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Richard Borrell was a loser, but he didn’t have to die from a police bullet. That was the conclusion of Free Press reporter John Pepper after he investigated the tragic shooting of Borrell on a Los Angeles street in late 1966.
Borrell had two felony convictions, one for drug possession and the other for grand theft auto, but on the day in question his only offense had been that he was a passenger in a car without a front license plate. The LAPD traffic stop that led to his death began routinely enough, but when the driver was unable to produce the registration for the car, which later was determined to be stolen, the routine turned into a nightmare.
Inexplicably, Borrell bolted, produced a gun according to police, and was shot three times by one of the officers. Borrell died on the pavement.
Free Press reporter Pepper believed the officer had used his gun too soon, that Borrell was not a threat. This was not surprising to Pepper, who wrote that “Los Angeles has one of the world’s highest ratios per capita of civilians killed in the streets by police.” Most of the dead, Pepper added, may be “bad guys,” but that didn’t justify such heavy reliance on the use of a gun. Were Pepper covering the police beat for the Free Press today, he would still reach that conclusion.
Synopsis by Ralph E. Shaffer, Professor Emeritus of History at Cal Poly Pomona. firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week, prosecutors announced there would be no charges filed against police officers in two high-profile wrongful death cases. Federal authorities decided not to file civil rights charges against Fullerton officers involved in the death of Kelly Thomas in 2011. Los Angeles prosecutors likewise refused to try two LAPD officers in the shooting death of Ezell Ford in 2014. The Fullerton officers have appealed their termination, while in the Ford case two officers have sued Los Angeles for an unspecified amount because they have been placed on administrative duty. In both cases the officers effectively claim that their actions were within department policy.
Nearly every use of questionable force, whether by shooting or other means, is ruled “within department policy” by local police agencies. While that is true currently, that has also been the rule since at least mid-twentieth century. Two cases, one from a half century ago and one even further back, make that point.
In the January 6, 1967, issue of the Free Press reporter John Pepper detailed the death of Richard Borrell, who died from three gunshots fired by an LAPD officer. Pepper’s investigation led to the conclusion that the officer fired unnecessarily, killing a mentally unbalanced young black man. Pepper did not try to portray the victim as without fault, noting several occasions on which he had been arrested. None, however, were serious enough to warrant a death penalty imposed by a cop.
Even earlier, in 1950, Los Angeles was shaken when a reserve officer, on patrol one weekend night, shot and killed a young, white Muir Junior College student following a traffic stop. The officer ordered the driver, 18 year old Woody Henry, to leave the car. As Henry obeyed, the officer thought the kid made a suspicious move toward a pocket and fired one shot, hitting Henry in the neck, killing him. The grand jury refused to indict, in essence ruling that the shooting was within department policy, and the officer escaped punishment. In 1950, while the L A Times ran a flock of letters protesting the shooting, there were no demonstrations nor was there a million dollar settlement paid to Henry’s family. In fact, city records do not indicate that any settlement was made.
The latest officer-involved shooting death occurred in SoCal last week when another mentally unbalanced man, a former Marine who suffered mental problems after a tour of duty in Iraq, was shot to death by police after his family call 9-1-1 to report his erratic and dangerous behavior with a knife. They didn’t call the police to have him shot however, but that is too frequently the case when relatives call cops in a domestic violence case. Some day, authorities will send a well-trained squad of social workers who know how to deal with such situations in means other than a service revolver. But that day seems to be a long way off. In the meantime, victims like Ezell For, Kelly Thomas, Richard Borrell, Woody Henry and the unnamed Alhambra man will die because cops know that such shootings are rarely, if ever, ruled to be out of department policy.
Here is what might occur at a squad meeting following the use of lethal force in one of our SoCal cities:
An uneasy feeling permeated the squad room as half a dozen or so officers waited for Chief Backoff’s appearance. They knew the Chief’s reprimand would be harsh, biting and very personal. After all, the shooting of a nude woman had never occurred here before. And two of the three cops who pulled the triggers were in the room. Abruptly, the squad room door banged open and Chief Backoff barreled in. The six shiny stars on his collar reflected light from the overhead bulb, which dangled from a wire in the center of the room. The department’s Public Information officer entered as well. “Where’s Johnson?” barked Backoff, mentally taking a roll call. Johnson was the third shooter.” On a donut run. We told him to bring back the gooey ones you like.” Backoff took his place behind a podium, the P I beside him.
“Gentlemen, we have a public relations nightmare. Who shot an unarmed, nude, young, pregnant woman?”
Patrolmen Higgins and Smith meekly admitted their role in the shooting. Backoff asked Higgins to explain how two husky patrolmen had to shoot a woman.
“We had a 9-1-1 call. Domestic violence at a party. Some uninvited woman crashed the affair, nude, and the host couldn’t get her to leave. So he called 9-1-1. Chief, I hope they aren’t making a racial issue out of this. Two of us are white and the other shooter is black. This was an affirmative action shoot.”
Smith took up the explanation. “When we got there she was on the lawn. We asked her to leave. She wouldn’t, and when she came toward us… we shot.”
“Twelve times?” The Chief’s voice expressed disbelief. “And that’s just the shells that hit her. The home owner is still tallying up the damage caused by all the ones that missed her and hit his house.”
“How am I going to sell this to the public?” inquired the P I officer.
Robinson, the rookie of the department, had an idea. “Say she reached for her waistband. That’s one the public always buys.”
Groans from the assemblage. Higgins looked sharply at Robinson, shaking his head. “The woman was nude.”
