|Indictments could be huge|
|Written by Cynthia Brown|
American Police Beat, February 2008
A chief and his lieutenant have been indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges after a mentally ill woman was shot and killed by police officers. The commanders were not on the scene and did not fire the shots. Experts say it's the first time in our nation's history where commanding officers are facing prison terms for something they didn't do.
"It's a novel legal theory to indict people who didn't do something, particularly when they didn't say, 'Go ahead and shoot this woman,'" said David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminal justice professor who has studied police use of deadly force for the Justice Department. Klinger made his comments to Thadeus Greenson and John Driscoll, reporters from the Eureka Times-Standard. Golden Gate University School of Law Professor and Dean Emeritus Peter Keane agreed.
"This is the first time I've heard of an indictment of police officers in the command aspect of a situation who weren't actually involved in the shootings themselves." Keane said. Dr. Keane has served as a legal analyst for CNN, the BBC and MSNBC and is a former vice president of the State Bar of California. The two officers who did the shooting were not indicted. Shock waves reverberated throughout the U.S. law enforcement profession at the end of last year when a Humboldt, California County grand jury handed up a sealed indictment charging Eureka Chief David Douglas and Lt. Anthony Zanotti with involuntary manslaughter.
On December 10, the officers appeared in court to be arraigned. Dozens of their fellow officers showed up to support their embattled colleagues. Following an appeal by their attorneys, the arraignments were postponed to February 21. Both law enforcement officials remain free on their own recognizance.
The shocking indictments were handed down after a shooting that took place on April 14, 2006. According to press reports, Cheri Lyn Moore was depressed - it was the first anniversary of her son's death. Eureka police responded to Moore's apartment building after receiving calls about a disturbance. When they showed up at the scene, the 48-year-old woman refused to answer her door, threw clothes into the street from her second story window, threatened to burn down the building, and pointed a flare gun at the responding officers. Chief Douglas and Lt. Zanotti set up a command post at the apartment complex and began directing the tactical response.
After a stand-off of more than two hours, Moore was seen putting the gun down and the decision was made to have the officers enter her apartment. Cops on the scene say they were forced to shoot Moore when, after entering her apartment, she pointed the flare gun at them. Nine shots were fired from a shotgun and an assault rifle and Moore died at the scene. Garr Nielsen, who is now serving as chief of the Eureka P.D., said the decisions made by Douglas and Zanotti cannot be considered criminal acts and that he is standing by his officers.
He said he would not put Lt. Zanotti on administrative leave but would temporarily reassign him from his responsibilities as a crime scene commander. Nielsen said he was taking this action not because he had lost confidence in his lieutenant, but rather to protect him. Cheri Lyn Moore's son, David Moore, has filed lawsuits against the officers and the city.
"The thing here is the grand jury recognized that they should have never stormed the apartment," Moore told reporters, adding that when his mother put down the flare gun, that should have indicated the situation was calming down and that entering the apartment was not necessary. "Clearly the decision makers put the officers in the position to shoot when they had them in the position to enter the apartment."
But everyone on the law enforcement side says the call was right to go in. "She was an immediate threat to human life, to the building, to the officers and to the civilians surrounding that area," Lt. Zanotti testified last September at an inquest into Moore's death. In the nearby city of Arcata, Chief Randy Mendoza said the case will have serious repercussions for law enforcement. "It's hard enough to fill police chief jobs in California," Mendoza said. Richard Word is the president of the California Police Chiefs Association. According to another in-depth report in the Times-Standard by Thadeus Greenson, Word said he's never heard of commanding officers being criminally charged for the decisions they make.
"This has really sent shock waves throughout departments in the state," Word said. "We're shocked. The e-mails are flying." Legal experts have said the indictments seem to indicate the grand jury felt the decision to enter Moore's apartment amounted to criminal negligence and that officers should have spent more time negotiating with Moore or using less lethal options like Taser guns or tear gas.
Richard Word said his group wants to know what's behind the indictments and whether they are politically motivated. Greenson writes that Word's major worry is that taking legal action against the chief and lieutenant will make chiefs more likely to take control of these types of tactical operations.
"If you're going to face a potential indictment, you're probably going to take a lot of the decision-making powers out of your commanding officers' hands, and you're going to get your butt down there," Word said. He added that might not be a good thing.
"We know the threat of a civil suit is always present, but if you're going to face criminal charges, that's a whole new ball game," Word said. "And, I think the response from some is going to be to take matters into their own hands." Greenson writes, "Chris Shean, a hostage negotiator with the Seattle Police Department, agreed with Word. He said SWAT teams sometimes have problems with lieutenants taking command of a scene, and the prospect of police chiefs, who are generally further removed from SWAT and tactical response training, doing so is even more worrisome. 'That could potentially open a real can of worms, and potentially cause a delay in a situation that needs to be acted on quickly,' Shean said, adding that his department will keep a close eye on the Zanotti and Douglas case.
'We will, and so will the Western States Hostage Negotiators' Association because it could determine policy.'" The Eureka City Council has decided to form a fund to help with Douglas' legal bills, in addition to giving the former chief $75,000 from its general fund, with the option of contributing more down the road.
If you would like to make a donation to the city's defense fund for David Douglas it would be much appreciated. Make your check out to the City of Eureka, with "David Douglas" written in the "for" line. Send it to: City Hall, 531 K St., Eureka, CA 95502. Councilman Larry Glass said the checks would only be cashed if they were needed. If convicted, Lt. Zanotti and Chief Douglas face a maximum sentence of four years in prison.