How the Police Endanger Public Safety

Law enforcement policies increasingly put the public at risk.


A news photograph from Friday taken in the normally placid suburban community of Roseville, east of Sacramento, was shocking. A California Highway Patrol officer was pointing a rifle at a motorist stopped at a checkpoint, as police searched for an armed parolee who had injured some of their colleagues. It seemed reminiscent of an occupying army.

News stories focused on the suspect and the details of the manhunt, but the police approach – evacuating houses, using military-style vehicles and helicopters – raises a question rarely asked about policing policies today: Do they unnecessarily endanger the public's safety?

When agencies combed Southern California for former Los Angeles Police Department officer Christopher Dorner in February, some officers fired upon innocent bystanders who didn't come close to the right profile. Dorner, a large black man, was driving a gray Nissan truck, but an officer shot two Latina women driving a blue Toyota truck. An officer also fired on another bystander 20 minutes later.

Police behaved similarly as they sought a Boston Marathon bomber. As Conor Friedersdorf asked recently in the Atlantic, "Does anyone else find it disturbing that Boston area police, confronted with an unarmed suspect in a backyard boat, fired so many bullets so wildly that multiple adjacent houses were strafed … ?"

This approach is not uncommon even in day-to-day policing. On October 22, in the middle of the afternoon, 13-year-old Andy Lopez Cruz was walking down the street in Santa Rosa with a plastic pellet rifle. Officers hid behind the door of their patrol car and called to him. As the boy turned, they shot him to death.

According to the police statement, "One of the deputies described that as the subject was turning toward him the barrel of the assault rifle was rising up and turning in his direction. The deputy feared for his safety, the safety of his partner, and the safety of the community members in the area."

There are ongoing investigations, but this was standard behavior. Police routinely use deadly force in questionable circumstances even as violent crime rates hit record lows. Officer safety seems to trump concerns about public safety.

And there's remarkably little public discussion about the proper use of deadly force. Because of the California Supreme Court's 2006 "Copley" decision involving the former owner of this newspaper, the disciplinary records of law-enforcement officers are secret. So are internal investigations of specific shootings. The public has no right to know which officers may have a history of using deadly force.

The Peace Officers' Bill of Rights makes it tough to remove an officer. Former University of California-Davis cop John Pike, who nonchalantly pepper-sprayed peaceful Occupy protesters in November 2011, was just awarded a $38,000 workers-compensation settlement because of the stress he endured – more than the amount received by any of his victims. Pike spent eight months on paid leave and then was fired.

Yet change only goes in the opposite direction. Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 313, which forbids police agencies from disciplining officers that district attorneys have listed as having lied or otherwise misbehaved. That will further protect officers who unnecessarily use force and then mislead investigators.

"We need law enforcement professionals who are not operating from a vantage point of fear and paranoia where their own self-preservation trumps all other concerns," argues Jonathan Taylor, a Cal State Fullerton professor. He was active in protests after Fullerton police in 2011 beat a homeless man named Kelly Thomas. The trial for two officers charged in Thomas' death is slated for December – a rare instance of police being prosecuted for a killing.

"Deadly force should not be the standard whenever police perceive a threat," Taylor adds. He and other activists call for policy changes as well as changes within a police culture they view as overly militaristic. Police officials say such responses are needed given the very real dangers officers face and the potential threats to the public of having, say, an armed-and-dangerous parolee roaming the streets.

But most politicians of both parties, fearful of the political clout of police unions, don't want to go near this topic. So change may hinge on whether enough people are upset enough by these incidents to demand it.