- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

PHOENIX, Jan. 26 (UPI) — Police officers are more likely to be attacked by violent suspects in Phoenix than in any other major city, and Phoenix police are more apt to respond to escalating confrontational situations with deadly force, according to a survey published Sunday by the Arizona Republic.

The newspaper said nearly 800 Phoenix officers were assaulted last year, and one out of every six alleged assailants was shot in response. At the same time, a review of shooting reports in the nation's 10 largest cities between 1996 and 2000 found that Phoenix police killed an average of 3.33 suspects per 1,000 officers, making the Phoenix department more than twice as likely to kill their alleged attackers than other big city departments.

"We are not trigger-happy," said Assistant Police Chief John Buchanan told the Republic. "Day in, day out, night in, night out, our officers are capable and very often accomplish things without the use of any force at all. That's important and it's sometimes overlooked."

Analysts pointed out Phoenix's mitigating factors: a growing population, proximity to the border, and even Arizona's liberal gun laws as reasons for the escalating violence against police officers. Nevertheless, the frequency of the officer-involved shootings has led some Phoenix residents and experts on police tactics to question whether or not the threshold for the use of deadly force is too low.

"People sometimes do stupid things, but shouldn't be killed for it," opined Richard Treon, a Phoenix lawyer who specializes in police shooting cases.

Treon blamed a lack of training for the frequency of police shootings that occurred when the suspect appeared to pose only a minimal threat to officers responding to disturbances and other calls.

"They've got to get out of this adrenaline-ego-testosterone mode," he told the Republic. "The worst part of it is this pack mentality. The more there are, the worse it gets."

The Republic cited instances in which, according to critics, police arrived at calls with guns drawn before they had had a chance to size up the situation accurately. One case involved a wildly drunken man who was shot when he allegedly wielded a liquor bottle as a weapon.

"The cops refuse to recognize that time is their ally," Treon pointed out. "Instead of waiting the person out or doing things that could have been done to avoid the confrontational aspect of it, they seem to escalate it."

Police officials denied any implication of a "shoot first and ask questions later" policy and stressed that real-life situations often did not follow the logical progression of a training exercise.

"We continue to emphasize the value of a human life in law enforcement," said Police Chief Harold Hurtt. "What we're trying to do is bring sanity to an insane type of situation, and it's very difficult."

Training experts noted that virtually any attack on an officer could become a life-threatening crisis regardless of whether or not the assailants were using a gun or some other lethal weapon. They also said it would jeopardize an officer's life to wait for the suspect to fire the first shot or strike the first blow.

"I think that's one of the things the general public doesn't understand," the chief said. "They say, 'Well, couldn't you have just fired a warning shot?' We're not in the business of just firing loose shots in the community. That bullet has to stop somewhere. So that's not an option for us."

"Our policy and training is, you fire to stop the threat," he added.

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