Friday, November 21, 2014

Rules of Engagement

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Could the police shooting of a troubled Scottsdale war vet have been avoided? 

Marine Sergeant Jason Prostrollo survived a tour of duty in Iraq, but the streets of Scottsdale proved less forgiving to the 25-year-old war veteran. On Saturday, January 28, 2012, Prostrollo – suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – drunkenly emerged from a residence in north Scottsdale brandishing two jagged halves of a pool cue. Scottsdale Police Department Lieutenant Ron Bayne – called to the scene to investigate a domestic disturbance –  subsequently opened fire and shot the serviceman dead.


According to the 244-page police report issued after the shooting, Prostollo was acting in a threatening, erratic manner and presented a mortal threat to the officers on the scene. Prostrollo’s family contends “the shooting was wrongful and should not have occurred,” proposing he could have been subdued by nonlethal means.

With a $5 million wrongful death claim pending against the city, the tragedy prompts an important question: Did Scottsdale PD follow use-of-force protocols in the Prostrollo shooting? And will the lawsuit force Valley police departments to review their policies?

Like many law enforcement agencies, Scottsdale PD gives its officers a training manual that clearly stipulates the conditions that warrant lethal force, according to a department employee who wished not to be identified. Though several phone calls made by PHOENIX magazine regarding the manual were unreturned, Scottsdale PD protocols almost certainly include the phrase “imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury,” or some variation thereof. “That’s common phraseology,” says Brian Buchner, vice president of the board of directors for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE). “Typically, [the rules] are not so restrictive that they specify precisely what type of force officers should use in a given situation. They apply more generally to factors known to the officer, such as the level of threat presented by the subject and the crime that was committed.”

The Prostollo case may hinge on how many feet and inches constitute an “imminent threat.” According to the police report, Prostrollo was about seven yards from officers when he was shot – ironically, the same threshold as the outdated “21-foot rule” once used by many law enforcement agencies to govern the use of lethal force. There were at least six officers on the scene, each armed with Glocks or rifles, pepper spray, and TASERs. One of the officers had a leashed K9 named Raider, which he released seconds before Lt. Bayne fired on Prostrollo. Bayne fired two shots, one killing Prostrollo, the other injuring Raider.

The Prostrollo family attorney, Joel Robbins, wonders why the dog wasn’t “given a chance to do his job” before Bayne fired. He also refutes the suggestion made by Scottsdale PD spokesman Sergeant Mark Clark to the Arizona Republic that strong winds were a deterrent for other methods of “less lethal” force, including TASERs and pepper spray.
 
“That’s just a bullshit excuse after the fact,” Robbins says. “The top gust that night was 20 miles per hour. It may make a flag wave a bit, but it’s not going to keep a TASER probe from hitting its target.”

TASER representative Steve Tuttle isn’t sold on the wind theory, either. Similar claims prompted Canada’s Victoria Police Department to run a TASER performance test in 1999 – firing a first-generation model behind a prop plane engine generating winds upwards of 50 mph – to prove they would work in inclement weather. The simulation did not cause officers to miss targets within the device’s 25-foot range.

“I’ve never known [wind] to be an issue anywhere,” says Tuttle, noting this applies to both police models. “These probes are coming out at 60 miles per hour so they’re very fast, and the trailing wires don’t have much surface area that could be affected.”

Robbins also alleges the police report mischaracterizes Prostrollo’s mindset at the time of the shooting, including the “thousand-yard stare” that Prostrollo – who drank heavily that evening at Ernie’s bar in Scottsdale – wore upon confronting police. “He had a .40 blood alcohol level. He was drunk off his ass... and he probably couldn’t even understand what [officers] were saying, stumbling according to one eyewitness, though the police say he was walking carefully like a trained martial arts expert.

“It’s like, who’s telling the truth?”

Ultimately, it may be up to a jury to answer that question, if the case goes to trial as scheduled in early 2014. Even if the outcome fails to “illuminate deficiencies in training or policy” and result in policy changes at Scottsdale PD, it will offer a teaching moment, according to Buchner. “Every use of lethal force, even when it’s within policy, can be instructive. That’s just a responsible management practice.”


Since 1992, Scottsdale PD has registered just 29 officer-involved shootings. But those low gross totals don’t tell the whole story: In 2010, Scottsdale averaged 1.38 officer-involved shootings per 100,000 residents – slightly higher than Phoenix. A comparison of other cities:

Albuquerque, NM 2.63
Kansas City, MO     1.61
Scottsdale, AZ       1.38
Phoenix, AZ           1.24
Long Beach, CA    1.07
Sacramento, CA     .85
New York City, NY .38
Mesa, AZ                 .21

Figures reflect number of OIS per 100,000 residents in 2010.
Sources: Albuquerque Alibi, Scottsdale PD, Phoenix PD




 

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