Anatomy of a "classic" blue-on-blue shooting
Part one of a two-part series
Editor’s Note: Out of respect and sympathy for the officers involved in this tragic incident and in admiration for the agency’s courage in pursuing learning points that will help keep other officers safe, we have chosen to remove the actual names of the agents and the department associated with this event.
When Agt. DB arrived at the “shots-fired” scene that cold November Friday, long after some 30 other officers had already responded, he probably knew the least of any of them about the circumstances he was walking into, according to the district attorney’s after-action assessment of the situation.
When he finally left, he carried the heaviest burden an LEO can suffer: He’d killed one of his own.
The many factors forming the tragic context of his firing a .223 round from his AR-15 into the head of Agt. JD are detailed in an unsparing report of the incident issued recently by the officers’ agency. These include, among other things:
• The failure of supervisory personnel to take command of a scene described as “chaotic”
• Poor communication regarding deployment and positioning of boots on the ground
• Ineffective use of air support
• A breakdown in “buddy system” precautions
• The insidious influence of powerful human-performance elements such as fatigue, reaction time, and perceptions under stress
The 144-page report, commissioned by Department Chief KP, is the work of an independent Incident Review Board with no connection to departments involved in the shooting or to official investigations of it.
This blue-ribbon panel included Chief Louis Dekmar of LaGrange, GA, chair of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies; Capt. Terry Brown of the Aurora (CO) PD; Bob Evans, the supervisory special agent who oversees investigative and operational activity for the FBI in Wyoming; Sgt. Michael Harding of the Los Angeles County (CA) SD’s Tactics and Survival Training Unit; and Special Projects Director Bill Spence of the Force Science Institute.
Beginning last January, the group pored over thousands of pages of documentation about what happened, ranging from interview transcripts, crime-scene photos, and radio transmissions to investigative reports, policies, and payroll records. With commendation to the Department for “displaying the courage to undergo such critical scrutiny,” the panel focused “not upon what went right [but] upon what went wrong, how, and why,” in the hope that their findings might prevent another blue-on-blue catastrophe in the future.
Says FSI’s executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski, “The candor and transparency represented by this report are exceptional among law enforcement agencies. By encouraging this level of examination, the Department not only shows its dedication to improving the safety of its own officers but also its determination to help all others in this profession who can learn from this tragic event.”
In this two-part series, Force Science News presents some of the Board’s core discoveries, with particular emphasis on the physiological and psychological factors that may have led to the fateful deadly force decision that ended JD’s life at age 35.
“The human factors involved are by no means unique to this agency,” Lewinski says. “This is, in fact, a classic blue-on-blue, mistaken-identity shooting with universal ingredients that could occur anywhere. It’s important to study for the understanding it can bring to how these devastating events evolve and the lessons they leave in their wake.”
First, the shooting itself, the first officer fatality in the department’s history. (For clarification, please note that on this department all personnel of officer rank are referred to as agents.)
From “Loud Party” to “Shots Fired”
Shortly after 0100 hours on Nov. 9, 2012, Agt. JD, a native of the United Kingdom with nearly seven years on the force, and another officer were dispatched to a residential neighborhood in response to a “loud party” complaint.
Both men had volunteered to work an overtime patrol shift to fill in for officers who had called in sick. JD had already logged in 10 hours on his regular shift plus four hours of extra duty prior to that before he began his extended tour.
As the agents exited their units and began walking toward the alleged disturbance, they heard gunshots coming from somewhere in the neighborhood. They couldn’t pinpoint the location, but as they checked the area, more shots rang out. Soon dispatch was receiving “numerous calls from concerned citizens” about gunfire. Multiple officers, including some from nearby jurisdictions, raced into the area.
As the first Department sergeant to arrive made her way on foot down one street with a covey of officers in search of the shooting site, she “saw a figure step out” onto the patio of a nearby residence, then “saw a muzzle flash and heard a gunshot” that caused her to duck behind a large tree for cover. The shooter, too indistinct in the darkness to yield a detailed description, ducked back inside.
Dispatch, running the address, advised that an occupant of that house was a “known gang member” with prior weapons charges and other violent offenses. Now cops flooded the area and somewhat of a perimeter informally fell into place. JD and another agent, armed respectively with a Glock 17 and a shotgun, took a position behind a high wooden privacy fence that enclosed the backyard of the “target” house.
They tried to establish a visual on the yard through cracks between the slats or by wobbling on a metal extension ladder that was leaned on its side against the fence. But the battery in JD’s flashlight was dying and the light on the other agent’s shotgun was of limited scope. For the most part, their environs were “pitch black.” In JD’s words via radio to his sergeant, “It’s not a great spot.”
A Pit Bull Problem
At 0231 a second Department sergeant at the scene, a SWAT negotiator, began telephoning into the residence. Eventually a woman answered. She denied that she, her boyfriend, or a visiting male — the only occupants, she insisted — had fired any guns. They agreed to come out “with nothing in their hands” and to follow commands.
By 0237 the three, all Hispanics, were proned out, handcuffed, and arrested, still proclaiming their innocence. “None were found to have any weapons in their possession,” the DA later noted. However, the boyfriend was “extremely intoxicated and belligerent.” And the woman alternated between acting “cagey” and treating everything “as a joke.” The negotiator was skeptical of her proclaimed truthfulness.
Considering that a known offender with gang ties was associated with the residence, the sergeants decided that the place “had to be cleared.”
One problem: the woman warned that there were three unrestrained pit bulls inside. And that the sergeants believed.
