Sixty police officers have been fatally shot in the U.S. in 2016, 20 of those in ambushes, according to a Fox News U.S. report published on November 24. Most notably was the Dallas ambush on July 7. At the end of what had been a peaceful protest, one sniper took the lives of five officers, and injured nine more, as well as two citizens. Ten days later, six Baton Rouge officers were shot, three dead, again all by the hand of one man. In these two incidents, the gunman was shot and killed.
According to the article –
San Antonio Detective Benjamin Marconi was the 60th officer shot to death this year, compared with 41 in all of 2015, and the 20th to die in an ambush-style attack, compared with eight last year, Craig W. Floyd, president of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, said.
An ambush-style attack does not necessarily involve someone lying in wait for police officers; it’s any shooting designed to catch police off guard and put them at a disadvantage, Floyd said.
“There usually is an element of surprise and concealment involved,” he said, and it’s unprovoked.
Police have been killed while writing reports, like Marconi was, or eating in restaurants. They’ve responded to 911 calls, only to have people shoot them as they get out of their cars. And in the Dallas shooting, they were targeted by someone in a building.
“In all the cases, the officers were essentially assassinated before they had any contact with the suspect or placed that suspect in jeopardy,” said Nick Breul, the Memorial Fund’s director of officer safety and wellness.
This year’s targeted killings are the most since 1995, Floyd said. In fact, Marconi’s was the fourth targeted slaying of an officer this month: On Nov. 2, two Iowa officers were killed in separate but related attacks. And on Nov. 10, a Pennsylvania officer was targeted as he responded to a domestic disturbance.
Some of these ambush-style attacks this year have occurred within California, but not in the Central San Joaquin Valley.
It Boils Down to Respect
“You do hear from the officers, they are very aware of the national dialogue – five alone in the past couple of weeks in California,” said Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar. “So, they are certainly aware of it from an officer safety perspective. You’ve got to strike that balance, because you can respond one way and say, ‘hey, it is all about officer safety,’ and it is about officer safety, but, you still have the majority of the community that’s very good, very supportive, looking for our assistance – and you have to balance your contacts with them, without being aggressive or too defensive to protect yourself, while treating people with respect.
“Obviously our safety is important, but, we’re also here to provide a service. And, you have to do that with as much respect and dignity as you can.
“The approach hasn’t changed – we’ve always trained and told them [the officers] that there’s the possibility [of harm] and so, you have to be vigilant and, again, strike a balance with understanding that most of the time the person being stopped – most of the time when we conduct those type of enforcement stops, things go OK. But, you always have to be prepared for the one that won’t. Again, there’s that balance of providing for your safety, but, understanding what the experience of the person inside the car has, as well. I think that’s important.”
Cell Phones, Cameras & Social Media
There’s little doubt in Chief Salazar’s mind, as well as Kings County Sheriff David Robinson and Resource Deputy Darrin Ellis, that social media and instantaneous information has played a role in spreading news, whether fact or fiction.
“I remember when we didn’t have computers in the cars,” Ellis said. “Nobody ever had a cell phone. I haven’t had it happen to me – but the camera in your face, while you’re trying to do your job, could be difficult. If they do it lawfully, I don’t have a problem with it. If they’re keeping their distance and they’re not interfering, and not egging the person on, to not do what we’re asking them to do – I don’t have a problem with somebody filming what I do – because I am doing my job.”
“I think social media is both good and evil,” Salazar said. “We started using social media here, a little over a year ago. Our goal with using social media is to try and use it as a mass communication tool – to let people know what we do and what’s happening here at the department.
“I think what you also see, and it’s not just in law enforcement, I think we’re seeing it in the elections, social media gives people a voice – in 140 characters or less, often times, and sometimes that’s not all completely fact. So, that message goes out. It runs very fast. People tend to grab onto it and assume that it’s truth. And then you spend a lot of time trying to recover from that, whether it’s right or wrong. In that sense, I think, social media is a huge challenge to us in making sure that we have the right information out.
