With shrinking municipal budgets, it’s unlikely more money for training will come before more incidents like this.
In Santa Rosa, a sleepy community in California’s wine country, thousands gathered to protest the death of a 13-year-old eighth-grade trumpet player. Andy Garcia was shot to death by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy on October 22.
What made this situation so shocking wasn’t just the fact that the victim was so young. It wasn’t that the 13-year-old was killed for carrying a toy BB-firing replica of an AK-47 assault rifle. It wasn’t even that the officer fired seven bullets into the young child.
It was the fact that the officer who did the shooting was a firearms trainer who was training a new officer at the time. The training officer, Erick Gelhaus, 48, had 24 years’ experience on the force — including 19 as a firearms instructor — and 10 years’ frontline experience in the military, including a tour in Iraq. Part of such training would entail weapon identification.
According to the Santa Rosa police, Gelhaus and the new deputy pulled up behind Andy, who was walking along Highway 101 near his home. Andy’s toy did not have the orange tip required for toy guns by law — it is unclear if Andy removed it or if the toy was bought in that state. Andy used the gun to play with his friends.
With Andy’s back to the officers, Gelhaus ordered the boy to drop the gun. Not recognizing the officers as law enforcement, Andy turned without dropping the toy, in which Gelhaus fired eight times at the boy in fear over a 26-seconds timespan, with seven shots finding the boy.
An officer’s state of mind
Gelhaus — prior to this event — has never shot upon a suspect during his tenure on the force. In 1995, Gelhaus shot himself accidentally in the leg while on duty and attempting to holster his gun. Despite this, Gelhaus’ primary role with the Santa Rosa police was new recruit and firing range field shooting and gun safety training.
A proficient online poster, Gelhaus pondered the possibility of shooting a suspect in the line of duty in a 2008 article for S.W.A.T., a policing and gun rights magazine: “Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home,” he wrote. “If you cannot turn on the ‘mean gene’ for yourself, who will? If you find yourself in an ambush, in the kill zone, you need to turn on that mean gene.”
“Taking some kind of action – any kind of action – is critical. If you shut down (physically, psychologically, or both) and stay in the kill zone, bad things will happen to you. You must take some kind of action.”
In 2006, per Reuters, Gelhaus posted in 2006 to Firing Line Forum, an online gun enthusiast network, the need for use of force against someone wielding a BB gun. “It’s going to come down to YOUR ability to articulate to law enforcement and very likely the Court that you were in fear of death or serious bodily injury,” he wrote.
While the situation with Gelhaus cannot be defined by a single deficit, and while intentional malice cannot be ruled out, Gelhaus’ lack of experience firing in live action simulations must be taken as a considering factor in this tragedy. In fear, a person overreacts and act extraneously in a 26-second, eight-shot firing — in which Gelhaus would had ample time between shots to assess the situation, weigh the danger of the situation and withdraw once the danger is found to be abetted — suggests panic.
A police officer out of control is the worst-case scenario in law enforcement. If a police officer cannot be trusted to calmly respond when called and to mitigate a situation without adding to it, then that police officer presents a potential threat to public safety. In most cases, the remedy for resolving this fear in action is through continuous training.
More training is needed
It is essential that officers receive continuing education — not only in police tactics and weapon use, but in police ethics, conflict resolution and cultural sensitivity. Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on the nation’s police chiefs to improve police training in light of the increase in “active shooter” incidents over the last few years, including the recent mass killing at the Washington Navy Yards.
“We’ve seen at least 12 active shooter situations so far in 2013,” Holder said at the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police conference. “It’s become clear that new strategies and aggressive national response protocols must be employed to stop shooters in their tracks.”
“That’s why all law enforcement officers must have the best equipment and most up-to-date training to confront these situations,” Holder continued. “We owe these officers nothing less.”
Charles Ramsey, president of both the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Police Executive Research Forum — believes that it is essential to train and prepare officers for high-stress situations:
“Putting people in stressful situations and simulations has proven to be pretty effective when they really get immersed into a particular scenario to at least see how they’re going to respond. It reinforces a lot of things.”
“Not everybody is going to be able to make those kinds of good decisions under pressure, but I do think that the more reality-based training that we provide, the more we put people in stressful situations to make them respond and make them react.”
In light of shrinking budgets and shifting priorities, however, finding money for training can be a losing proposition, which potentially endangers the community as a whole. For example, the Oct. 14 shooting of Bobby Gerald Bennett, a 52-year-old mentally-impaired Dallas man, by Dallas police officer Cardan Spencer represented an act that a former Dallas police trainer said “was absolutely against all training, all policies for dealing with the mentally ill. The officer’s actions don’t reflect the training that I know that Dallas police officers have received.”
“I don’t think you’ve got a rogue cop who wants to kill someone,” said Jim Glennon, a former Chicago-area police homicide task force commander speaking of Spencer. “What you have is a police officer who overreacted. The stress overwhelmed him quickly. If the stress hits you that bad, your muscles tighten up and your finger is on the trigger. Literally, he could have fired off that first shot by accident.”
For the protestors that continue to hold vigils in Santa Rosa, saying that the police officer panicked is not good enough. More needed to have been done to help officers conquer their fears before they engage unknown situations armed.
“He was not a gang member, he was an 8th grader,” said Anita Ruiz, whose son was friends with the victim. “He was not a criminal, but yet he’s dead. He’s 13 years old. Couldn’t something else have been done?”