Jorge Ramirez Sr., 58, speaks as Xavier Gonzalez, 13, and Nicole Ramirez, 30, look on in Los Angeles. The three are family members of Jorge Ramirez, an unarmed police informant who was killed by police in Bakersfield, Calif., when a wanted man he was with opened fire on officers. (photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Washington Post)
For 55 Officers in Fatal Shootings This Year, It Wasn't Their First Time
By Keith L. Alexander, Amy Brittain, Wesley Lowery, and Sandhya Somashekhar, The Washington Post
23 December 15
More than 50 police officers involved in fatal shootings this year had previously fired their guns in deadly on-duty shootings, according to a Washington Post investigation.
For a handful of officers, it was their third fatal shooting. For one officer, it was his fourth.
The findings concerned many law enforcement experts, who said that most officers never fire their weapons on the job. The analysis also exposed another gap in the federal government’s oversight of fatal police shootings nationwide: the absence of a system for tracking multiple shootings by individual officers.
The 55 officers were identified as part of a Post project tracking all fatal shootings by police in the line of duty in 2015. It is the first nationwide attempt to determine whether fatal police shootings are isolated events in an officer’s career or whether some officers repeatedly fire their weapons in deadly encounters.
The Post also found that an additional 45 officers had previously been involved in non-fatal shootings.
“It’s a national embarrassment. We don’t even know how many times cops pull their triggers,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina.
In most cases, the person killed was armed and the shootings were found to be justified by authorities or were still under investigation. The shootings cut across departments of all sizes, involved officers on a variety of assignments and grew out of circumstances such as routine patrols, undercover police operations and standoffs with SWAT teams that spanned hours.
In Broward County, Fla., a sheriff’s deputy on a SWAT team was involved in three fatal shootings from 2009 to 2011. His fourth came in June when officers shot and killed a suspected bank robber.
In San Bernardino, Calif., five officers opened fire in February, killing a man who led police on a high-speed chase and then tried to ram their cars. For two of the officers, it was their third fatal shooting with the department; and for another, his second.
And in New Mexico, five state police officers who were involved in fatal shootings in 2015 also fired their weapons in earlier encounters in which police killed someone. One of those officers took part in two fatal shootings this year — six weeks apart. Both involved standoffs with armed individuals.
Many departments withheld officers’ names from the public or released only vague details, making it impossible to precisely determine how many officers have been involved in multiple shootings.
Policing experts said the phenomenon has not been deeply studied nationwide, and a deeper review of the cases could root out officers who resort too often to deadly force and help officials develop strategies for officers to defuse — or avoid — volatile situations.
The Post requested information on 743 deadly police shootings it tracked from January through September. Agencies provided information on officers in about half the cases, or 367 shootings.
Of those, 1 in 8 shootings involved at least one officer who had taken part in a previous deadly shooting. Many fatal shootings by police involve multiple officers. It is often unclear who fired the fatal shot or shots.
“If someone is involved in multiple shootings, it doesn’t mean that it was a bad shooting,” said Jonathan Smith, a former chief of the special litigation section in the Justice Department’s civil rights division who studied the issue in Miami. “But it does mean that you should be asking a lot of questions.”
One March morning in Bakersfield, Calif., Adrian Hernandez raped a woman and set her house on fire, police said. Hours later, after a manhunt, officers spotted his car and gave chase.
Hernandez exited the vehicle and pointed a weapon, later determined to be a BB gun, at police, Bakersfield authorities said. Five officers opened fire, killing him.
For three of those officers, it was their second deadly shooting.
A year earlier, one fired at an unarmed man who appeared to be reaching for a gun.
In 2013, another officer shot at a woman who pointed a pellet gun at police.
And in the same year, a third officer opened fire on two men. One was wanted for violating parole on an assault charge, the other was a police informant.
In that incident, police were following the wanted man’s car as the informant, 34-year-old Jorge Ramirez, a passenger in the car, was texting a contact in the department. The wanted man stopped in a hotel parking lot and fired at officers, police said, wounding one. Police fired back, killing the suspect and Ramirez.
Police shootings in Bakersfield, a department with fewer than 400 officers, show the broad range of situations that officers encounter that can quickly turn volatile. This year, police there have shot and killed six people.
