Lethal force

Any number of questions remain after the Memorial Day weekend rampage by Lonnie Davis, culminating in the Shoreline standoff with police and the sniper’s bullet that ended Davis’ life. By the time that happened, three others were dead, five more injured (including three police officers), thousands inconvenienced by the closure of I-5, and thousands more glued to their TV screens for the very ’90s spectacle of live televised cop drama.

In the aftermath, amidst the speculation over why Davis snapped, perhaps the most basic questions revolve around King County Sheriff Dave Reichert’s reported order to “shoot to kill” the gunman. Though we don’t usually think of it this way, the “shoot to kill” order is, essentially, a death penalty without trial. While capital punishment has safeguards to maximize the chances that only the most heinous criminals will be executed—though even those safeguards fail—what safeguards are there for the decisions of an on-site commander in a police standoff?

It’s possible that Davis was not mentally competent and would have been found innocent of his crimes. Even if guilty, there is a value to going through the trial and jury process. Dozens, even hundreds, of officers, can surely outwait a gunman who will eventually tire. Only the most compelling circumstances should allow this sort of standoff to be ended by execution. And one wonders: were there pressures to end the standoff (relatively) quickly because of the inconvenience to so many? If so, Davis would be the first criminal in US history to be executed for holding up traffic.

As with any use of deadly force, the May 28 incident will go to a shooting review board. But I believe the sheriff’s department can make a strong case that Davis’ death was the proper course of action.

For one, the reports by The Seattle Times et al. of a “shoot to kill” order were, in fact, inaccurate. The actual order given by Reichert, in accordance with internal policy for such situations, was to shoot so as to remove the threat to officers’ safety. That may seem like a minor difference, but it’s not; it allows for incapacitation as well as death. (Though, in this case, Davis ended up fully incapacitated.)

Up to the time of the sniper’s bullet, Davis was continuing to fire on officers. As reported by the house’s residents, he had potential access to a nearly unlimited supply of guns and ammo. Officers were exposed to the gunfire and could not retreat from their perimeter to a point of safety for fear of allowing him to escape.

The standards for deadly force are no different for such protracted situations than they are for when officers use split-second judgment. For King County, the general orders manual specifies that “officers shall exhaust every reasonable means of apprehension before resorting to the use of deadly force.” In this case, Davis (whose identity and link to two Brier murders was known by mid-afternoon) had not responded to any efforts to negotiate, and he had holed himself up in a well-armed household.

Davis died, but the purpose of the shooting was to keep him from firing further on the officers—not to kill the suspect, or to open I-5.

I don’t, as regular readers can attest, generally ooze sympathy for police using deadly force. But officers involved in the tragedy have every right to be livid with the mind-boggling stupidity of KOMO-TV, which, during the standoff, aired a live interview with Christine Westphal, the unlucky woman whose house had been randomly used for the drama. Westphal, in response to a direct question, explained exactly where in the master bedroom the small arsenal of guns and ammo was kept—helpful advice if Davis happened to have the TV on, and incredibly reckless and dangerous to the police. Duh. In general, the hovering choppers of live TV coverage were reminiscent of vultures, circling overhead and feeding in mid-air on the emotional value of the real and potential carcasses below.

Lastly, we can learn from all this that if you keep a large quantity of guns at your Seattle-area home, it is now statistically at least as likely that the weaponry won’t be used to protect your family and shoot a burglar, but that it will be used by some desperado who will break into your home while no one’s around and then take out some cops while TV copters spend six hours hovering overhead. Oh, and your house will be essentially destroyed by countless rounds of bullets and tear gas. Feel safer?

Lethal force II

Finally, the so-called, one-sided “war” against Yugoslavia has apparently been called off. Eventually. The bombing campaign has proven every bit as disastrous as predicted in this column on April 8, and the G-8-brokered peace agreement came despite the palpable desire of the Clinton and Blair administrations to avoid the risk of peace breaking out.

After two months of cluster bombs and civilian targets—hospitals, churches, clinics, day-care centers, refugee convoys, embassies, and the like—it’s not at all clear where this breathtakingly amoral campaign leaves us. The agreement reached is similar to, only vaguer than, the Rambouillet agreement that was rejected in March. Additionally, the nearly one million Kosovar Albanian refugees created since then can presumably go home—to homes and communities that we’ve destroyed in the interim.

As with US treatment of Iraq, the agreement has all sorts of caveats that can be used as excuses by NATO to continue or resume bombing. This issue will be with us for a long time. Yugoslavia, like Iraq (which we’re still bombing—nobody seems to have noticed), is in ruins. Just as Iraq can never be proven to have no weapons of mass destruction, it will be impossible to verify that the last Serb soldier has left Kosovo. In the wake of Littleton, here’s all the proof we ever needed that violence is no way to resolve conflicts. It’s a shame that Clinton and other NATO leaders can’t shake their addiction to the mass murder of civilians for long enough to take their own moralizing seriously.