“And, it’s certainly changed how we approach communicating after certain events. If you go back about 10 years, and you had an incident, you wouldn’t hear about it until a little more of the investigation is done and a little bit down the line, they’d hold a press conference. Now, we’ve got to a better job of being out in front, as soon as we can, to try to put out what information we can, while still respecting the integrity of an investigation – making sure the people hear from us, what we know, what the facts are, what we’re doing about it. Because information travels fast, and it snowballs.
“We put out a press release, or a notification on something, and sometimes someone will make a comment on it and it’s not right. And, a lot of times we won’t get engaged in a battle with it – but if it’s something we think is critical to what the public thinks about safety, we have to do something.
“I think a good example of this is, we had a report earlier this school year. It was reported that at Golden West High School we got a call that someone on the campus, they thought they saw someone with a gun – no shots, but, they just thought they saw someone with a gun. They gave a description. We have five campuses in that area and, they said, they saw him pretty much in the middle of all five.
“We took it seriously, locked the schools down, and went out and looked for the person. And, as we did so, that evolved on social media into an active shooter, there were shots fired at the school – it just kept growing and growing, and we had to work on getting ahead on that message with the media, that that was not the case.
“If you’re the parent of a kid there, that can cause a lot of fear, and it certainly wasn’t accurate.
“That situation becomes a little more difficult to manage, because we get a lot more calls – my kid’s in there – people are getting shot. And, we’re trying to tell people, ‘no, that’s not the case – the kids are safe. ’
“So, you start dealing with things outside of the scope of what you were initially dealing on, because of how that message changes.”
While many local police departments now have body cameras, Visalia does not.
“We applied for a [federal] grant this last year for body cameras. We were not successful,” Salazar said. “Part of the process was you had to have community meetings, so you had to meet with different stake-holders and get their feelings on it. We have very good relations with those community stake-holders. One of the things they [the grant review] cited, was really compared to our calls for service and arrests, the use of force was a very low occurrence, and so, they said, ‘you really just don’t have an issue right now.’
“We’re not saying, we’re good, we’re not involved in this – we are very aware of the dialogue and what’s happening [around the nation] and are always working to try and keep it from happening here. But, I think right now, we’re in a good spot with our community.
Mental Issues, Drugs, or Just Down Right Combative?
No matter the reason for combative behavior, law enforcement has a job to do – to protect citizens and themselves.
“I can say, from experience, in this department we receive a lot of training on lots of different topics,” Ellis said. “We’re mandated to have certain types of training every two years, and it covers those types of issues – race relations, arrest skills and things like that. One of the things I am involved in, is Kings Behavioral Health – they put on trainings for suicide prevention and mental health first aid. So, I’ve been trained in that. Every time there’s a training that pertains to my job as a school resource deputy, or even as a deputy sheriff, as far as mental health goes, I try to go and do the training. We receive training all of the time.
“People look at cops like they’re experts in everything – they call the cop to get the cat out of the tree – they call us for everything. And we’re not experts in everything. We’re experts in being a deputy or being a police officer, because we do it every day. But we’re also human – we make mistakes, we get scared, we get hurt, we have families that we want to go home to – we put on the uniform and come in to work, it’s hard to leave everything else behind us. We all do the best that we can, but we’re not perfect.
“We’re all different. We all react differently to things. Something that may cause one deputy to do something, might not cause me to do something in the same way – it is all a matter of experience and training. You don’t dictate the situation. You’re there to help; you’re there to figure out what’s going on, and how best to deal with it, and you deal with what comes your way.
“So, if you have somebody who is acting out of the ordinary. You try to figure out what is going on and deal with it.”
“Sometimes the public has to remember,” Robinson said, “regardless whether somebody has mental issues, is on something, or is just being a pain, law enforcement can be the same across the board on that. If you get a call for service that somebody has committed assault, or assault with a deadly weapon on another person and the information leads you to a suspect. And, you go to that suspect and they are uncooperative with the orders that you are giving them, it’s all most irrelevant as to whether they are on something, or their just agitated, or whether they have a mental illness – we have a duty to protect the public and make sure that that person then doesn’t move on and assault someone else.
