Fire at Will

Yet another open letter to Huntington Beach Police Chief Kenneth Small

Hey, Chief!

I'm sure you're thinking what I'm thinking: Damn! What a close call!

On Aug. 25, two of your cops shot Ashley MacDonald, a suicidal teenager armed with a four-inch knife, during an early-morning confrontation at Huntington Beach's Sun View Park. The public went nuts and demanded justice. The sheriff's department investigated, but not before it announced that your men had no choice but to kill the girl. Then the case went to the Orange County district attorney's office for possible prosecution.

Yikes!

I'm guessing you must have been pretty worried. After all, confronted by a waifish Goth chick with a small blade, your officers didn't reach for their pepper spray or riot batons. They chose instead to fire 15 bullets into the girl because, they said, they feared for their lives.

Fifteen bullets. That's the same number of rounds that ended the life of Oscar Gallegos, the 250-pound gang member and illegal immigrant who shot two cops in Long Beach before being cornered in a Santa Ana strip mall on Dec. 28. Unlike MacDonald, Gallegos was armed with a Glock with a laser sight; he'd told relatives he'd never be taken alive. He also fired several rounds at police—and kept shooting even after he was wounded.

Did I mention Gallegos weighed 250 pounds and wasn't a teenage girl with a four-inch knife?

It bears repeating.

Anyhow, I'm guessing you must have been pretty darn relieved when the DA's office ruled Jan. 18 that the MacDonald shooting was a "justifiable homicide." But I bet you don't realize you never had anything to fear. According to the DA's office, it wasn't even close to being a wrongful shooting. Get this: your two cops could have shot MacDonald 100 times and they still would have gotten away with it. In fact, your entire department could have lined up in a massive firing squad and expended all the ammunition in your armory, and Tony Rackauckas still would have signed off on it.

Don't believe me? Just ask David Brent, who investigated the shooting for the DA's office.

"The fact that 15 shots were fired really seems to bother people," he told me. "But either you need deadly force or not. [Cops] are not trained to shoot to wound, to shoot a gun out of somebody's hand. . . . We're not going to make a determination that two bullets is enough. Even if once they are on the ground, if they unload 100 shots, it's sad and disturbing, but in terms of what I do, it doesn't change it."

Brent added that your officers deserve praise for waiting as long as they did before blasting MacDonald into the hereafter. Apparently, statewide police shooting guidelines say a cop can legitimately shoot a person with a knife if the perp is standing within 21 feet of the officers and refuses to drop the weapon; your cops let MacDonald get within six to eight feet of them before they started shooting. One of them was backed up against a six-foot-high chain-link fence. "He didn't have a lot of choice on where he could back up," Brent said. "When she got within a few feet, he fired at her and another officer joined in and ultimately killed her."

So what's the lesson for you in all this? For reasons that nobody seems to know but which everyone suspects have something to do with professional courtesy, yours is the only department in the county whose officer-involved shootings are automatically investigated by the sheriff's department instead of those suits at the DA's office. It's been that way for far too long and the DA's office has certainly earned your trust. I'm sure you now agree that it's high time for you to end this policy. You have nothing to fear from the DA's office. The DA has never filed charges against an Orange County cop for pulling the trigger in the line of duty, and their stunning refusal to do so in the case of Ashley MacDonald suggests they never will.

Fire at will!

 
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