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April 21, 2014

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Planning for a situation like recent Costco shooting not easy for police

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Metro crime scene investigators, officers and detectives mill about the entrance of the Costco store in Summerlin after the shooting July 10, 2010.

QUESTIONS REMAIN

Metro officers and crime scene investigators, above, look over an area after a shooting at a Costco store in Summerlin which left 39-year old West Point graduate Erik Scott dead July 10. Witnesses say Scott was “acting erratically” and in possession of a gun. Officials are still investigating the incident.

Erik Scott Memorial

Erik Scott's girlfriend hugs his father, Bill Scott, after brother Kevin Scott and mother Linda Scott received a flag at a memorial on Saturday. Scott was killed a week earlier by Metro officers at a Costco in Summerlin. Launch slideshow »

Erik Scott memorial

The fatal police shooting of an armed man in a crowded Costco parking lot this month raises a host of questions — including, most fundamentally, “What is the standard operating procedure for police in controlling such a situation?”

Confronting an armed suspect with a large crowd as a backdrop is one of the most complex situations an officer can face.

“The ultimate goal is to isolate that person and get the innocent bystanders out,” says Deputy Armando Avina, spokesman for the Washoe County sheriff’s office. “But it’s a scene that’s hard to script.”

For starters, police typically have sketchy information when they pull up to the scene, as was the case July 10 when Metro Police were called to the Costco in Summerlin.

In response to a 911 call from a store employee who reported that a man was “acting erratically,” damaging merchandise and in possession of a pistol, officers arrived and headed for the entrance. With customers streaming out of the entrance after store employees ordered an evacuation, a Costco worker pointed out the suspect to police as he was exiting.

According to Metro’s news releases, an officer approached the man, 39-year-old West Point graduate Erik Scott, observed a weapon in his waistband and ordered him to raise his hands and lie on the ground. With two other officers joining in, police said, Scott “drew his pistol and pointed it” at the officer who had commanded Scott to lie down. The three officers then shot at Scott, striking him numerous times at close range without hitting anyone else, and he died a short time later. Some news reports have suggested that the officers were waiting for Scott with their guns drawn.

Metro’s version of the shooting is disputed by an attorney for Scott’s family, who says the victim did not pull out his handgun. Eyewitness accounts conflict, and major pieces of information have yet to be released, including transcripts of the 911 call, police dispatches and any surveillance video.

Experts in tactical training say that if Scott ignored police commands and pointed his gun, as Metro alleges, the officers had every right to use deadly force and should be commended for not striking anyone else.

Metro wouldn’t discuss how it approaches incidents involving large crowds. Although its thick operations manual provides detail on use of force — such as “officers should, whenever possible, use verbal skills to attempt to control subjects before resorting to physical control methods” — there isn’t much in the way of explaining how it attempts to isolate an armed suspect from a throng of bystanders.

That’s not altogether uncommon where police manuals are concerned, says retired DEA agent Rande Matteson, a criminal justice professor at Saint Leo University in Florida.

“They want to cover as much as they can from a broad perspective because they can’t have a playbook about everything,” he says. “What this does is give officers a wide range of discretion, because their policies have usually been vetted by legal counsel.”

For years across the country, it was common practice for the first officers at a crowded scene to try to contain an armed suspect and then call in a SWAT team of trained snipers to kill him or otherwise neutralize the threat.

Then came the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999, in which two students shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. This watershed event not only drew attention to school safety, but also prompted police agencies nationwide to train front-line officers in ways to confront “active shooters” rather than having to wait for SWAT teams to appear.

Like other modern police forces, Metro has supplemented its academy training with computer-assisted instruction to simulate real-life scenarios as a refresher for officers once they earn their badges.

But police instructors say it is virtually impossible to train for every scenario, especially ones that involve large crowds. Mike Thomas, an instructor at the Butte College Public Safety Training Center in Oroville, Calif., says one of the most difficult tasks for the emergency worker is having to process what is sometimes conflicting information from dispatchers and eyewitnesses.

“It’s difficult to make a perfect decision,” Thomas says. “In fact, it’s impossible because you never have all the facts, much like in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

That’s why Phoenix police are trained in concepts intended to cover a broad range of scenarios, says Phoenix Police Sgt. Bret Draughn, a firearms expert.

Take the crowd. In an attempt to prevent death or injury to a bystander, Draughn says Phoenix police are taught to reposition themselves, if possible, in relation to the suspect.

“In considering the totality of circumstances, are they shooting because they have no choice even if the backdrop is at high risk?” he says. “Or do they have a chance to move the backdrop?”

Add another wrinkle. How can a police officer issue commands to the suspect and warn onlookers to get out of harm’s way?

“You can’t yell commands to a guy with a gun and yell commands to the crowd at the same time,” Draughn says. “There are times when you can’t issue any verbal commands. By a suspect’s actions, there are times he’s forcing us to act right now. When it’s time to shoot, we tell our officers to shut up because they can perform better when they aren’t multitasking.”

Getting a crowd to evacuate is no easy task, though.

“It’s one thing to tell five people what to do,” Thomas says. “It’s another to tell 500 or 5,000.”

Ideally, Avina says, police could establish a perimeter in which officers give clear instructions to bystanders while helping to contain the suspect.

Ideally, they would also have time to establish a SWAT presence and even deploy hostage negotiators to deal with the possibility of a gunman overtaking innocent bystanders.

That’s a whole lot of “ideally.” In reality, crowds are often difficult to control when people know an armed suspect is in their presence, and police often don’t have the time to get organized.

When approaching an armed suspect near or within large crowds, emergency workers need to identify who the suspect is and where he is and then assess the threat, says retired FBI Special Agent Ronnie Frigulti, a police training consultant in Oregon.

The best option “ideally is to preserve life,” including that of the suspect. “Even with an armed suspect, we still look to them as a person,” he says.

The fear that a bullet fired by an officer can pass through a suspect and hit an innocent victim is overblown — it happens less than 1 percent of the time, Frigulti says. Nevertheless, the most important skills for a police officer when firing a weapon are accuracy, then speed.

“The first thing going through an officer’s mind is, ‘I can’t miss,’ ” he says.

Whenever possible, those shots are fired at close range, which Matteson defined as three to five feet from the suspect.

“If you can’t shoot a target at that distance and get close to the center of body mass, you have to go back to remedial training,” he says.

Naturally, the more panic sweeps through the crowd and the more antsy behavior is displayed by the suspect, the more likely it is for the police officer to feel stressed.

The officer “is thinking about the public’s safety and he’s thinking about his own safety because if he gets hurt, he can’t protect the public,” Frigulti says. “So there’s a lot of things going through his mind.”

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