Bakersfield police spokesman Gary Carruesco, who previously worked as an investigator in the department’s internal affairs unit, declined to comment on the shootings other than to say that each was found by police to be justified.
“That speaks volumes on the training we receive as officers,” Carruesco said. “I’m sure any department would love it if they never had a fatal shooting, the negative attention it draws to the department, and the emotional stress it probably brings to the officer.”
Jorge Ramirez Sr., who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of his son against the department, questions how a department the size of Bakersfield could have so many fatal shootings.
“This isn’t Los Angeles or New York. Something is wrong here,” Ramirez said.
Los Angeles police have had 20 deadly shootings this year; New York City police have had eight.
There are many and complex reasons an officer might be involved in multiple shootings, experts said. The officer’s assignment matters — for example, an officer on a gang or drug squad in a crime-heavy area might be more likely to end up in a gunfight than an officer who patrols a quiet suburb.
When the Justice Department investigated the Miami Police Department in 2011 after a spate of officer-involved shootings, the federal agency found that “a small number of officers were involved in a disproportionate number of shootings.”
Seven officers accounted for more than one-third of the department’s 33 total shootings, both fatal and non-fatal incidents, from 2008 to 2011. One officer shot and killed two people in the span of two weeks, the report said.
“This is a problem across the country,” said Smith, the former chief of the special litigation section of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “It was not unique to Miami.”
In many cases, Miami officers returned to patrolling the streets long before any investigations had been completed, Smith said. The report raised questions about potential corrective actions that could have, or should have, been put into place.
Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said the department has made changes, including using a state agency to review police shootings. The department, which has 1,258 officers, has had two fatal shootings this year.
Tactical changes also may have led to fewer shootings, Llanes said. The department has reduced the number of “jump-out squads,” the undercover units known for breaking up drug deals and going after violent offenders, he said.
“When you discharge a firearm, you shouldn’t automatically feel like you did something wrong,” Llanes said. “But you did take someone’s life. It’s a matter of being accountable to the community. It’s serious. It’s a big deal. It’s not the normal course of business.”
Patrol officers account for the majority of the repeat shooters identified by The Post. They are often the first to respond to tense situations including domestic disputes and calls to help someone with mental illness.
Shortly before 11 p.m. one August evening, police in Kerrville, Tex., got a call from a woman pleading for help. She said her husband had become violent, and she and her children had fled their home. She warned that he had a gun.
Minutes later, Sgt. Jonathan Lamb, a patrol officer, and three colleagues pulled up. As the officers approached the house, police said, the man rushed out of his front door and began shooting. Lamb and the other officers returned fire.
Lamb’s first deadly shooting had occurred six years earlier.
In 2009, he and others killed a hit-and-run suspect who police said lunged at officers with a knife as they tried to arrest him.
“I feel I had no other choice in both circumstances,” Lamb, a 14-year veteran with the department, said in an interview with The Post.
Three other times in his career as a police officer, Lamb said, he pulled out his weapon — in the first two, he was responding to domestic violence calls and the suspect advanced toward him with a knife. In the third, a fugitive who was taller and nearly 100 pounds heavier than Lamb charged him in an attempt to evade arrest.
Each of those times, the suspect stopped advancing as the officer drew his firearm, and he was able to make an arrest without firing a shot.
“I think a lot of people, quite honestly, don’t know what they don’t know about use of force,” Lamb said. “In the aftermath of some of these high-profile shootings that have made headlines, the public sometimes has an unrealistic expectation of what law enforcement should be capable of. Use of force is never pretty.”
LaMaurice Gardner, a police psychologist who advises the National Tactical Officers Association, said officers often develop anxiety and depression and avoid situations that remind them of the shooting. For officers with multiple shootings, the effect can be cumulative.
“I’ve had officers literally say, ‘Is death chasing me?’ ” said Gardner, who also works as a reserve lieutenant for the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department in Pontiac, Mich. “They don’t want to risk getting labeled as a RoboCop or a killer. It borders on paranoia.”
