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With Monday’s ruling from a Cleveland grand jury not to indict the officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the nation’s rift over police use-of-force was again torn open. While I absolutely believe the grand jury made the right decision in the case of the officer who fired – you can’t ask police officers to investigate armed people and not protect themselves when someone reaches for a gun (or a replica) – the Rice case provides an opportunity for cool heads to find a solution to some preventable deaths.
Of the many shootings of police officers in recent years that have generated controversy, four stand out because of a unique commonality – grossly inaccurate information being relayed to police officers.
There are likely many others. Solving this problem may save the lives of innocent civilians and minor offenders without putting police in more jeopardy.
In the Rice case, officers responded to a report of a person brandishing a gun in a public park. They did not know that the suspect, Tamir Rice, was 12-years-old and carrying a replica, not a real gun. Video of the shooting shows that as Rice approached the officer’s car, he reached into his waistband toward the toy, causing a rookie officer to leap out and shoot. What the officers did not know, was that the 911 caller had told police dispatchers that Rice looked like a child and that he thought the gun was a toy.
We can only ponder what tragedy might have been averted had the officers approached with that information in mind.
Closer to my home in Southern California, the killing of 19-year-old Kendrec McDade presents another kind of information challenge. Late on the night of March 26, 2012, Pasadena Police responded to a report of an armed robbery with shots fired. Officers spotted McDade and pursued him when he fled on foot. When McDade made a sudden move toward an officer, he was shot.
Only after the 19-year-old was killed, was it learned that the 911 caller had lied. McDade had never had a gun, but the caller had embellished a simple theft report to generate a quicker police response. Though McDade certainly contributed to his own death by participating in a theft and resisting arrest, the false information provided to the dispatcher vastly increased the risk the officers perceived.
Stunningly, the 911 caller was not prosecuted.
The McDade case mirrors aspects of the death of John Crawford, which, like the Rice incident, also happened in Ohio last year. On August 5, 2014, Crawford was in a Wal-Mart store in Beavercreek, Ohio, when he picked up an unpackaged BB gun. A 911 caller, Ronald Ritchie, reported Crawford was pointing a rifle at shoppers, including children, and repeatedly indicates a shooting is imminent. Police responded en masse to the call, treating it as a potential “active shooter” situation, as Ritchie rapidly relayed details. Crawford was shot within seconds of officers encountering him.
A review of the video from store surveillance synced with audio of Ritchie’s 911 call shows that Crawford did essentially nothing Ritchie claimed. Mainly, he wandered the pet food aisle of the store, chatting on his cell phone. At one point, two children and a mother are shopping near Crawford who has the toy casually resting on his shoulder. Ritchie reports “he just threatened two kids.” Yet Crawford, 15 feet away, never faced them. The kids (and their mother) continue shopping as though nothing happened. Because it obviously didn’t.
Ritchie plainly lied. Yet, he, too, escaped prosecution.
A similar case occurred in June of 2013 when Gardena police responded to the theft of a bicycle from a pharmacy. For unknown reasons, the police dispatcher broadcast the crime was a “robbery” – a crime involving force. Officers came across friends of the victim and mistook them for the suspects. The victim’s brother, Ricardo Diaz Zeferino forcefully intervened and repeatedly defied police orders to keep his hands up. A video shows the third time he reached for his waistband he was shot and killed.
In all four of these cases, wrong or incomplete information was relayed to officers about seemingly potentially lethal incidents that actually bore little risk.
This may be the best opportunity to quickly and effectively address some preventable shootings.
One step would be more aggressively prosecuting those who make false reports to 911, especially those contributing to the death or injury of an innocent person. Such legal changes should include a public education campaign.
But police dispatch centers may be the easiest place to have an impact that works for cops and citizens alike. Having been trained in, covered and observed police work for two decades, including inside a 911 call-and-dispatch center, I know the critical role dispatchers play in law enforcement. It is an extremely stressful job, where seconds count and information is extremely imperfect, compounded by the emotions of scared, distraught and injured callers. They are the first hope of desperate people. Most who start in the field quit relatively quickly, some after a bit of compounded stress, some after a single heart-wrenching incident.
But it is also where the seeds for a successful or unsuccessful response are planted. If we, as a society, are going to address unnecessary police killings without demanding cops take on more danger, then reviewing and adjusting the information management protocols that shape the situational awareness of officers in the field is a smart place to begin.
It is where police responses start. It is where tragedies start. It can be a place where solutions start.