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Shootings Don't Change Police Procedures, Behavior

Associated Press

November 29, 2010

TACOMA, Wash. — A News Tribune analysis has found that law enforcement agencies patrol the streets in much the same way they did before six Western Washington police officers were killed a year ago.

After examining the killings of Mark Renninger, Tina Griswold, Ronald Owens, Greg Richards, Kent Mundell and Timothy Brenton, police officials did little to change their policies or procedures, nor did they respond with a backlash of violence of their own.

The deaths of the four Lakewood police officers, a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy and a Seattle police officer shocked their colleagues and the communities they protected, and reminded everyone of the daily dangers of police work. But they did not lead to any lasting changes.

Officers still gather at coffee shops and restaurants to chat, catch up with reports and grab something to eat – exactly what the Lakewood officers were doing when ambushed.

Officers still train the same way to respond to violence directed at them.

“You can’t have a policy governing every time you need to be attentive,” Lakewood Assistant Police Chief Mike Zaro said. “We are always supposed to be aware of our surroundings no matter what we are doing and where we are at.”

The analysis by The News Tribune also found that the use of force among Puget Sound-area officers has not spiked in the year since the string of fatal shootings.

“It’s not the officer who is generally in control of the incident that necessitates the use of force,” Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said. “You don’t have an officer who walks up to someone and says, ‘I am going to use force.’”

Still, state lawmakers were looking into use of deadly force by officers throughout Washington, and a statewide police and sheriff’s association hopes to receive federal money to study the issue further.

Several officer-involved shootings that wounded or killed residents in Washington over the past year grabbed headlines and raised concerns among members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I am not willing to say that police officers have become more trigger-happy since Lakewood,” said state Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, who chairs the committee. “Maybe there is more publicity to use of force rather than an actual rise to use of force.”

It is difficult to find an independent way to gauge whether officers have pulled out their guns more often in the wake of last year’s police killings. Most agencies don’t have citizen oversight of their practices, and no single state agency tracks police use of force.

Kline’s committee held a work session last month to discuss the most recent string of fatal shootings. It ended with suggestions to give officers more nonlethal force options and to have them engage in community policing tactics.

None of the ideas will lead to new legislation in January, Kline said.

“There were some interesting thoughts,” he said. “It is up to local police departments to use community-based policing and Tasers.”

Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said he believes officers become more vigilant and more careful when their colleagues are killed on the job.

But Pierce doesn’t know whether the officers’ deaths a year ago have led to more officer-involved shootings than in previous years.

“For every officer-involved shooting in this state, there are scores of incidents where the officers would have been legally justified to use deadly force but chose not to,” Pierce said. “The dilemma is we don’t hear about the ones where they chose not to and there is a good outcome. We only hear about the ones where there was a bad outcome.”

His agency is seeking federal money to study armed confrontations between police officers and citizens. The study would look at how many have occurred over the past five years, what led up to them, and what officers can do differently to affect the outcome of the encounters.

“Although we have a lot of data on when law enforcement officers are hurt or killed, we have very little data when the outcome is different,” Pierce said.

The association also is starting to draft model policies for law enforcement agencies to help them improve the transparency of their investigations into when officers use force.

“We believe the investigations are thorough and fair,” Pierce said. “We need to make sure the public is secure in the knowledge that they are being adequately investigated.”

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