After shootings, some officers have taken nearly a year to return to full duty, while others have returned much sooner, he said. In his 20 years of work, he said, about eight officers he treated who had been involved in shootings left their jobs because of post-traumatic stress disorder. He said that one officer who had been involved in 10 shootings recently retired because the mental burden was too much to bear.
Not all officers experience long-lasting effects after a shooting, however, experts said. Lamb said neither the fatal shooting this year nor the one in 2009 left him with anxiety or second thoughts.
“In both cases, I felt that I was protecting my own life and the lives of the other officers on the scene,” Lamb said, “although neither was the outcome that we would have preferred.”
Many of the officers involved in multiple fatal shootings were assigned to specialized police units, including SWAT and narcotics teams, The Post found. Of eight officers who opened fire in three or more fatal shootings, six were on specialized units.
In January, Sgt. Jesus Deanda with the Chandler police and two other officers were on assignment as part of a special fugitive task force in Arizona. Police said a burglary suspect led the officers on a car chase and began shooting. Deanda and the officers returned fire, killing the man.
It was Deanda’s third fatal shooting.
In 2013, he was among six officers on a U.S. Marshals task force who were trying to arrest a man wanted for assaulting a police officer and drug possession, according to police.
Police said the suspect, sitting in a pickup truck, reached for a gun. Deanda and the other officers opened fire, killing him.
A decade earlier, Deanda was involved in another fatal shooting. He and his then-partner Antonio Frias killed a suspected drug dealer they were chasing while working on an undercover narcotics unit.
Deanda yelled, “He’s got a gun!” Frias told The Post.
As the man climbed a fence, Frias pulled him to the ground. The two wrestled, and the man pointed the gun and fired at Frias.
The bullet creased the top of Frias’s skull. “It sounded like an M-80 firecracker go off at the head,” Frias told The Post.
Both officers returned fire.
Frias said that he retired in 2012 after being diagnosed with PTSD because of the shooting.
Deanda declined comment through a police spokesman, who said the shootings were all justified. He remains assigned to a special task force with the Chandler police, a department of 345 officers.
“Sgt. Deanda is a decorated professional police officer who continues to perform at the highest level and has continued on with his career in an exemplary manner,” said spokesman Joseph Favazzo.
One officer who has killed twice in the line of duty now faces criminal charges for the most recent fatal shooting. He is one of the few officers nationwide to be prosecuted for an on-duty shooting in 2015.
On the morning of April 22, Portsmouth, Va., police officer Stephen D. Rankin responded to a call for a shoplifting at a local Walmart. There he encountered 18-year-old William L. Chapman II in the parking lot. About a minute later, Rankin fatally shot the unarmed man in his face and chest, according to police records.
Multiple witnesses said that there was a physical struggle between Rankin and Chapman in the moments prior to the shooting, according to statements obtained by The Post.
In September, a grand jury indicted Rankin on a charge of first-degree murder. Rankin, 36, was fired from his job. The interim Portsmouth police chief declined an interview request.
Rankin’s defense attorney, Nicole Belote, said the facts did not support a charge of first-degree murder and that she would prepare to “zealously defend” Rankin at trial.
Attorney Jon Babineau, who represents Chapman’s family, said he was a “soft-spoken” man with learning disabilities. Walking through Walmart was part of his daily routine, Babineau said.
Four years earlier, Rankin fatally shot another unarmed man, 26-year-old Kirill Denyakin, an immigrant from Kazakhstan.
On the evening of April 23, 2011, Denyakin was drunk and pounding on the glass door of an apartment building, according to court records. A neighbor called 911 to report a burglary. Rankin said that when he arrived he told Denyakin to stop, according to a statement the officer gave investigators. Denyakin then turned around, dug into his waistband and ran toward the officer with a “steely-eyed look in his eyes,” Rankin stated.
Rankin said Denyakin reached into his waistband and ran toward him. Rankin shot him 11 times. “I believed he was charging at me with a weapon,” he told the jury in a civil trial.
The jury found Rankin not liable for Denyakin’s death.
Rankin spent three years on administrative duty while the case was investigated by the Justice Department, police spokeswoman Misty Holley said. No charges were filed, and Rankin returned to his patrol job in 2014. A year later, Rankin shot Chapman in the Walmart parking lot.
Rankin is scheduled for trial in February.
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