“Wait,” said Hopkins. “Don’t dismiss that so easily. Robinson’s right. We’ve used that one in six other fatalities this year and no one ever complains. Maybe she was wearing a thong. She coulda had a derringer hidden in it. If she wasn’t, Lothario could say he found a thong near the body. He’s got a collection of them. He was the investigating officer. Didn’t you find a thong that might have been shot off her by a wayward slug?”
Lothario, ignoring the question, offered his own solution. “The waistband excuse won’t work. How about Higgins and Smith feared for their lives? We’ve used that one so often that only some pointy-headed professor still complains about it when we roll out that excuse, er… explanation.”
“Good Lord, gentlemen,” roared the Chief. “You didn’t shoot an Amazon. ‘Feared for your lives?’ The woman was 5′ 2″ and not an ounce over 110 pounds. And she was pregnant.”
Lothario’s face brightened. “That’s it, Chief. We fired to protect the unborn infant. An act of humanity.”
The P I Officer dismissed the suggestion. “She was only one month pregnant. How would you know she was with child?”
All eyes turned toward Lothario, whose reputation for maneuvering female traffic violators was well known. Sgt. Perez, nodding, wondered aloud:
“Perhaps we ought to check the traffic warnings, as opposed to the tickets, that Lothario has issued. Maybe the lady’s name will turn up on one. Speeding, running a light, failure to pull over… and Lothario just gives her a gentle warning? How long ago might that have been, Lothario?”
“I haven’t been on traffic duty for two months. Don’t look there.”
“Forget it,” roared the Chief. “Saving the fetus? Six of your twelve hits were in her abdomen. Let’s move on. Any other suggestions?”
Smith responded: “Chief, she was armed.”
An air of relief seemed to come over the meeting. This was the answer the Chief had been seeking.
“This is the first time I’ve heard that she was armed. Did we find a gun?”
“It wasn’t a gun, Chief. She had a broken wine glass in her hand. It looked awful sharp.”
“We did find a broken glass at the scene. In fact, the place was littered with broken glasses,” the P I offered in support.
A skeptical Chief went on: “That might not fly. Was there any other reason to shoot this woman?”
Higgins brightened up. “Yeah, she acted like she was high on drugs. Yeah, that might explain why we feared for our lives.”
“Toxicology reports will probably come in negative. Then where are we?” asked the Chief.
“Well,” said Smith, searching for a justification, “She sure seemed mentally unbalanced. We shoot that kind all the time. Or maybe she wanted to commit suicide. We shot two of those in one week last year.”
“What makes you think she was out of her mind?” asked Backoff.
“What 20-year-old in her right mind would come to a party buck naked?” Smith replied.
“Good Lord!” Even Higgins, the other shooter, couldn’t swallow that one. “Everyone else at the party was buck naked! We were the only ones with clothes on. Well, we had been the only ones until we decided we ought to strip too so as not to call so much attention to ourselves.”
“You mean you were out of uniform when you shot her? That’s a violation of our code of conduct. When we’re through here I want to see both of you in my office.”
The P I shook his head. “Nudity can’t be our cover in this situation.” There were smothered giggles at that one.
“I got it, Chief,” shouted Jones, smugly, convinced he had the answer. “She was reaching for Johnson’s gun so we had to shoot her. We often rely on that one.”
The P I didn’t hesitate. “She was ten feet from them when they shot. How long was her arm? We’ve got to show that this use of lethal force was within department policy.”
“ALL OUR KILLINGS ARE WITHIN DEPARTMENT POLICY.” That response came from a whole chorus of officers.
“Not every one,” responded Watkins, the longest-serving member of the force. “Before you guys came aboard we fired Kharkov after he killed a blind man carrying a white cane. Kharkov thought it was a white rifle since the guy was holding it by the barrel. When the guy turned at Kharkov’s demand to halt the ‘muzzle’ was pointed right at Kharkov, so he fired the fatal shot. We would have ruled that within department policy but the public outrage was so great the D. A. insisted we fire him. We did, he sued, got his job back plus a couple of million for damages. He got more than the victim’s family. With all that money he didn’t need the job, retired on a good pension and bought a winery in Napa. Sends us a Christmas card and a bottle each year.”
“So,” asked the Chief, “What’s left? How are we going to explain what the press is now calling a murder by cop?”
The room was silent for a moment. Then the door banged open with a crash and every officer in the room reached for his service weapon. Johnson, mustache flecked with bits of chocolate and a white cream, drop the huge box of donuts he was carrying as he rushed through the door and jumped behind the podium where the Chief stood. Donuts flew everywhere, rolled along the floor, leaving trails of jelly and coconut.
No one fired except Johnson, who, in self defense, had pulled out his pepper spray – he wasn’t allowed a taser – by mistake and accidentally squirted the Chief, barely hitting him. The room was in an uproar over the loss of the donuts.
“Silence!” shouted the Chief, once again in command. He wiped away the spray residue, little of which hit him since Johnson was such a poor marksman, his scores on the range always at the bottom of the list. “That’s it. That’s how we’ll explain it.”
“How’s that?” asked the P I, perplexed, turning toward the Chief.
“The pepper spray. Johnson tried to spray the lady but he missed – we won’t mention that part – and she kept coming with that broken glass in her hand. You had no choice but to shoot. Now, wipe off those donuts, pour the coffee, and let’s get on with the day. And remember, be careful out there.”
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Ralph E. Shaffer is Professor Emeritus of History at Cal Poly Pomona. email@example.com