasis on "diversity" as the word is currently understood. In the case of Detective Gamboa, the commission voted 3-2 to rule the shooting out of policy.

In the publicly available report (PDF) on the shooting, the majority of the commissioners found that "the preponderance of the available evidence did not support that [the suspect] was turned toward [Detective Gamboa] when the shooting occurred, and that it did not support an objectively reasonable belief that [the suspect] presented an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury at the time that Detective Gamboa discharged his pistol."

All of this raises some interesting questions, few of which are addressed in the Los Angeles Times story. The commissioners' individual votes are not made public, yet the Times reports that commissioners Richard Drooyan, Robert Saltzman, and John Mack were the ones who voted to find the shooting out of policy. It would be interesting to know who leaked the information to the Times and for what purpose.

Unnamed in the story are commissioners Debra Wong Yang and Alan Skobin, who presumably voted in favor of Detective Gamboa. Of the five commissioners, only Skobin has any actual police experience, having served as a reserve deputy for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department for more than twenty years. Sadly for L.A.'s cops, Skobin recently stepped down from the police commission after serving for nine years, and now sits on the city's fire commission. He no doubt offered an experienced, practical perspective to his fellow commissioners when they evaluated shootings, one that in this case only a single peer found persuasive. With Skobin now gone from the commission, there's no telling where the others will look for insight in making judgments about shootings and other incidents, about which they have no practical knowledge and no evident desire to acquire any.

The Times story, and indeed three prevailing commissioners themselves, made much of the fact that Detective Gamboa's rounds struck the suspect in the back. But neither the Times story nor the public version of the commission's report mentions anything about "lag time," i.e., the time it takes to recognize a deadly threat, draw a weapon, and fire. It is entirely plausible that the suspect drew his knife and was preparing to stab Detective Gamboa, who then drew his pistol and fired.

It is equally plausible that the suspect, on seeing Gamboa draw his gun, turned away in the unfortunate realization that he had brought a knife to a gunfight. Detective Gamboa was faced with the choice of shooting the suspect or being stabbed by him, and even if the suspect reacted to the sight of the gun by turning away, Gamboa's instantaneous decision had been made. Questions raised by the Times about which way the suspect may have turned and the minor inconsistencies in Gamboa's accounts are all but irrelevant when viewed in light of the fact that a knife was recovered from beneath the suspect's body.

Which raises more questions about the Times story and the motives of whoever may have been the source. "A knife was found under [the suspect's] body," says the Times, "although the reports by the commission and chief do not clarify if it was found with the blade out or folded." Surely the knife was photographed as it was found, and its condition was described in detail somewhere in the report submitted to Chief Beck and the police commission. Was this information selectively withheld by the story's source so as to further discredit Detective Gamboa? Or was it done to cast an unfavorable light on the two commissioners who voted in the minority? We'll probably never know.

Questions about who is out to discredit whom by means of news leaks are but interesting diversions to the life-and-death decision Detective Gamboa had to make that day a year ago, one that people who live their lives behind a desk, no matter how well-meaning, are unable to envision. Gamboa will likely receive some minor punishment for the tactical deficiencies that led up to the shooting, but he is alive today and the man who tried to kill him is not. I would ask the three commissioners who ruled the shooting out of policy this question: Would you have preferred to see the outcome reversed?

"Jack Dunphy" is the pseudonym of an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.



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