One of them called for someone at the police station to bring some catch poles to the scene.
Agt. DB took the call. He’d been casually catching bits and pieces of radio traffic from the scene as he finished up booking a DUI arrestee. A firearms instructor and assistant SWAT team leader, 35-year-old DB, like JD, was working an overtime shift after completing his regular 10-hour stint. At about 0300, he grabbed a couple of poles and some mirrors and headed out to the cop-saturated scene.
Meanwhile, supervisors on scene decided additional personnel were needed to search the house. The agent who had buddied up with JD behind the fence volunteered to help out. When he left the fence line, taking the shotgun with him, JD lost his closest contact at the scene and, his sergeant later admitted, she “didn’t actually check to make sure that somebody else” was with him or that his location was clearly communicated to other responders.
Alone in the dark, the Review Board reports, JD’s “hands were occupied with handling both a [fading] flashlight and his handgun,” making it “difficult to handle his radio as well. Still worse, he was standing in a precarious position, trying to see over a fence while standing on the edge of a ladder.”
An Ill-fated Plan Unfolds
Arriving at the scene, DB quickly joined a handful of officers who had established a beachhead in the living room of the target house. In a “brief conversation,” they told him about the dogs and the fact that they’d recovered a magazine for a .45-cal. Pistol, but no gun, inside the house, deepening their conviction that an armed subject was still at large. There was no discussion about anyone watching the backyard or being in any danger zone outside the dwelling. DB would state later that he didn’t even know JD was at the scene.
One loose pit bull was captured with a catch pole and penned in a bathroom. At least one more dog could be heard behind a closed door down a narrow hallway, and some sounds of movement suggested that a human being might be in that room, too. That and the dog’s chilling snarls quickly provoked a change of plans.
Instead of trying to snare the animal(s) in the cramped confines of the passageway while burdened with “heavy and cumbersome” protective gear, including a shield, it seemed to make better sense to clear the remainder of the house from the outside. A team of three — DB, another agent, and the sergeant/negotiator — would move around the exterior, breaking and raking windows to get a visual into each room in search of the suspect they believed may still be free.
Just after 0330 with DB in the lead, the trio exited the house into a carport and from there planned to move into the dark backyard. As DB cautiously stepped out, scanning from left to right, he heard a male voice from the darkness softly say “Hey!,” as if trying to get his attention in a “conversational tone.”
“The person continued to speak,” DB said later, but DB “could not make out any words [he] was saying” because the voice “sounded slurred, as if the individual was drunk.” DB immediately activated the light on his rifle and directed it and his full attention toward the voice.
At the top of the privacy fence at the back of the yard, he saw what looked like a “Hispanic male with a shaved head.” Only part of the man’s head and his hands were visible. The right hand gripped “a black, semi-automatic-pistol.”
“Police!” DB yelled. “Drop the gun! Drop the gun!”
Initially the weapon had been angled “down and out” in the direction of DB’s feet. But now “the individual started to raise the gun,” targeting him, DB thought, “in order to shoot” him.
DB was sighting the optic on his rifle on the man’s head. When he “saw the gun come up,” he fired. Then as he retreated backward toward cover, he “transitioned down” to where the man’s torso would have been on the other side of the fence and fired five more rounds. His target “fell back” out of sight.
After DB performed a tactical reload, the team of three moved out to search behind the fence, with DB trailing this time. Behind the barrier, they found the male’s body, lying face up with the heels resting on a ladder that was leaning on its side against the fence.
The other agent was the first to reach the form. DB heard him exclaim, “No, no, no!” At first DB thought the agent had seen “movement from the suspect and was giving him commands to not move.” But then DB got closer.
First he saw a PD patch on the body’s jacket. And then he saw the face of a friend and fellow officer, Agt. JD, an entry wound under his left eye where DB’s first round had crashed into his skull. “It did not appear,” DB said later, “that there was any chance he was alive.”
Near the body, which was dressed in a police uniform, was JD’s Glock pistol and his Streamlight Stinger that was not illuminated. His badge was pinned to his shirt over his soft body armor.
DB of course was devastated. He thrust his rifle at the other agent. “Take it!” he said. “I don’t want it any more!” Together the two of them prayed as DB was led from the scene.
Twice in the days that followed, an interview scheduled with investigators had to be delayed because he was so distraught. When he was finally able to speak at length, he said he’d replayed the shooting in his mind “thousands of times” and still did not recognize that the man poking his head above the fence was JD. JD’s close-cropped hair might have made him appear bald, but DB said he had no idea why he thought the man at the fence looked Hispanic. Like so much else, it was something he just couldn’t explain.
The Suspect Who Wasn’t There
As it turned out, there was no suspect at large in those pre-dawn hours. The three people who walked out empty-handed were the only occupants of the house.
In her formal statement, the female arrestee said her boyfriend had repeatedly fired shots from several guns after he and their visitor arrived home from a night of heavy drinking. Under questioning, the boyfriend admitted shooting randomly because he “just wanted to hear the gunfire.” The guns had then been hidden in a dog food bin before the three surrendered.
About three months later, after extensively reviewing the night’s events, the District Atty. announced that there was “no indication whatsoever” that DB’s killing of his fellow officer was intentional. “This is truly a tragedy,” he said, “but not an incident for which anyone should be charged criminally.”
“For many departments,” says Dr. Lewinski, “that would have closed out the case. To its credit, this agency wanted to dig even deeper for lessons to be learned.”
NEXT WEEK: What the Review Board reported about operational shortcomings and human performance issues that made this blue-on-blue calamity “almost predetermined.”