Upon review, perhaps it wasn’t necessary for 33 police to shoot at Stockton bank robbers 600 times at four locations during a chaotic, hour-long high-speed chase in July 2014, killing one hostage with a barrage of fire.
The review, conducted by the independent Police Foundation, found that 600 rounds were “excessive and unnecessary” but uttered few discouraging words beyond that. However, that was not its purpose. The foundation’s mission is “to advance policing” and being judgmental isn’t part of that process. And then they were judgmental in a positive way:
“What is not a goal is to criticize or blame the men and women of the Stockton Police Department who had to make split-second choices amidst the chaos of such an unprecedented crime. They made a great many smart and courageous decisions that undoubtedly saved lives.”
The foreward to the report begins with eight bullet-points about crime in this “complicated world of ours” where “every police event is fluid,” the first of which argues for why the cops should be cut some slack.
Stockton, and its police department, “was in the midst of a bankruptcy that robbed it of 100 veteran officers while leading to a reduction in training and severely limiting the ability to purchase new equipment and technology. Some of those officers were replaced with rookies straight out of the academy.” The second bullet-point brought up bankruptcy again when mentioning that Stockton police did not have access to their own air support and had to rely on others.
The Police Foundation was interested in the incident as a “sentinal event,” like the 1997 North Hollywood shootout where two heavily-armed robbers with body armor dominated Los Angeles police for hours. The foundation did a report on that and the Christopher Dorner manhunt in Southern California that lasted for nine days in 2012.
The Stockton report, like those two, was not intended to judge the correctness of police behavior. Rather it was the study of an event that “tests the nation’s public safety system, exposes holes in it, and can lead to important change for the future.”
Other bullet points listing the essential elements of the incident focus on misbehavior by the perps and unfortunate circumstances surrounding geography of the area. The bad guys fired 100 rounds from an AK-47, drove at speeds exceeding 120 miles, tried to ambush police after seemingly getting away and, used a hostage as a human shield until the mother of two was shot 10 times by police and died.
None of the eight bullet-points note, much less question, police actions. In one of the few criticisms that made its way into the report, it was suggested that officers had engaged in “sympathic fire,” shooting because everyone else was, and that was wrong. So was opening fire while colleagues were in front of them. No officers were disciplined.
“Never in the history of U.S. law enforcement has a police force dealt with an event such as this,” the report says. Interviewers repeatedly found officers, including veteran SWAT members, who said they were “confused and vexed.” But, nonetheless, the report said “they were all heroes.”
Although the chase lasted more than an hour, there was apparently no plan for what to do if the SUV carrying the bad guys stopped. Which it did. “This lack of planning, along with the number of officers involved, created a level of chaos that was difficult to manage and overcome,” the report said.
At a press conference releasing the report last week, Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones said, “We said we’ll accept responsibility, and that’s what I’m doing here today.” The family of the dead hostage has sued the city.