Police Sgt. Jeff Pope and his rookie partner arrived at a northwest Oklahoma City physical therapy center in response to a call of a fight in progress.
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There, they encountered Patrick Trevino, 23, who had been hearing voices telling him to kill his family. Trevino had mistaken the facility for a hospital, and inside, he got into a fight.
The officers tried to handcuff Trevino. The scuffle spilled into the parking lot. Trevino tried to grab the officers’ guns. Pope shot Trevino once in the back of the head. He died instantly.
The Feb. 1, 2010, shooting is one of 78 incidents in the last decade where Oklahoma City police have opened fire. Twenty-eight of the shootings resulted in a death. Six people died from police gunfire in 2013— the deadliest year in the decade.
Confrontations between officers and the public that end in gunfire are among the most important cases a department can confront, law enforcement experts say. Such incidents can influence community perceptions and, if mishandled, undermine the credibility and public confidence in the police.
Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty says none of his more than 1,000 officers want to discharge their weapons; the choice to use deadly force is one of the most critical choices an officer makes.
“It’s a life or death decision,” Citty said.
To prepare for the violence and uncertainty they face, Oklahoma City police undergo hundreds of hours of training in the classroom and on the gun range. They also train with a high-tech simulator designed to help them know when to fire their weapons. Recruits spend four months in a field training program, and each year officers are required to take a refresher course on the use of deadly force.
Still, no training exists that can re-create the moment in which an officer decides to fire his weapon, Citty said.
“There’s absolutely no way to prepare an officer to take somebody’s life,” Citty said. “You can’t create the adrenaline. You can’t create the fear. All the reactions, all the emotion. You can’t re-create that in a training setting.”
“The bottom line is, if the officer feels like his life is threatened or someone else’s life’s threatened, then that deadly force is a last resort, and we ask him to use it,” Citty said. “A police officer is probably scrutinized for that single act more than they are anything else.”
In Oklahoma City, that scrutiny comes mostly from the department itself.
Police shootings are investigated by the department’s homicide unit, which forwards its findings to the district attorney, who determines whether criminal charges are warranted. The internal affairs unit also investigates to determine whether any department policies have been violated that might require discipline.
But some lawyers, civil rights advocates, use-of-force experts and relatives of those killed by police question whether in-house investigations can be objective.
And at a time when other departments across the country, from Los Angeles to Denver to Pittsburgh, are moving to increase the transparency of police shooting investigations, Oklahoma City’s review process continues to take place mostly out of public view, some experts say, which can lead to mistrust and allegations of police corruption and prosecutorial misconduct.
“Under this approach, the community is often not given information regarding the nature of the shooting, and they are left to wonder how the case is being handled,” said Mike White, an Arizona State University criminology professor and use of force expert. “Of course, certain things must be kept private because of the sensitivity of ongoing investigations and officers’ rights. But the failure to keep community members apprised of developments in the investigation can exacerbate citizens’ perceptions that an internal investigation is biased. Perception is very important — it is tied to citizens’ beliefs in police legitimacy, which is increasingly being recognized as an important police outcome.”
To examine the issue of deadly force, The Oklahoman reviewed Oklahoma City police shootings from 2004 through 2013.
Cases by the numbers
The dead included 26 men, one woman and a 15-year-old girl, Hillary Hayes, who was shot in the crossfire between police and her father and brother after a February 2004 traffic stop.
The average age of those killed was 30. The oldest to die was 71-year-old Elmer C. Trent, shot near his rural home on the city’s northeast edge in August 2004 after a neighbor called police mistaking Trent for a prowler. The former coal miner and Korean War veteran was shot after he refused to drop his weapon and fired at police.
Sixteen of the victims were white, including Stacey Stout, the only woman killed. Nine were black. Three were Hispanic.
Stout, a 20-year-old mother with no criminal record, was shot in April 2013 as her boyfriend tried to flee authorities. Others were gang members, long-time substance abusers or people with mental health issues. Several had previous run-ins with police, had done prison stints or were being sought by authorities on criminal charges at the time of the shooting.
The dead included a Navy veteran, an Eagle Scout, a street musician and a McDonald’s employee.
Trevino, the man shot outside of the physical therapy center, had struggled with drug addiction, according to family members. He also had an arrest and conviction for domestic violence.
