Stacia Glenn, Staff Writer
02/23/2008 09:27:05 PM PST
SAN BERNARDINO - Crowds turn out when police unfurl
yellow caution tape and secure the dividing line.
Residents grumble about another police shooting,
flinging insults at officers they believe too often pull the trigger.
Officers shake their heads and sigh, wishing the
community better understood that they are sometimes forced to shoot to protect
"It's a no-win situation for many police officers who
are disliked no matter what they do," said criminology professor Jack Levin,
co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern
University. "On the other hand, any life lost is a tragedy."
Police here shot 12 suspects last year - nearly double
the number from the year before. Police shootings are more frequent in San
Bernardino than in jurisdictions with similar populations and crime rates.
Experts say the number is high but point to a nationwide
rise in violence - especially against law-enforcement officers - and a deluge of
illegal guns on the streets as explanations.
"San Bernardino police officers and officers across
America put themselves in harm's way each day protecting our communities from
those who engage in criminal behavior," Police Chief Michael Billdt said. "The
number of officer-involved shootings during 2007 in San Bernardino is an
indication of the increase of violence perpetrated against our officers."
Eight of the suspects shot by police last year had guns,
and four were unarmed, authorities said.
Of those, authorities said two used vehicles to ram
patrol cars, one attacked an officer with his fists and one was part of a
pursuit where suspects yelled threats at officers.
All seven suspects shot by police in 2006 reportedly
were carrying weapons.
Criminals willing to physically threaten an officer
probably will not think twice about harming a resident, police Lt. Scott
"Citizens in the community will use violence against
each other (and) use violence against officers, and thus have officers use
violence against them," said Bill Lewinsky, an expert in police psychology and
executive director of Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State
No on-duty San Bernardino police officer has died by a
violent hand since the Police Department formed in 1905.
The shootings have strained relations between police and
residents, especially in the city's troubled Westside.
Billdt has proposed policy changes and additional
training for officers in response to concerns raised in community meetings, and
a federal mediator has been working with the city since December to build better
The number of police shootings has climbed steadily in
recent years, totaling 35 since 2003.
Last year's shootings reached a new high, jumping from
seven to 12 and inflaming already-tense relations between the community and
"Many people don't trust law enforcement, so the
community may view the shootings as indicators that they can't trust the police,
that they are their enemies," Levin said. "There often is an underlying and
pervasive dissatisfaction with the community that believes police have gone too
City leaders say officers are reacting to recurring
problems in San Bernardino: too many illegal firearms, brazen criminals who
threaten police and a perception that crime is on the rise.
Last year's shootings occurred as violent crime climbed
7 percent from 2006. Yet, the city's overall crime rate in '06 and '07 is lower
than it has been at any point since 1985, the earliest year for which
information is available.
Crime rose in the early 2000s, landing San Bernardino on
a list of the 25 most dangerous cities in the United States. But after Mayor Pat
Morris' anti-crime program, Operation Phoenix, was launched in 2006, crime
dropped sharply, and San Bernardino ranks 337th out of the 378 cities on a
safest city list by Morgan Quitno Press.
At the same time, police shootings are more common in
San Bernardino than in other cities of similar size and crime levels.
Cities like Richmond, Va., and Little Rock, Ark. - both
with higher crime rates - have fewer police shootings.
Richmond had two officer-involved shootings last year.
Little Rock had four.
Both cities were ranked more dangerous than San
Local police criticize the comparison and point out that
San Bernardino is inundated with guns and gang members.
"What we're seeing, not only in San Bernardino but on a
larger scale, is the number of people who are engaged in at-risk behavior by
carrying firearms," Billdt said.
Guns are used in so many crimes in the city that the
Police Department in July partnered with a six-man team from the federal Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The team confiscated 192 guns and arrested 130 suspected
gang members and drug dealers in its first five months, earning it top ranking
among the ATF's two dozen partnerships nationwide.
Nevertheless, police said they continue to be confronted
with criminals who sometimes choose to run, point weapons or even assault
"Ideally, we would be able to say, `Stop in the name of
the law,' and no one would get shot, but we react to what people do," Paterson
There is no question that 2007 was a deadly year for the
nation's law-enforcement officers.
Officer deaths increased 30 percent last year, with 178
fatalities nationwide. Sixty-five of the officers were killed by bullets,
according to National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund statistics.
It's the highest number of officer deaths since 1995 and
the biggest percentage increase in three decades, said Memorial Fund spokesman
Many officers know violence against law enforcement is
increasing, which could prompt them to be more zealous on the streets, experts
"As violent crime goes up, officers are more active and
are putting themselves in harm's way," Morison said.
As part of Operation Phoenix, a multifaceted
crime-fighting approach, the San Bernardino Police Department increased overtime
budgeting and redeployed 25 officers to geographically focused evening patrols
to ensure a heightened law-enforcement presence on the streets.
Simultaneously, a number of sweeps through high-crime
apartment buildings were conducted in collaboration with the City Attorney's
In particular, multi-jurisdictional SMASH units and the
city's Multiple Enforcement Team increased patrols with an emphasis on
proactively patrolling "hot spots" of crime, according to Morris' plan.
"We pay a price when we ask the police to become more
aggressive and confrontational," Levin said. "When you use aggressive force
against criminals, you also take the chance of increasing police shootings of
All officer-involved shootings in San Bernardino
reviewed by the District Attorney's Office have been deemed