Protect and Survive: Officer-Involved Shootings on the Rise

Local law enforcement has evolved as weapons have grown more sophisticated,  especially in the last 20 years. (Illustration by Kym Balthazar)

Local law enforcement has evolved as weapons have grown more sophisticated, especially in the last 20 years. (Illustration by Kym Balthazar)

More so than the policies and changes in law that have bolstered law enforcement’s ability to use deadly force, a stark increase in the militarization of local law enforcement agencies has occurred. Call it the sharing economy of war.

Before the US threw itself into two protracted wars in the Middle East, the Department of Defense in 1997 instituted its Excess Property Program, better known as the 1033 program, as a way to transfer surplus military supplies and equipment to state, county and city departments.

It was pitched as taxpayer savings, equipping local law enforcement agencies with valuable tools to fight crime, rather than an admission that the Pentagon’s budget was morbidly obese. To date, the program has handed off more than $5.1 billion in free military equipment, with almost $450 million going out just last year alone. Much of these transfers have occurred out of the public view, however, with little to no dialogue between communities and their local law enforcement agencies about the need for items such as mine-resistant tanks, assault rifles, grenade launchers, surveillance equipment and many other items.

A national dialogue about the militarization of local police departments came to the forefront in August, after 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot to death by an officer in broad daylight. Riots and protests about a predominantly white police force’s over-aggressive treatment of a predominantly African American community were met with an iron fist response. For several weeks body-armored officers shot tear gas at crowds and armored vehicles patrolled the streets under martial law.

The National Guard was called in and Attorney General Eric Holder opened a probe into accusations of police brutality by Ferguson officers. The scene looked foreign and terrifying from the confines of Silicon Valley, but it turns out many of the instruments of war seen in the hands of Ferguson officers have also been acquired by Bay Area law enforcement agencies.

Just 20 days after Brown was killed, the San Jose Police Department announced it would be giving back its Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, which is basically a transport tank that can withstand roadside bombs.

In fact, SJPD has stocked up on a variety of weaponry that suggests the department is actually well-equipped for any insurrection. Among the million-plus dollars of equipment gifted to Santa Clara County law enforcement agencies from the 1033 program over the years, SJPD alone acquired: a $733,000 MRAP; a 2,500-gallon fuel tanker for air support; four reconnaissance camera systems; 175 reflex sights to make it easier to pinpoint targets with assault rifles; 129 additional reflex sights specifically for M4 assault rifles; 116 camouflage bags to carry gear; 58 ballistic goggles; 40 buttstocks, which can be used to brace a rifle against the shoulder; and 30 pairs of snow-colored camouflage trousers for snipers. Yes, snow camouflage.

San Jose has received more items than those listed, but perhaps most telling is that none of the 32 assault rifles received by county law enforcement agencies, according to public records requests, went to SJPD. That would mean the department felt it had little need for more guns but wanted scopes to use them more effectively.

According to Sheriff Smith, her office has only received a Humvee and a tent from the 1033 program, which she lamented in an interview earlier this month.

“I wish we had gotten more stuff from the 1033 program, because it’s surplus government equipment, and it saves the taxpayers in this county money,” she says. “So, I don’t think it’s a negative to get stuff from the 1033 program. It would be a waste if it didn’t go to a use.”

San Jose Police Chief Larry Esquivel declined multiple requests for an interview, but according to SJPD Deputy Chief Dave Hober, who agreed to a 30-minute interview by phone, discussions to give back the MRAP began early this year, well before the Michael Brown shooting and 1033 program garnered national scrutiny.

“The reason the San Jose PD got the MRAP initially was primarily to assist us with any type of explosive type of situation,” Hober says. “By explosive, I mean an actual bomb, so that we could get closer to the explosive in the MRAP.

“Every community has to make its own determination if it’s right for that community or not. We like to be on the cutting edge and look at new types of technology and that kind of thing, so that’s what we did here. After we looked at it and had some discussions it was determined that at this time, we decided it was better (to get rid of it).”

Meanes, of the National Bar Association, applauds San Jose’s decision to relinquish the MRAP—it was transferred to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office in September, according to SJPD—but she argues that there is “no reason” for local law enforcement to be accepting any of the 1033 equipment.

“The use of those items do not go toward building trust between the department and the individuals they were hired to protect,” Meanes says. “In cases where you see cities that have this equipment, there is a requirement in some of those grants where they must utilize that equipment in a one-year period or they are in violation of the grant. That’s not a healthy rule or regulation. It’s almost an encouragement to use police force that we would consider overkill and unnecessary.

“There is an impression that the police are really trying to protect themselves from a segment of society.”