Others had no previous contact with Oklahoma City police.
Brian Simms Jr., 24, the oldest of seven children, was visiting from Olathe, Kan., in July 2012, when two off-duty police officers working security found him sleeping in his car outside the Farmer’s Public Market building where a rap concert was being held. Police say Simms grabbed for a gun in his waistband and when he refused commands to stop, Master Sgt. Paul Gaylon opened fire.
It’s unclear from available records how many of those shot by police were unarmed. It’s also unclear how many total rounds police fired during the 78 shooting incidents.
Although the department tracks data on officer-involved shootings, the city refused to release the information saying it is not a public record.
During the same 10-year period, 11 Oklahoma City police officers were shot in the line of duty. None were killed.
On Aug. 29, 2010, an 18-year-old armed with an assault rifle ambushed Officer Katie Lawson, then 28, as she sat in her squad car filling out paperwork after an arrest near NW 38 and Miller. Shot six times, she recovered and returned to duty in March 2011. The shooter, Hector Escalante, pleaded guilty and received a life prison sentence.
The last officer killed by gun violence was Sgt. D. Warren Tooman in 1990. Two others, Sgt. Richard Riggs and Sgt. Gary Ward, were killed by gunfire in the 1980s.
From the moment an Oklahoma City police officer pulls the trigger, he or she is treated differently from the average citizen involved in a shooting. Following a controversial police shooting in 2008, the department enacted a policy that prohibits investigators from conducting full interviews with officers who pulled the trigger for 48 hours after a shooting. Prior to that, Oklahoma City interviewed officers on the day of any police-involved shooting. Proponents say the practice of delaying the interview, adopted by many police departments in recent years, allows an officer time to recover from the psychological effects of a shooting and more accurately recall the incident.
“In these traumatic events, you don’t remember everything that night,” said John George, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 123, the Oklahoma City department’s union.
“We used to bring an officer back in three or four times,’’ George said. “Usually, (now) it’s one good thorough interview, and that’s it.”
Officers surrounded by their supervisors and supporters at a shooting scene can feel tremendous pressure to give a statement that pleases the higher-ups, Citty said.
The 48-hour policy aims to prevent that scenario, Citty said. An officer, like other citizens, can always decline to speak to investigators and hire a lawyer.
But some law-enforcement experts criticize delayed interviews saying it reduces police accountability and prevents timely investigation. The U.S. Department of Justice questioned the practice in 2012 after investigating the use of deadly force by the Portland, Ore.police department.
“It is difficult to conceive of…officers permitting (a) civilian 48 hours before asking him or her questions,’’ a justice department report concluded.
Also prior to the 2008 shooting, interviews with officers involved in shooting incidents were not recorded, unlike those questioned in non police-related shootings. Now, such questioning is videotaped.
“It’s one of those cultural changes, it’s a significant change, Citty said.
When an officer is questioned, the queries come from a co-worker. Homicide detectives conduct a criminal investigation while internal affairs officers look to see whether any department policies were violated.
During the 10 years reviewed by The Oklahoman, no Oklahoma City police shooting case investigated by the homicide unit resulted in criminal charges being filed against an officer.
Meanwhile, internal affairs inquiries found officers committed policy violations in 12 of the 78 shooting incidents. The violations included failing to display a badge, carry a radio or wear body armor. Others were disciplined for improper report writing, using a firearm to disable a vehicle or wounding a bystander while shooting a vicious animal.
No officers were fired, demoted or given days off without pay as a result of any shooting incident. Officers instead received remedial training.
In only one shooting case did the department rule that an officer engaged in “an unjustified and inappropriate” use of force. The officer, who the department would not identify, faced minor discipline, but filed a grievance that led to the discipline being overturned. The officer remains on the force.
Citty, the police chief, defended the department’s handling of police shootings. While some smaller departments turn to outside agencies, like the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, to investigate such cases, Citty said that approach doesn’t make sense for Oklahoma City. He said his department, the largest in the state, is best equipped to undertake such investigations.
“We’re fact finders,” Citty said. “We report the facts to the district attorney.”
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater agreed that OSBI takes months longer than Oklahoma City police to complete a shooting investigation, and the results are not as thorough.