If you are going to take someone into custody and they have a mental illness, or they’re agitated, or they’re on something – you’re going to still take them into custody regardless of which one of those might be – we have a duty to take that person into custody. And, so, that’s when we go through the process of giving the lawful orders, and then, escalation of the use of force. And sometimes, unfortunately, that escalation of use of force can go to that extreme level and result in a death – which is what you hear about. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’d change anything go into it – just because somebody may have a mental illness, or be agitated, or be under the influence of something, they’ve still committed a crime that we need to respond to. If somebody kills someone, we’re going to have to respond to that and our level is going to be heightened because you’ve committed a serious crime against somebody. It’s kind of almost irrelevant at that point, what their agitation level is, what their mental illness is, or what their under the influence of – we’re going to do what we need to do to protect our community.
“And, that’s where I think a lot of people jump to a conclusion, because after the fact, they find out, well, this person had a mental illness. OK, great, we can deal with the mental illness, we can deal with the under the influence, and deal with the agitation once we’ve taken the situation under control. And, that’s where a lot of people jump to a conclusion – well, you shouldn’t have taken it to that level – well, we have to get the situation under control because there’s many other factors – such as if this person flees in a vehicle, now we’ve exposed additional persons to a risk of that they might do something to somebody else. And, so, sometimes, we understand that there might be a mental illness or under the influence, but we have to deal with the situation immediately and then address the issues.
“In our department, we spend more than $3 million a year on in-custody medical, and that includes mental health. And, we’re no different than anybody else. Those people, once they come into our custody for their mental illness, they have to go through a medical screening, and they have to be evaluated every 30 days. If they are identified as having an issue, they get evaluated more often. About half of our population in jail take some type of psychological medication, because they have some kind of mental illness.
“If society and our legislatures and governor really wanted to help us and help the job that we do, they’ve got to put more of a focus on mental illness in our community. Under the Regan era, when he was the governor of California, they scaled back and did away with many mental hospitals – well that’s had a huge impact because we’ll have people sit in our custody for months at a time while we wait for an open bed at a state hospital.
“We can’t do any type of forced treatment, it can only be voluntary because only the state mental hospital can do the forced medication. We can follow their orders once they come back, but we can’t do anything prior to that while they sit in our custody for four months, they’re just deteriorating. So, that’s where I think as a society we’ve made a mistake, because we wanted to ignore that people have a mental illness. No, we need to acknowledge that there is mental illness out there, so let’s put more resources toward addressing it. Because, we would love to have a time where we come across somebody with a mental illness and we can immediately call somebody, ‘can somebody come out and address it immediately?’ But what happens is it is not an immediate address. We refer them to a local mental health treatment center – they get to go voluntarily. If they don’t want to go – too bad, unless they have committed a crime, we can’t get them the help that they need.
“There’s more training coming based on additional legislation that was addressed last year,” Robinson added. “The police academy cadets, we’re hiring five right now, they’ve received eight to 10 hours of mental health training. But, even though you may show up on a call and recognize this person has a mental illness, we still have to make sure that we deal with the situation at hand.
Chief Salazar concurred with Sheriff Robinson and Deputy Ellis, in that training is key to handling situations.
“We try to have as much information as we can before the officer gets there and that’s not easy sometimes, but the more info we have, helps,” Salazar said. “And then, when they get there it is about recognizing some signs – whether it’s mental illness or drugs – any of those types of things that you are looking for, to help access a situation.
“I think, to some degree, some of this dialogue that is happening nationally is that, there is a perception that we respond based on just what you see versus behavior. And behavior plays a large role into it. A person’s behavior can escalate a situation much faster than it may need to. And that can happen on both sides.
“One of the things we do, and we’ve been doing it for a number of years, is CIT training [Crisis Intervention Training] – it’s a 40-hour training course – we do it in conjunction with mental health and other service providers, to try and focus on just what exactly to look for in mental health-type cases.
“And, when you contact somebody, and see things that indicate it might be a mental health type of situation – different types of de-escalation or conflict resolution skills that you can use to work your way through that scenario. That’s been very effective training and I think, that helps us deal with those situations a little better.”