San Jose police are more than a little hesitant to discuss their SWAT team, known as a MERGE Unit. Press officers repeatedly deferred to the department Duty Manual rather than discuss what instances require the 14-man tactical squad to be deployed. The manual is vague, perhaps by design. Hostage situations and suspects who have barricaded themselves are obvious targets, but the MERGE Unit also conducts search warrants for parole violators and drug sweeps.

Numbers provided by SJPD for its MERGE Unit deployment show that teams were dispatched highs of 19 times in fiscal years 2008-09 (July 1-June 30) and 15 times in 2011-12. Those numbers dropped dramatically in each of the following two years: four in 2009-10 and seven in 2010-11; three in 2012-13 and four in 2013-14.

Sgt. Heather Randol, a public information officer for SJPD, wrote in an email that the department does not know why numbers were so much higher in some years. She attributed the sharp increases to “natural fluctuations for all Special Ops and Investigative Units throughout the years.”

While SJPD refused to comment on its matrix for MERGE Unit deployment, one possibility for the sporadic deployment is that other units are being equipped with weapons and body armor that go beyond what is normally associated with street-level enforcement teams.

“When I started in this job, any time we had any kind of a tactical incident, the patrol officers would surround that incident, or try to surround it, and hold and wait for when the SWAT and tactical teams could come,” says Deputy Chief Hober, a 27-year veteran second-generation SJPD officer. “We’ve had a great change in the way that we now train our police officers, because we know if a SWAT team is not here or tactical officers are not here—it takes them sometimes an hour to arrive on scene—so if our patrol officers are not actively doing something to actively stop that threat where somebody is harming other people, then they can do more damage.”

SJPD has a page on its website describing its “special ops” units, which includes the Metro Unit, which “gives special attention to illegal narcotic law enforcement, with focus on the street-level user and dealer,” according to the site. The description also notes that the unit coordinates with the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force and “other community and school organizations, bringing together their combined expertise to intervene, prevent and educate those involved in adult and youth gang situations in San Jose.”

This is the logo for SJPD's Metro Unit.

This is the logo for SJPD's Metro Unit.

This description almost gives of the impression of a community policing model, but Metro Unit’s logo is a Call of Duty-style officer aiming an assault rifle, silhouetted against a city skyline.

Radley Balko, a journalist and author of the book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The  Militarization of America’s Police Forces, has spent more than a decade highlighting the danger of “mission creep,” specifically the increasing trend of local agencies deploying militarized SWAT teams for low-level offenses, such as drug possession.

“The gear and weapons and tanks are a problem,” Balko said in an interview with Vice. “But I think a much deeper problem is the effect all of this war talk and battle rhetoric has had on policing as a profession. In much of the country today, police officers are psychologically isolated from the communities they serve. It's all about us vs. them.

“For 30 years, politicians and public officials have been arming, training, and dressing cops as if they're fighting a war. They've been dehumanizing drug offenders and criminal suspects as the enemy. And of course they've explicitly and repeatedly told them they're fighting a war. It shouldn't be all that surprising that a lot of cops have started to believe it.”

By comparison, Sheriff Smith sees the deployment of SWAT—which steadily increased in the previous five years from four callouts in 2009 to 25 last year—as an almost ideal situation.

“Calling out SWAT teams for small things, it doesn’t matter,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you call out a special team that has better skills on something that is even just a regular, routine search warrant. They have special equipment and special training. They’re not the military branch of the sheriff’s office. It’s a bit of a nuance, but it’s great to have a team that works together, that trains together all the time in any kind of an operation. But we can’t send them out to everything. So it’s not a negative to send out our SWAT team, I don’t think, at all.”

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Josh Koehn is the managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.

29 Comments

    • Wow, josh you and SJI have hit rock bottom with this article. If a criminal kills another person and then confronts police and points a weapon at officers what do you expect. I can give you a dozen examples when an officer is put in a deadly situation and had to act with deadly force.

      San Jose Police is moving up in shootings ( and city homicides) because they are being shot at and assualted more thanks to Chuck and Sam due to measure B. Criminals know there is no police force so they are running free to commit more crimes which result in confrontations with police which turn deadly.

      This should read : Josh Koehn is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper (and a member of the Mercury News)

      Who hate the ” Who use to be one of the best police department s in the country”

      • So explain how did that guy who killed 11 people in a movie theatre and had weapons and bombs end up taken alive? No excessive or deadly force used?
        Yet a 13 year old in santa Rosa was shot multiple times and he didnt kill anyone!
        Animals aren’t even killed with as many bullets as officers put into human beings!
        Cops need to be held accountable. ..they make a choice to kill rather than save a life! Those are choices grown adults make…yet try and teach children about wise choices being positive?
        We need people who care in government positions to make changes to rebuild, restore trust and safety for all!