Eventually, homicide detectives send their investigation to the district attorney in whose county the shooting occurred.
The investigation includes detailed witness accounts, photos, analyses and videotaped interviews. A decision on whether to file charges can take anywhere from a few hours to six months, Prater said.
“I don’t treat people differently, whether it’s a police officer or a multi-convicted felon,” Prater said. “They’re going to be treated fairly as their set of facts is applied to the law.”
Prater could allow a grand jury to review police shootings and determine whether charges should be filed. Some advocates say the grand jury process allows for more public scrutiny of evidence in police shooting cases.
Prater pointed out that the grand jury meets only three days a month, not enough time, he says, to sift through the voluminous amount of evidence gathered in police shooting cases.
But more than that, he said, he considers such decisions his to make.
“Whether it relates to a police officer or not,’’ Prater said. “It’s my responsibility to do it, and I do it.”
“I’m not going to cover up for a bad cop,” Prater said. “I’m not going to cover up for a bad shooting.”
The FBI, he said, is welcome to scrutinize his handling of any case.
Since being elected district attorney in 2006, Prater has sent only one police shooting incident to a grand jury.
On April 9, 2013, members of the U.S. Marshals Metro Fugitive Task Force attempted to serve an arrest warrant on Christopher Stout for two counts of felony burglary. When Stout, 23, and his girlfriend, Stacey Stout, sought to flee a Motel 6 near SE 44 and Interstate 35 in his pickup, lawmen crashed into the truck to stop it, then opened fire.
Even before police had completed their investigation of the shooting, Prater said his office received a string of calls, letters and Internet postings, including from Stacey Stout’s family and supporters accusing him and his staff of covering up police misconduct.
“I was like, listen, this is easy to solve,” Prater said. “I’ll take it to a grand jury.”
The grand jury cleared all the officers of any criminal wrongdoing. Stacey Stout’s family has sued in federal court, alleging excessive use of force. The lawsuit is pending. Oklahoma City and its officer were dismissed from the suit in November.
Prater, a former police officer, and his predecessor as district attorney, Wes Lane, found the police were justified in every Oklahoma City shooting case they handled during the 10-year period reviewed by The Oklahoman.
That’s not surprising, said Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who specializes in police accountability and use of force. Walker said it is extremely rare for a law enforcement officer to be criminally charged in the shooting of a suspect.
“The criminal standard is simply too high,” Walker said.
In Oklahoma County, criminal charges being filed against an officer involved in a shooting has happened only once in recent memory.
In 2012, Prater filed a manslaughter charge against a Del City police officer accused of shooting an unarmed 18-year-old man in the back. In November, a jury found Capt. Randy Harrison guilty in the death of Dane Scott, with whom he’d previously quarreled. Harrison was sentenced to four years in prison.
“I don’t know any police officer, maybe except for Randy Harrison, that really wanted to shoot someone,” Prater said. “That’s the last thing that a police officer wants to do. That’s not something anyone wants to do, taking the life of a fellow human being.”
Few police shooting cases make their way to a courtroom.
A sampling of civil suits spanning the decade found almost all ended in frustration for the shooting victim’s family. Most were dismissed by the court. In some cases, lawyers failed to timely file paperwork. In others, family members ran out of money. When a case does make it to a judge or jury, most tend to side with law enforcement, records show.
“Such cases are extremely difficult to win,” said Walker, the use of force expert. “The police can always argue that their actions were necessary and legal given the citizen’s behavior. And a major part of that is that judges and juries have a deeply rooted bias in favor of law enforcement."
Citty said civil lawsuits fizzle because attorneys lead the families of shooting victims to believe they’ve got a solid case, even when they don’t.
The Oklahoman found one case during the time period where the city agreed to pay a settlement related to a police shooting. It’s the same 2008 case that prompted the department to change some of its policies for handling police shooting investigations.
Daryl Wilson, 18, was shot once in the head on July 19, 2008, at a Warr Acres apartment complex by Oklahoma City Police Officer Grant Brooks.
Wilson’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit in February 2010.
In court documents, the two sides offered widely divergent accounts of what happened that day.
A police incident report said Brooks responded after hearing gunshots from the complex, a “confrontation ensued” and Wilson “turned in a threatening manner” toward Brooks who then fired. Police found a gun under Wilson’s car seat.
