Verdict is a disaster for law enforcement E-mail
Written by Steve James   

As police officers, we are all aware of jury decisions that we disagree with. Those disagreements are usually about cases where we are confident that the bad guy is guilty, but the jury finds otherwise. While these cases are often times frustrating, they pale in comparison to the recent jury verdict here in California in the Zerby case.  Knowing the facts of that case as most of us do, it becomes incomprehensible that members of the public we serve could get it so wrong.

This incident began around 4:40 pm on December 12, 2010, when a citizen called the police to report a man with a gun in a common area between his house and the detached rear apartments.  

Officers arrived on scene, confirmed the information with a citizen, and positioned themselves to observe the man. 

The officers saw what they believed was a man holding a gun.  While the officers waited for back up to secure the area in order to prevent the “man with a gun” from fleeing into the community, the man pointed the “gun” at one of the officers. 

Two officers shot at the man because they believed their lives were in danger. When all was said and done, the “gun” was actually a detached water nozzle that looked like a pistol.

The jury awarded the family of Zerby $6.5 million dollars in a wrongful death lawsuit.  

The most troubling part of the jury’s verdict isn’t the loss of critical dollars, but rather the underlying implication that police officers are not allowed to protect themselves from a person whom they reasonably believe is pointing a gun at them.  

This is beyond unreasonable and most likely comes from perceptions created by television shows and movies. I truly hope this decision will not cause officers to hesitate during future critical incidents but I am fearful that it may. I just hope everyone continues to trust their training and their instincts.

Everyone agrees that what happened that day was a tragedy. 

No one wishes that Doug Zerby was still alive more than the officers who shot him were.

The problem is just because post-shooting hindsight showed that Zerby did not pose a threat does not mean that the officers were wrong to have shot.  The officers reasonably believed that Zerby posed a threat at the moment he took a shooting position with what appeared to be a gun, and they responded accordingly.

If Zerby had pointed a real gun at the officers as they believed, and if the officers had wasted time yelling at him to drop the gun, then we easily could have been planning a funeral for a police officer.  I know that is not what happened, but it could have.  

We are paid to protect the people we serve, but we are not paid to be suicidal. If someone points a gun at you, it is reasonable to assume they intend to shoot you. You do not have to, nor should you, let them shoot first.  

The officers in this case were cleared of any wrong doing by the Department and the District Attorney, with both of those investigations utilizing information from the Coroner. I would like to assure everyone that despite the jury’s verdict, the officers rightfully continue to receive support from the City, the Department, and the Community.

Steve James is the president of the Long Beach, CA Police Officers’ Association.

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Comments (1)Add Comment
Use of deadly force.
written by Darrell, January 09, 2014
I am not aware of your agency's policy of Use of Force or the State of California. However, did Mr. Zerby have a legal right to be where he was located. Did he make any physical active threats towards the officers. Why would you not give any verbal orders to drop the weapon?

I would need to see all the documents, call screens etc.. police Officers are trained professionals and I am well aware of that. Self defense is never denied. I would need to see everything.

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