    • JOSH AKA SJ MERCURY NEWS, SAD YOU EVEN POST THIS TRASH AND LET CINQUE POST THIS. I THINK YOU WANT THE VIOLENT PROTEST TO OCCUR SO YOU Have something to print.

  1. According to publicly available newspaper accounts, Castillo shot someone in a San Jose gas station, then kidnapped an old lady and shot her dead execution style. Allman took a semiautomatic weapon and killed several people at the Cupertino cement plant before getting into an armed standoff with the police. If the suggestion is that police have a pattern of engaging in foul play and using excessive force, at least two of the examples cited in this article’s picture gallery do not support that hypothesis. Those guys were known maniacs when they confronted the police. The people second-guessing the police in this article do not have to get into armed standoffs with maniacs as part of their jobs. If they did, they would s**** their pants or get killed or both.

  2. LaDoris, the faux Independent Auditor like to trumpet that she’s a retired Judge… But apparently she doesn’t grasp the chasm of difference between civil and criminal law- beyond a reasonable doubt versus preponderance of evidence. That is why civil cases are settled, regardless of Duty Manual policies or Supreme Court decisions. It’s sad that she and the local media intentionally misinform the public with articles such as this. Josh, the NBA and several others imply that police are supposed to “Protect and Serve”… Maybe you should research where that comes from. Is it a legal standard? A mission statement? Is it a policy? No, it’s a motto written on LAPD police cars and because of Hollywood, people seem to think its a justification for anything they don’t like the police doing- imagined or real. I guess the police should just be like Robocop and follow a prime directive given by whomever happens to be in their 15 minutes of media spotlight.

  3. Josh,

    While I do believe this is one of the better pieces you have written in recent times, I don’t understand the timing nor the message. Call me dense, but you went in a few complete circles here and ended with Judge Cordell’s most prized pet project, putting cameras on cops, and I can’t pinpoint what you were trying to get at.

    I do take issue with some of the previously mentioned examples (Paul Ray Castillo, Shareef Allman), but most of all I take huge issue with the addition of Jonathan Wilbanks’ photo being included with those on the first page. Wilbanks not only murdered an innocent person (after committing multiple armed robberies), he tried to murder a San Jose police officer and was very narrowly thwarted by the officer. Wilbanks should not be alive, plain and simple. To use his photo in any capacity, knowing what he did (along with Castillo) to illustrate your story is classless.

    As a follow up to this article Josh, you may consider the famed Hollywood shootout, where the officers were outgunned by the two bank robbers due to archaic policies and political assumptions governing law enforcement. Lastly, consider this fact – numerous municipal police agencies in the bay area have an AR-15 in every single patrol car, even our state level police who mostly focus on vehicle code enforcement carry them in nearly every patrol car. Yet, there is outrage when certain police departments receive AR-15’s from the government? Why is this?

  4. When society allows a limited thinker to believe she is highly intelligent, you get:

    “All of these shootings were within policy. That is a decision made by the department… For some of these shootings there have been substantial payouts to the victims and their family members. If the shootings are within policy, why is the city paying?”

    — To adjudge a shooting as within policy it is only necessary to consider the reasonableness of an action against written guidelines. This is something police departments do well. But the action taken by an officer(s) is only one-half of a shooting incident, the second half being the reaction, an element far too arbitrary and unpredictable to be governed by hard and fast rules (especially for a government cowering in fear of its ignorant and uncivilized masses). Would Ms. Cordell advise leaders in Ferguson, Missouri to announce, when it is inevitably revealed that the shooting of Michael Brown was within policy, that the city considers the matter closed for further discussion? I think not, and Ms. Cordell, it seems, doesn’t think at all.

    “Why wouldn’t you want to wear them unless you’re not following the rules?” Cordell says. “If you’re behaving, you want the cameras.”

    — It’s laughable that a former judge who spent a good deal of her time crafting “justice” within the isolated confines of her chamber — out of reach of the jurors and general public, would equate police reluctance to being constantly monitored with the intention to break the rules. Perhaps what’s needed is for her to set an example by having the conversations in her office and on her phones recorded and uploaded (for public inspection) daily? After all, if she and her staff are 100% objective and fair, and if her “clients” are telling the truth, why, to use her reasoning, wouldn’t they want to be monitored? After all, the IPA has demonstrated itself to have considerable effect (mostly negative) on the reputation of its police department, so it can’t be said that what goes on in there isn’t of interest to the public.