According to the family’s lawsuit, Wilson, who lived at the complex, had stopped the car and wasn’t holding a gun when he raised his hands and turned toward Brooks. Wilson’s autopsy tested negative for drugs and alcohol.
In the end, the city paid $80,000 to settle the case.
Far more lawsuits end up like those of Etta Mae Daniels, who believes police murdered her son.
Tyrone Bills, 43, was shot seven times in the back while running from police on Christmas Day 2007.
Bills had left his parents’ home and gone to his apartment across the street. There, Bills, an ex-convict, got into a fight with his girlfriend and allegedly hit her in the face. Police responded after a girl called 911 to report the fight. The girl said Bills had a gun.
When police arrived, Bills ran across the street and into a backyard near his parents’ home at Hefner Road and Military Avenue. Officer Dustin Motley, then 23, followed, scuffled with Bills as he tried to scale a fence. Motley shot him.
After reviewing evidence provided by the police, Prater determined that Bills had a gun in his pocket. Bills family said he carried only a cellphone that day.
Daniels said she dropped the case after she could no longer afford to pay her attorney.
“We didn’t have the finances to fight,” she said.
Bills worked as a McDonald’s team leader at the time of his death. He had custody of his 2-year-old son, his mother said.
“I know my son wasn’t a perfect child,’’ Daniels said. “But not being a perfect child doesn’t warrant being shot in the back seven times.”
Citty said he feels for the family members of shooting victims but pointed out that in a split second, any suspect can turn around and shoot an officer.
Daniels said she doesn’t believe a closed investigative process can bring justice in any police shooting.
“I just don’t trust the decision they make among themselves,” Daniels said. “’Cause they all wear blue.”
Oklahoma City police are trained to fire their weapons to protect their lives and the lives of others. Officers shoot to kill. It is against department policy to shoot to injure or warn.
“All you can do is teach them how to use that firearm, and then teach them, by law, when to use that firearm,’’ said Citty, the police chief. “You try to do that enough where that officer in his mind doesn’t have to stop and think about it. The courts have that luxury, and even I do. As a chief, I have to be a Monday-morning quarterback and review what they do and ask, ‘is it proper?’ ”
Officers involved in shootings face scrutiny both from the department and the public that can be very stressful, Citty said. They can be sued in civil court, where defense attorneys, at times, make allegations that, in the eyes of police, are highly questionable.
After a shooting, Citty said what’s weighed is “What did you know at the time you pulled the trigger?’ It’s not what you knew afterward, it’s what you knew before.”
“A lot of people don’t understand that,” Citty said.
Over the years, the department has sought alternatives to deadly force, Citty said. Several Oklahoma City police shootings in the 1990s involving the mentally ill led to changes in officer training and the creation of crisis-intervention teams to respond in such situations. The introduction of the Taser also was aimed at reducing the use of deadly force.
An 11-member citizen review board made up of community, business and church leaders meets every two to three months to review police brutality and excessive force complaints. Members can review completed internal affairs investigations, but they are not given access to all evidence or allowed to call witnesses.
Veteran board member Wilfredo Santos Rivera, a retired teacher, said he’s never disagreed with the way police handled a complaint. The department is harder on itself than review board members are, he said.
“They’re very strict on themselves,” Santos Rivera said. “Of course, there have been incidents, and they have been dealt with professionally.”
Board member Richard C. Laskey, a Methodist pastor, said while “willing to reason with the police,’’ the board is not a “rubber stamp,’’ for the department.
“Whatever we believe, we stay with that,’’ Laskey said.
In the end, Citty has final approval over all disciplinary decisions. Citty said he’s never changed a decision based on a review board recommendation.
Walker, the University of Nebraska use of force expert, believes the department would be better served having an independent agency with authority to regularly review critical incidents to look for patterns and possible shortcomings in the internal investigations.
He cited Denver, where the city’s Office of the Independent Monitor has employees dedicated to monitoring complaints against police. The office is also responsible for monitoring internal affairs investigations and making disciplinary and policy recommendations.
“They have the full authority to look at the full range of deadly force incidents,” Walker said. “They have access to documents and officials have to talk to them.”
“This is basic accountability in my view,” Walker said.