A Different World

Blog | L.A. police kill unarmed homeless man. Myrtle Beach police avoided shooting armed man. What’s the difference?

Editor’s note: Later this week, I should have a report on how the Myrtle Beach Police Department handles complaints against officers.

Update: Chief says man goes for gun; L.A. Times says analysis shows man reached hand in direction of officer’s waist but “difficult to determine” if he touched gun

Related: Ferguson moment for Latinos

The facts are still emerging, but no matter how we slice it, the video of the L.A. police shooting a homeless man looks awful.

That doesn’t mean we should be certain that it wasn’t justified, especially if the officers can prove that the guy went for and almost had one of the officer’s gun, as they are claiming. That would make what we see on the video at least make a little more sense.

Even under that scenario, though, it is disturbing and begs the question: If a handful of officers - who have a suspect on his back on the ground - can’t subdue him short of filling his body up with bullets, is there ever a situation in which shooting a suspect isn’t OK?

Usually, many people claim the officers had no other choice. Oftentimes, that’s simply not true. Police officers throughout the country, and in Horry County and Myrtle Beach, find ways to deal with extremely difficult situations without resorting to lethal force.

In recent months, the Myrtle Beach Police Department faced similar circumstances twice - and each time the officers and the suspect walked away with their lives.

From a piece I wrote in December:

Just last week, a couple of white Myrtle Beach police officers showed incredible restraint when facing an armed black man during a traffic stop, one in which the man presented a handgun, went for the officers weapon after he was disarmed, and after running away turned around, pulled something out of his pocket and threatened to shoot.

The cops didn’t empty their clips into his body. Instead, they noticed he was pointed a cell phone at them.

They arrested instead of shooting him.

Those types of events are under-reported, when police officers diffuse split-second, life-and-death situations without the loss of life.

Read more here.

In another case, Myrtle Beach police came upon a man they believed to be an armed and dangerous fugitive. I’ll use a slightly edited (for clarity) email from Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall describing what happened.

From Gall:

Officers were searching the area around Compass Cove Resort, where they had information that the suspect was believed to be. During the search, they encountered a man on the beach who closely matched the physical description of the suspect. Sgt. M. Curry, SLED Agent B. Truex, and others, approached and challenged the subject to attempt to make a positive ID. Due to the conditions (near the surf, fading light, etc.) and the subject’s lack of cooperation, the stress level was obviously raised, and it had the potential to turn into a deadly force scenario.

Watching the tape and listening to the verbal directions and exchanges between the officers and the subject, it was clearly evident to me that the officers fully intended to resolve this without violence but were prepared to take whatever action was necessary to ensure their safety. The fugitive was known to be armed, known to have violent tendencies, and vowed not to be taken alive if approached. He was suspected of committing a violent crime. What the officers didn’t know at the time is that the subject they were trying to ID was not Vann and had some mental deficiencies and suffered from a form of autism. His actions were consistent with that disability, but also consistent with an experienced felon trying to lull the officers into complacency.

Thankfully, that did not happen, as the officers maintained their vigilance and professionalism, deescalating the tension between the subject and officers using verbal “judo.” Once it was all said and done, Sgt Curry and Sgt Pieterse effectively and compassionately communicated with the subject and later his father to explain the situation and apologize for any fear or inconvenience caused.

This was textbook policing by all involved, and especially Sgt Curry and Agent Truex (I’m proud to say that he was trained here!!!).

Again, it was very evident to me that their training and experience played a large factor in this ending up without injury or death in the face of this extremely difficult situation.

Almost on a daily basis, we are told about similar police-citizen encounters that do not turn out well, eventually causing long-term aggravation and criticism, and sometimes death to a disabled person or law enforcement officer. Sgt Curry and Agent Truex demonstrated outstanding leadership. We cannot miss out on the opportunity to recognize outstanding police work, or learn valuable lessons from these situations. I thank all of you who had a part in this dangerous search and subsequent apprehension, and please continue to be safe and work together as a team.

Question: Why was it possible for Myrtle Beach police to handle such situations without loss of life, while the L.A. police, in the video that is getting so much attention, wasn’t? I suspect there are examples of the L.A. police diffusing situations as well, given that deadly police-citizen interactions are not the norm in Los Angeles or Myrtle Beach.

It is imperative that we scrutinize every deadly interaction and not shy away from noting when they could have - and should have - been handled with more care because that’s the only way we can make sure these events remain few and far between.

It’s also important to remember the complexity of each of these situations and to not declare something untoward before all the facts are in.