I’m alone on a stone-paved pathway behind a nondescript building, armed only with a handgun and my wits.
Should I shoot the suspect?
He had jumped over a short wall along the walkway, and he had a gun in his hand too. He ignored my orders to drop the weapon, running away and firing shots over his shoulder. By that time I had ducked for cover, and clearly he wasn’t able to target me as he fled. So I let him go, figuring it would be wrong to shoot a fleeing suspect in the back.
Was I right? It depends. But according to Oakland Police Officer Frank Uu, who conducts officer training, I could have shot him anyway.
“Legally, lawfully, you would’ve been justified in shooting him: within our policy, within state law or federal law, you were OK,” Uu said.
This was just one of the revelations we in the media had on Saturday during an Oakland Police Department workshop on its use-of-force policies. The workshop came amid outrage from some in the community over the shooting of Derrick Jones, an East Oakland barber, who officers shot even though he was unarmed. Immediately after the shooting, the department said the officers reported that Jones had reached for something metallic in his waistband that they believed was a weapon. The department later described the object as a small scale like those used for weighing marijuana.
Uu (pronounced “OO-oo”), a 24-year Oakland veteran, works as a rangemaster in the basement of the headquarters building. Officers spend hours there using MILO, a specialized use-of-force simulator. It’s like a motion-sensitive video game projected on a large screen, with life-sized weapons that register hits during training scenarios. I was one of several reporters and community members who got to see MILO up-close and try it out. The department says it was the first time it had ever been so open to the media.
Back to my scenario, with the suspect who ran away while shooting. What if I’d tried to shoot him somewhere else? Maybe his leg? That didn’t work for another reporter in the training, NBC Bay Area’s Cheryl Hurd. In her scenario, a bank robbery in progress, she ended up shooting the pavement at the suspect’s feet. He had a gun in the same hand as the bag of money; another shooter was waiting quietly in a nearby getaway car.
“What would’ve happened if she’d aimed at his foot?” Uu asked. “Maybe she shoots herself in the foot, right? It’s very difficult to make those shots under those conditions.
“It’s a complicated answer to a very simple issue. Shoot, or don’t shoot?”
Use of force is a complicated area of the law. It rests on a host of federal and state laws, U.S. Supreme Court precedents and internal policies. “Shoot to kill” is not one of those policies, Uu says, but if lethal force must be used to stop a suspect, officers are trained to shoot in the upper torso, hitting vital organs and making the suspect lose consciousness (or worse).
“The back is part of the torso. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s the front or the back or the side,” Uu explained, “because the guy’s still trying to kill me. He’s trying to shoot at me. I’m going to try to stop him. I’m not trying to kill him, but I am trying to stop him.”
“Deadly force is a last option,” says Oakland’s assistant chief of police, Howard Jordan. “We teach (officers) a lot of things before that. The first option that we want our officers to do is, to use verbal persuasion … giving commands, giving them orders to do something so you don’t have to resort to violence.”
And if that doesn’t work, police officers work with what’s known as a continuum of force—a string of other tactics including hands-on restraining, pepper spray, or other means—in hopes of avoiding gunfire. The department is updating its use-of-force training next year with revised policies.
Sessions like these are aimed at giving the public a closer look at Oakland police from the inside and conveying the challenges of police work under normal circumstances. By all accounts, the department is understaffed, and it’s still working to restore confidence in the wake of the “Riders” scandal, questions about its handling of the Chauncey Bailey murder investigation, and lingering distrust in parts of the community over the Derrick Jones shooting and other incidents. It’s unclear if the department plans more sessions like the one on Saturday, but Mayor-elect Jean Quan was in attendance and says she’ll use this information to keep reforming the department.
So back to my initial question: Should I shoot the suspect?
The answer is yes. Shoot. Or perhaps, no, don’t shoot.