This training is an extension of what Robinson was talking about.
“We’re working on getting all of our officers through (the training) – we do it at 40 hours. I think the state is going to require either 8 or 12 hours, so newer officers are starting to get it in the academy. Our goal will be to eventually get them through more.
“One of the things we are seeing locally is a huge increase is transient or homeless types of service,” Salazar said. “From 2008 to now, we have seen a 327% increase in calls for service for homelessness, or transient-related [issues]. Some of those may involve crimes – drinking in public, or drug abuse, or trespassing. But a lot of those, I don’t have the percentage [right now] but I would say a very high volume of those, are mental health type calls. And so we are dealing with it very frequently, and it’s certainly an issue. And we’re trying to find better ways to work with our partners, whether it’s mental health, the Rescue Mission or other providers to be better effective in dealing with some of those.
“As far as training goes, in our training, we are never told to shoot to kill somebody – it’s a shoot-to-stop their aggression,” Ellis said. “And, we’re not trained to shoot a hand, or an arm, or a leg, or something like that – we’re trained to shoot the center mass – the biggest part of the body. That’s what we’re trained to do – when something happens that’s drastic, or an emergency, or things are happening rapidly, you revert back to your training.
“If I fear for my life, or the life of someone else, when I pull out my weapon, this is where I am going to shoot, because that is how I have been trained.
“People have asked me, ‘why can’t you just shoot him in the leg?’ That’s not how we’re trained – we’re trained to shoot right here, to stop the aggression.
“People will say, ‘all you guys want to do is to go out and shoot people.’
“NO! I don’t want to shoot anybody! I don’t want to get shot myself, for sure – I don’t want to be stabbed, for sure! But, I don’t wake up in the morning and put on the uniform, and go around saying to myself, ‘man, I hope I get a shooting today.’
“NO – that’s the worst thing that could happen.”
“We are not expert marksmen,” Robinson said. “Some people think that we can simply pull out a handgun and shoot something small, and we’re just not expert marksmen. It’s unfortunate that somebody in the community would even think that, because that’s not our training. We’re there, and if we get to that point, we’re supposed to stop whatever action the suspect is doing – the suspect has dictated the situation.
“We don’t know what it would do to shoot an arm, or shoot a knee –we have to have a common training, and that common training is to shoot for center mass because we have to make sure we stop the action. If you think, ‘OK, I am only going to shoot the arm’ and then what happens when you miss? Because, if you’ve gotten to the point where you are at that level of use of force, and you’re only going to shoot the arm, and this person has a weapon, and now you’ve aimed for the arm and shot and missed – now that person is not only going to have the chance to harm you, but to harm someone else and, so, we can’t take that chance. We have to shoot to stop.
Public Relations & Racial Relations
When asked whether they have seen an increase in racial problems in recent years, local law enforcement says, no. Although there has always been somewhat an underlying factor.
“Yes, there are racial problems all over the country,” Ellis said.
“If you’ve had a negative experience with law enforcement,” he said, “you’re not just going to not like me, you’re not going to like any cop.”
“Some people are just biased against law enforcement, regardless of their race or your race,” Robinson added.
“I get my haircut at a local barbershop and the clientele is mainly African American,” Ellis said. “I went to get my haircut about two or three days after the Dallas shootings. In general, the talk in the barbershop was positive for law enforcement. There were a couple of people that would say stuff like, ‘they deserved it,’ or ‘what do they expect, they can’t keep shooting people and not expect somebody to do something.’
“It’s not a big secret – everybody knows that I’m a cop. So, some of the people who were talking stuff, were probably talking stuff to see if I would react to it. There is something called freedom of speech in this country – they have a right to their opinion.”
Salazar said, he feels that racial conflict is minimal in Visalia and that he has seen no uptick in accusations of racial profiling in the community.
Filling Available Positions on the Force
“In the past two years, we have seen a reduction of at least 50% in our applicant pool,” Robinson said. “We were seeing upwards of 80-100 applicants for a deputy sheriff recruitment, now we see 40-50 applicants.
