by Patrick H. Moore

The phrase “intruders with guns” conjures up any number of frightening scenarios: armed robbers in ski masks breaking into your house and threatening you and your loved ones, or a gang of criminals with semi-automatic weapons barging into a bank and yelling, “Down on the floor!” while you happen to be waiting in line for a teller.  Sometimes, however, in our hyper-charged, violence prone society, the “armed intruders” are not criminals at all. Sometimes they are law enforcement officers — patrolling our public places, or knocking on our doors with search warrants. Chances are they are stressed out, over-worked bundles of nerves.  Unfortunately, sometimes they are too quick to pull the trigger.

ing6This has often been a problem in Los Angeles County. In Inglewood (near South Central Los Angeles), people are still burdened with horrible memories from spring and summer of 2008 when four African-American males were shot and killed by police officers on separate occasions, under highly questionable circumstances.  One of the victims was carrying an unloaded gun and a second victim had a toy gun stuffed into his waistband.  The other two possessed no firearms or weapons of any sort. Three of the cases have been resolved in civil court, with the families of the victims awarded settlements averaging approximately $2 million.

The four shooting deaths occurred as follows:

Case #1:  On May 11, 2008, a 19 year old youth, Michael Byoune, was shot and killed by an Inglewood police officer in the parking lot of a Rally’s Burger Restaurant at the corner of Manchester Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard.  Mr. Byoune and two friends got out of their vehicle to purchase a late night meal.  Gunfire erupted from behind the restaurant and the three youths attempted to flee the danger by running back to their car.  For reasons that are somewhat obscure, the police officers opened fire.  Mr. Byoune died there in the parking lot.  The driver of the vehicle, Larry White, also 19, was struck in the leg.  The third friend was unharmed.  No weapons were found in Larry White’s vehicle. This incident resulted in a $2.45 million dollar settlement.

ingCase #2:  Marcus Smith, a 31 year old father of three, was shot and killed in the early hours of May 24, 2008 when police responded to reports of a fight in the 800 block of South Osage Avenue.  Forensic crime scene investigator Kevin R. Hackie reconstructed the crime scene and verified the following facts: Marcus Smith was shot at point-blank range, once in the head and 17 times in the back. A witness in a sworn statement revealed he had observed an altercation take place on a stairway between Inglewood police and Mr. Smith, who subsequently walked away with his hands up. The witness stated that three of the four officers on the staircase opened fire. One of the officers then walked over to Mr. Smith’s prone body and dropped a firearm on the side of the stairway. The evidence demonstrates, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Kevin Smith was unarmed.

When the dust had settled, Marcus Smith’s family members received civil settlements totaling $2.4 million.  The four police officers who shot Mr. Smith were required to submit to re-training but continue to work for the Inglewood Police Department.

ing5Case #3: In July of 2008, a 38 year-old postal worker named Kevin Wilks — an Inglewood resident, and father of two young chidren — was shot and killed when police officers knocked on his door shortly after midnight in response to a 911 call reporting a man and a woman fighting.  Mr. Wilks unwisely answered the door with an unloaded gun in his hand. The same Inglewood police officer who shot Michael Byoune fired two shots into Wilks’s chest. For this wrongful death, Wilks’ family members have received a total settlement of $1.7 million.   The officer responsible for the deaths of Byounne and Wilks was relieved of his duties in 2010 for conduct unrelated to the shootings.

Case #4:  Near the end of the long violent summer, a 56 year old homeless man, Eddie Felix Franco was shot and killed by seven police officers who fired more than 40 rounds.  Officials have stated that Mr. Franco had a fake gun in his waistband but did not claim that he made any attempt to brandish it.  Investigators have theorized that the officers responded to what is known as “contagious fire,” a phenomenon in which an officer opens fire after he hears other officers shooting, thinking that the bullets are directed at him.

In contrast to the four individuals shot and killed by Inglewood police officers in an approximate four month window in 2008, only one Los Angeles police officer was fatally shot during all of 2008.  In the entire history of the Inglewood P.D., only was officer has ever been killed by gunfire.  This occurred almost 25 years ago in 1988.

ing7In thinking about these tragedies, we must acknowledge that police officers working in rough neighborhoods face considerable danger in the line of duty. They are often required to make split-second, life-and-death decisions under extremely tense circumstances.  So perhaps it should come as no surprise that on some occasions certain officers over-react to what they perceive as life-threatening situations. Overall, violence in our cities has fallen sharply from the stratospheric levels reached during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. Yet our streets are still far more dangerous than those in just about any other modern, industrial democracy. And Americans own more guns at this point than ever before. (According to Reuters, gun sales have increased overall by 49 per cent since December of 2011. Common sense, not to mention a wealth of statistics, suggests that a heavily armed populace inevitably leads to people getting shot — both intentionally and by accident. Police officers have to deal with this reality on a daily basis.  Sensible gun legislation which would ban the sale of assault weapons, impose limits on high capacity magazines, and require truly rigorous background checks on all gun purchases, is the least we can do in terms of increasing safety for the brave men and women who patrol our mean streets and for the hardworking, law-abiding civilians living in those neighborhoods who depend on their vigilance for their own safety and protection.

ing8The shoot first, ask questions later mentality that manifests in cases such as Inglewood shootings appears to be a  result of living in our heavily armed, hyper-charged society in which we are inundated with media messages — on TV, in films, in books, and in video games — in which guns (and violent acts in general) are portrayed as a “solution” to all kinds of problems. This flawed conception of violence is a stain on our national psyche. We need to think long and hard about our responses to crime and violence. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with violent imagery in our entertainment. Free speech is a basic right under our Constitution and to try to curtail it would be unduly censorious and even, perhaps, un-American. But to portray the violence as somehow useful or effective is a cop-out and a lie and should not be countenanced.

It may be years before any meaningful gun control legislation is passed. It may take even longer before our mean streets and our police departments become safer and more “user friendly.” And, realistically speaking, we may not have all the time in the world to bring about humane and effective change. But as the tragic cases from Inglewood in the summer of 2008 demonstrate, it is imperative that well-meaning and good-hearted individuals across this nation endeavor to bring about meaningful reform.  Otherwise, we will always be living in fear of “intruders with guns.”



One Response to Intruders with Guns in Uniform

  1. Darcia Helle says:

    The issue with the cops is troubling, and certainly a sign of our times. Even more troubling than those few cops who are trigger happy is our justice system’s quickness to protect them.

    I tried to have this conversation with some people not long ago. I said “gun control”, and they heard, “ban guns”. There is an enormous chasm between the two, but some people have this ridiculous notion that controlling the types of guns and who buys them is going to infringe on their “constitutional rights”. I doubt our forefathers had visions of young thugs walking down the street with assault weapons.

    Another woman claimed her husband hunts and therefore they are against the government regulating what guns he can have. I asked if he hunted deer with an AK-15. She said, “Of course not.” Then she tried to tell me that killers could use knives, so maybe we should ban those as well. When I mentioned that I’ve never heard of a “mass knifing”, she stopped talking to me.

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