  5. I don’t know why SJPD shoots to kill. I know they have to protect themselves and take many risks in their job. Not every individual needs to be shot, in some cases where the person is shooting at them, I can see them shooting. My son is in the above pictures. Thank God he survived. My son wasn’t the driver he was the passenger. When the cops shot they shot through the passengers window, if he didn’t duck down in time they probably would have killed him. The bullets grazed his thumb. What I don’t understand is why do SJPD shoot to kill and always get away with it.

    • Patricia,

      In Law Enforcement, officers are not trained to “shoot to kill”. That is a misnomer perpetuated by film and the media. Regarding incidents involving deadly force, officers are trained to eliminate/stop and overcome whatever deadly threat they are being presented with. What level of force that entails is based upon the facts & circumstances surrounding the incident and these facts and circumstances are largely based upon the officer’s level of training and experience.

      • If thats true…then how could someone be a threat when there back is turned?
        To act in fear is DANGEROUS for Society and our Children.
        Killing is about Power and Control!
        Yet people are blind or just have no compassion these are human beings and assume they deserved it…before getting the facts!
        Just the same for officer who gets killed…it was a job they chose and knew the danger, so when they die its just part of their job?
        WRONG! EVERY Life Matters…and the ones Left Behind like Children have to suffer these consequences!
        People need to Respect Lives Stolen and have Compassion for the families grieving. Badge or No Badge!

        • Laurie,

          I understand your emotions and while I agree with some of your sentiments, our perspectives are very different.

          Someone can be a threat when their back is turned in many different instances. Most law enforcement agencies have policies which permit deadly force when the facts and circumstances would lead an officer to believe the person poses an ongoing threat to the lives of not only the officer, but other officers and any member of the public.

          Here are a few examples of a person who would continue to pose a threat when their back is turned –

          Someone who just shot at you and has now turned away to take cover or retreat to a position of advantage.

          Someone holding an edged weapon (knife, saw, hatchet, etc) who turns their back to an officer and advances on another officer or member of the public in a threatening manner with that edged weapon.

          Someone holding a deadly weapon who intentionally turns their back (while disobeying lawful commands) and attempts to advance on an officer.

          Someone who has been part of an ongoing violent crime (or spree of crimes), is armed or believed to be armed (based on real facts), and makes a threatening movement toward an officer or member of the public while attempting to flee from capture.

          Unfortunately, Laurie, all of these situations are hypothetical. When force is used, deadly or otherwise, it is often during a rather chaotic event where everything is not black and white. The dynamics of the chaos are not predictable and human instincts become a strong determining factor when people are presented with the possibility of being gravely injured or possibly even killed.

    • Patricia, Steve is correct.

      Cops shoot for the largest part of the target…. the torso. They shoot to STOP. But in many cases they shoot too much.

      This is a problem cause by a lack of training.

  6. Jack Slade Here!

    SJPD is overloaded with people who lack skill and common sense. Poor education, poor training, poor supervision and leadership has resulted in everyone doing what they want with DA Rosen who rubber stamps the killings. He is afraid of them after the rigged drunk driving arrest of the San Jose city councilman. His office is loaded up with Retired SJPD people. It’s so toxic that the DA’s office tried to cover up one of their substance abusers let go by SJPD after she seriously injured a person in a drunk driving accident where she was spirited away and the two investigating officers fired. They were later rehired and one of them later resigned and was charged with child molestation. The Drunk ex SJPD then DA Investigator’s father was a LT. on SJPD and later in charge of the DA’s SJPD’s Investigators. The poor injured girl and mother in the aforementioned accident had to move into seclusion and the California Attorney General had to step in and prosecute the Drunk Driving. Now I know it sounds unbelievable but there are 72 such incidents of morally bankrupt criminal behavior by these thugs.

    Thank God for all the measures that have taken away their control over their outrageous Pensions. For that kind of money you should get top notch stable people.

  7. Looks like someone didn’t get all the facts straight before posting accusations.

    “Cupertino suspect died of self-inflicted gunshot, Santa Clara County coroner finds

    PeninsulaPress.com

    October 6, 2011

    UPDATE, Oct. 11, 3:45 p.m.: The Santa Clara County coroner’s office has concluded that Shareef Allman died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the temple, not from bullets fired by county sheriff’s deputies, the San Jose Mercury News reports.”

  8. Jack Slade Here FOOLS
    Now you have a revealed thug on SJPD who has broken bones using three from the ring style. One expose after another. Don’t you understand hiring psychologically ill people who want POWER OVER PEOPLE is an error in judgment. These people are sick and you can’t just look at them to determine it. You have hired child molesters, homosexuals and criminally inclined people just to fill squad cars. You will pay big judgments for these people who you have accumulated for 30 years. Drown Sam “The Licking v. San Jose scammer. Have you unloaded your Baseball Stadium parcel yet, scum.