“I attribute it to a lot of what has gone on in the media [with regard to police shootings]. Also, I attribute it to the retirement changes that occurred a couple of years ago – part of coming into this type of job, was the draw of the retirement benefits. Under PEPRA [California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act] – the retirement changes that occurred in 2013, that changed a lot – retirement benefits are not as good. It’s not a drastic change – [prior to PEPRA] a full career was 30 years and could occur at 55 years old – we retire at 90% of our salary. And, the new system retire at 75% – you have to do 32 years, and can retire now at 57 years old. It’s a great retirement still – but it’s a big change, statewide.”
“I think we’re seeing an impact on recruitment,” he said. “I think there’s a few factors that play into that.
“For one, in fact I was just looking at some unemployment numbers, unemployment is still relatively high, here in our area, but at the state level – it’s as low as it has been in years. So, I think to some degree, that affects it. More people are employed, or in different jobs. We’re recovering to some degree, from the recession.
“But, I think too, people are seeing what’s happening and they hear what’s being said in the press about law enforcement, and to some folks, it may not be as appealing – when you talk about body cameras, or you see the assaults on officers – right now we’re at a point where the presumption is, ‘the officer is wrong.’ And, until we provide evidence that they’re innocent, then that’s the case, and I do think that is affecting our recruitment. It affects our folks that are already working.
“We struggle to find qualified applicants. Recruitment is a challenge not only here, but I know it is locally, statewide and at the national level. Recently, California hosted the National Association of Chiefs of Police, and I think one of the most well attended classes was a class on recruitment and retention. And, that was a sentiment you heard – we’re all facing those challenges right now. And, so again, I think that is attributed to what we are seeing happen nationally, and other factors, but that definitely is a factor.”
Back to Respect
“It’s Darrin’s mentality that we want to carry throughout the department,” Robinson said. “Just treat people with respect.
“On the flip side of that, we would love for the community to have that same type of attitude. The VAST majority of the community does, by far, but you get those few community members that don’t have that same attitude, whether it is [toward] law enforcement, or a teacher, or someone else in a position of authority.
“I grew up here. So, I’ve arrested a lot of people I grew up with. I use that same philosophy, and I always treat them with respect. I just have job to do, it’s not personal. I just have a job to do. And, I’d see them later on and they’d say, ‘ah, no worries.’
“I come to work and I treat people with respect and try to do the best job I can,” Ellis said. “And that’s the same for all the law enforcement, I know – inside this agency and outside of this agency, but in this area. Are there officers and deputies that do things, they’re not supposed to do? Yes. But, for the vast majority of people who do this job, we try to do the best job that we can.
“I think part of it is our area,” Salazar said. “I think Visalia is a unique community and one of the things you see is the involvement – even in our relationships that we have with different groups, and that is a foundation that has been laid a long time ago. We have a very good relationship with the school district. We have a very good relationship with the Rescue Mission. We have a very good relationship with different service groups in the community – and when you have those in place, I think it helps. You reach a very diverse cross-section of our community, and it helps us be better poised to deal with some of those issues and communicate effectively. We’re fortunate for the people that have come before us and laid some of those foundations, and now it is our responsibility to try and keep building it.
“Whether it’s the police community and stuff that we’re seeing a lot now with the election, the answer just seems so simple, and I tell my people – its respect. You have to respect that we’re all different. We all vote different. We all see the world from a different lens, to some degree. But, whether it’s us treating folks with respect, or vice versa – if we could just do that, I think it would go a long way.
“If it takes an effort to do that, that’s what we have to work on. Ultimately, in the end, the results will be what they are going to be. Some things you can’t change. And, we just have to go out and do as good a job as we can, and remember that we are here to serve a community and to work with those groups, I think is what is helping us here. We have very good support – we are very grateful for the Visalia community. And, we’ll work hard on keeping it that way.”
This is part two of a two-part series. The Valley Voice would like to thank Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar, Kings County Sheriff David Robinson, and Kings County Sheriff Deputy II Darrin Ellis for the time they afforded these articles.