Shoot First, Ask No Questions Later

When it comes to officer-involved shootings, some local police operate under an unofficial policy: shoot first and ask no questions later.

Take the case of Ashley MacDonald. On the morning of Aug. 25, the 19-year-old Huntington Beach woman argued with her mother and then slashed her with a knife. Witnesses who saw MacDonald wandering down the street with a bloody knife called city police. Police found MacDonald at Sun View Park and told her to drop the knife. When she reportedly lunged at them, the cops shot MacDonald dead.

The Orange County sheriff will investigate the shooting, but department spokesman Jim Amormino has apparently already concluded his own probe. He offered ample evidence that MacDonald was stark raving nuts and provided tremendous detail about police efforts to defuse the situation with something other than conventional weapons; he told the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register that police had requested and were in the process of loading a non-lethal pepper-ball gun when MacDonald attacked them. The dailies offered Amormino cover support, the Register helpfully citing neighbors who noted that MacDonald was into the goth scene, wore black, listened to rock N roll and, most terrifying, read books—lots of them.

MacDonald was precisely the type of person whom police should be exceptionally wary of while confronting: physically puny, emotionally distraught and possibly suicidal. The Register reported that MacDonald habitually slashed herself. According to the Times, friends claim she was depressed because she had been raped the night before. But Amormino's claim that the cops shot MacDonald in self-defense raises more questions than it answers. How big was the knife? How close to officers was MacDonald when she lunged at them? How many shots did police fire?

Amormino offered . . . nothing.

“They haven't told me,” he told the Weekly last Thursday, referring to the size of the knife.

“They haven't told me,” when asked about the number of shots fired.

Approximately how far were police from MacDonald? “They didn't tell me,” he said. “I can ask again. I know they were very close, but I don't have enough information.”

Amormino called back with no answers. “They said that's part of the investigation,” he said. “They would not tell me.”

Amormino didn't respond to a more obvious—and ultimately more important—question: If his agency is charged with investigating the shooting and is still trying to determine the facts of the case, and if he himself is still lacking basic knowledge of what transpired, why did he tell the Times and Register that the two Huntington Beach officers had no choice but to shoot?

Lieutenant Craig Junginger, a Huntington Beach police spokesman, also refused to comment on the specifics of the MacDonald shooting. But he did confirm that while non-lethal pepper-guns are “optional” equipment for city cops, pepper spray canisters—which are just as non-lethal and perhaps just as useful for disarming teenage girls of knives—are mandatory. “All officers have to carry pepper spray,” Junginger said.

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Huntington Beach police have a penchant for shooting first and failing to ask questions later. In September 1996, a Huntington Beach cop responding to an alarm at an industrial park shot and killed Ted Franks, a 77-year-old World War II vet, after they mistook him for a burglar. It was the fifth lethal cop shooting in the city that year alone.

The city's most expensive officer-involved shooting took place early on May 5, 2001, when officer Mark Wersching shot and killed 18-year-old Antonio Saldivar in the city's mostly Latino neighborhood of Oak View. Wersching claimed he did so in self-defense after Saldivar pointed a rifle at him following a brief chase. But Wersching fired eight bullets at Saldivar, four of which struck the teenager in his side and back. They said the gun was actually a toy left in a neighbor's front yard. In fact, the actual gang member Wersching chased was smoking pot in a nearby tree when he shot Saldivar. Although the sheriff's department and DA's office cleared Wersching of wrongdoing, Saldivar's family later won a $2.1 million lawsuit against the city.

Jurors reached their verdict without reviewing Wersching's disciplinary record, which was later obtained by the Weekly (see “The Wersching Machine,” June 12, 2003). The file included several allegations of excessive force and a couple of incidents that would have landed anyone but a cop in jail. On one occasion, Wersching and a fellow officer stole a bundle of confiscated fireworks from an evidence locker at the Huntington Beach Fire Department and set them off at the HBPD union headquarters. Wersching was suspended for 30 hours without pay. On another, after a night of barhopping with friends, Wersching drove his vehicle onto a city beach, raced it along the shore at high speed and crashed into a cement ditch. One passenger suffered a partially collapsed lung and broken ribs. But rather than report the accident and request an ambulance—thus risking a sobriety test—Wersching had another passenger drive his friend to the hospital while he called a police dispatcher to send a tow truck for his stranded car. He received a 60-hour suspension for improper conduct, failing to report acts of misconduct and violating the law. Shortly after he killed Saldivar, Wersching's superiors promoted him to detective.

The shootings continued—and increasingly involved distraught individuals apparently bent on committing suicide by cop. On July 3, 2004, nine Huntington Beach cops shot and killed Steven Williams Hills, who had called 911 threatening to kill himself or a police officer. The officers confronted Hills on a street corner and shot him when he brandished a gun—a gun that turned out to be a fake. And on Jan. 9, 2005, two officers shot and wounded a suicidal young woman in an apartment laundry room after she allegedly shot at them.

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There's added mystery behind Huntington Beach's pattern of police shootings. Why is Huntington Beach the only major city in Orange County where the sheriff's department, as opposed to the district attorney's office, investigates officer-involved shootings? Huntington Beach police and the Sheriff's Department agreed to the arrangement in a September 1999 “Memorandum of Understanding.” But nobody knows why.

“We've been doing that for a number of years,” said Lt. Terry Lindsay, a Huntington Beach police watch commander. “I wasn't in the decision process, but that's something we've been doing for a long time.”

It's possible, of course, that Huntington Beach cops somehow think they'll get more favorable treatment from the sheriff's department than from the DA's office. The DA has the power to bring officers before the civilian-staffed Orange County grand jury, where they could be indicted on murder charges. But that's never happened. Since 1998, the DA has investigated dozens of officer-involved shootings and has never prosecuted an Orange County cop for shooting anybody.

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Postscript:Your right to know the circumstances surrounding police shootings just got weaker, and not just in Orange County. On Aug. 31, the California Supreme Court ruled that the public has no right to examine the disciplinary records of officers whose poor performance or outrageous conduct actually gets them fired.


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