Halloween, toy guns, and officer safety

In the wake of the incident last week in Santa Rosa (Calif.) that left a 13-year-old boy fatally shot, we should again discuss the interwoven issues of Halloween, toy guns, and officer safety

Deputy Erick Gelhaus of the Sonoma County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Office had repeatedly ordered 13-year-old Andy Lopez to “drop the gun” he held in his hands on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 22. 

According to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Lopez had his back to Deputy Gelhaus, and begin to turn toward the LEO while also raising the barrel of the gun — which any reasonable person would believe to be a real and functional AK-47 rifle — toward him.

Gelhaus opened fire. Lopez died.

The image above has two pictures. One’s a toy gun that looks real. One’s a real gun that looks like a toy. The top picture is the Airsoft “toy” held by Andy Lopez. The image below is the fully-functioning 12-gauge Mossberg. (PoliceOne Image)
The image above has two pictures. One’s a toy gun that looks real. One’s a real gun that looks like a toy. The top picture is the Airsoft “toy” held by Andy Lopez. The image below is the fully-functioning 12-gauge Mossberg. (PoliceOne Image)

Totality of Circumstances
Deputy Gelhaus had fractions of a second to process the totality of the circumstances as he knew them in that moment. Armed subject. Not complying with verbal commands. Turning to aim. 

He discharged his weapon eight times, striking the young man seven times.

The fight was over in seconds. The other deputy with Gelhaus — who been hired about one month ago from another agency in the area — didn’t even have time to exit the patrol car before the shooting stopped. 

After-the-fact second guessing fails to take into account research by folks like Bill Lewinski and his team at Force Science Institute about tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, tachypsychia, and other human performance factors at work in rapidly unfolding life-and-death confrontations. 

After-the-fact second guessing fails to take into account the legal standards established by the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor that officers are to be legally judged on whether their actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them at that moment — not in retrospect, with the clarity of hindsight 20/20 vision.

A Preventable Tragedy
As most PoliceOne Members would agree, I’m very glad that both deputies were unhurt and went home safe to their families. 

I’m also deeply sad that this young man died, and this his family will forever mourn his loss. My heart breaks when I think of their pain. 

I believe that if Andy Lopez complied with commands to drop the weapon, he would be alive today. 

But I don’t blame those LEOs. 

In fact, I take issue with those who might. 

People who don’t understand the physical laws governing human performance (as discovered by Lewinski and the FSI team) will invariably blame the police. 

People who don’t know about judicial precedent governing police policy and procedures (as proscribed by cases like Graham v. Connor) will blame the police.

We cannot fault those folks for not knowing about the scientific research and not knowing about how (and why) police training is done the way it is. They live outside that world. 

However, we can blame them for not understanding the ramifications of letting their kids walk around in public with airsoft “toys” that look practically identical to the guns upon which they’re fashioned. 

We can blame them for not imagining the implications of the incident in Sparks, Nevada just last week in which a 12-year-old kid with a real gun shot two classmates, killed a teacher, and then turned the gun on himself. 

We can blame them for not comprehending the notion that Little Junior’s “toy gun” might have to have some rules associated with it. 

I have toy guns in my house — I also have real guns in my house — because my son and I love getting into NERF gun fights. In the wake of the incident last week in Santa Rosa, I had “that talk” again with him.

I’ve had it with him countless times before.

•    “When a cop tells you ‘drop the gun’ — you drop the gun. Immediately.”
•    “When they ask to see your hands — make like a goal post and spread your fingers.”

Is It Memorex, or Is It Live?
Why, if my boy and I play with NERF guns, do I constantly reiterate those things? Because of evil little “innovations” like the Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun concealed within a “Super Soaker” water-gun. 

The image above and left has two pictures. The top picture is the Airsoft “toy” held by Andy Lopez. The image below is the fully functioning 12-gauge Mossberg — which I first wrote about it back in 2009.

One’s a toy gun that looks real. One’s a real gun that looks like a toy. 

Basic range safety rules dictate that we “treat all guns as if they’re loaded.” A logical extension of that thinking is to treat all guns — even if they look like a toy — as if they’re real, agreed?

Every cop I know who has kids has had firearms safety conversations with their children (many times over!). We have our guns. We love our kids. We keep the two safely separated. 

Most civilian households — particularly those that don’t possess real firearms — don’t even think about having those discussions, much less repeatedly driving those lessons home. 

Some civilians are so damned dumb that they brought “fake guns” to some of the vigils held in memory of Andy Lopez, with at least one knucklehead waiving one around “in a threatening manner,” according to reports

It is this peculiar brand of idiocy which brings me to the subject of Halloween. 

Idiocy, Halloween, and ‘Toy Guns’ 
On Halloween, children play dress up pretend to be adults while adults get drunk and behave like children. 

Some of the bad decisions those adults make is to include carrying “toy guns” as part of their costume.

PoliceOne members know that even on Halloween, the totality of the circumstances will ultimately dictate what you do when you encounter what may be a child with a toy, or what may be a dangerous suspect with intent to kill a cop.

In that microsecond you’ve got available to make a deadly force decision, you’ll likely ask and answer:

•    Is the subject complying with your commands?
•    Is the subject a child with a parent (or other kids)?
•    Is the subject someone you know from prior incidents?
•    Is the scene full of criminal activity or candy corns?

Final word: If you’re a civilian who happens across this column from a Google search or a Facebook link, please don’t end up in a morgue on Friday morning because you thought it would be “fun” to point a toy gun at someone as part of your Halloween revelry. 

Please, be safe, all…

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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