Courage

Posted on Friday, March 30 2007 by Heather Brandon

Today’s Springfield Republican includes two letters to the editor that focus on the March 13 shooting incident in which a Officer David Askins was shot in the leg, and suspect Aaron Brevoort was shot and killed by police as he emerged from a house, firing at the officers. Several officers had surrounded Brevoort’s location early that afternoon—a multifamily house at 126 Malden Street—in anticipation of a likely difficult arrest, as he was known to be armed and dangerous, as well as a user of crack cocaine.

One letter to the editor is written by Shaun Lamory of Hadley, titled, “Excessive gunfire used at Springfield shoot-out.” It reads:

The manner in which the Springfield police, the four state police officers and the U.S. marshal killed Aaron J. Brevoort last week appalls me. Perhaps even more appalling is the fact that this act of savage brutality was praised by The Republican editorial, “In the line of duty, officers show courage.” (March 15). How much courage does it take to surround a house with nine others and shoot, as was reported by witnesses, up to 100 rounds at a man? The degree of force used in this incident by the cops should be disturbing to everyone, as it was to Brevoort’s neighbors. Andres Salazar is one example who said he was frightened for himself, his wife, and his 4-year-old grandson due to the excessive amount of force used by the cops. Another neighbor, Misael Sanchez stated that he counted 55 shell cases on his property according to the same article. Sanchez commented upon the incident as follows, “I was nervous. It’s like something you see in the movies.” There was a daycare center on the third floor of the same building that Brevoort was murdered at. According to the witnesses, it seems that the cops were not shooting with any sort of restraint, accuracy, or concern for human life. Imagine if one of those bullets would’ve strayed into that daycare, or another child nearby; it is likely seeing as 55 shell casings were found on the property of the neighboring home. With actions such as these we are forced to ask ourselves who are the real gangs terrorizing our streets?

While this letter, as well as the following letter, contain errors—which could be corrected by referring to the reporting in the very newspaper in which the letters were printed—no attempt appears to have been made by the editorial department to indicate a correction. The second letter, written by Steve Lorenz of Easthampton, is titled, “Children’s lives put at risk in Springfield shoot-out.” It reads:

As a parent, I’m writing to express my deep concern with the Springfield Police Department‘s seeming lack of attention to the presence of young children and others at the site of a recent shootout which resulted in the death of Aaron J. Brevoort. Although police claim to have cleared the area in advance of approaching Brevoort’s home on Malden Street, a follow-up article in the next day’s issue of The Republican shows that there were a number of people nearby, several of them young children. Does it strike no one else as wanton and excessive for the cops to fire more than 55 shots in this situation? As one might expect, the people in the vicinity were quite shaken; there’s no telling the long-term effect the trauma will have on the children. It is not for me to comment on the guilt or innocence of Brevoort—the police unfortunately have had the last word on him—but it certainly seems the police (city, state, and federal alike) bear the burden of responsibility here for creating an unsafe situation for all the people of the neighborhood.

I asked Police Commissioner Edward Flynn today to comment on the letters and the associated perceptions expressed in them, such as the notion that the local police are a greater safety threat than local (or touristing) criminals. Where did the erroneous report emerge that there was a day care on the third floor, only to be printed in the paper like this as though it was accurate? 100 rounds fired? 55 shell casings found?

How is the perception of this incident and its handling impacted by the reporting? What are some of the differences between the way local neighborhood residents perceive police behaviors, and the way some Hadley and Easthampton residents may perceive the same behaviors, as captured in these letters to the editor? Below are excerpts from my exchange with Commissioner Flynn.

Did Brevoort use two women and a baby for cover?
“According to the people in the apartment, he did that for a moment. He grabbed one of the women and put her in front of him. We didn’t see it; it was reported to us.”

Was there a child on the third floor of the house?
“One letter-writer somehow created a day care center in the building. There are six apartments in the building, and one was vacant. Every other resident in there is a single occupant. One of those people that day, on the third floor, was babysitting a child. That child was in the building at the time, and then also the one infant on the first floor.”

Is there a professional explanation for the number of shots fired? Are officers trained to fire a specific number of shots?
“There was a time when officers were trained to fire all six shots [in a revolver] to stop the threat, have cover, and reload. Higher-capacity magazines [led to officers being] trained to double tap, two shots, pause, two shots, pause. But in active situations, they needed to stop the threat. Now they are trained to engage the threat, in a combat situation, and fire until the threat has stopped. [If the suspect] throws the gun down, is wounded, or anything like that. Just like the active situation overseas [in Iraq], if it’s my life or your life, we shoot ’til you stop. A number of bullets can be fired in a matter of seconds. The hit rate was pretty high here [with the Brevoort incident].” [Reports showed that Brevoort had been shot about two dozen times out of 46 shots fired.]

Was he high?
“I haven’t seen toxicology reports. Adrenaline can be a stunning motivator.”

Did Brevoort continue to fire at officers even after he had been shot multiple times?
“Yes. The fellow had been hit several times and was still shooting at us. He verbalized, according to interviews afterward, that he was going to go out blazing, like a hero. He was absolutely committed to killing a police officer. There’s not a lot we can do with that. [The apartment occupants] heard the officers several times demand that he drop the gun. One of the people living in there said, ‘The cops had to shoot him. To tell you the truth, I think they waited too long to shoot him.’”

What is contributing to a perception that police are more threatening than criminals?
“There is a subset of society that is suspicious of authority—historically, generally, as well as specifically—with the police. It is hard to have a dialogue when they assume that the police are wrong. The people in that neighborhood want us there and more often. Not a single neighborhood in Springfield does not ask for more police help so the neighborhoods can be more livable. Let no one from Hadley presume to speak for Springfield.”

There are errors in the letters that were published uncorrected.
“I have some corrections for the record, certain assumptions that happened to be incorrect. It was appropriately reported that the suspect fired first. Of this, there was no doubt. The people inside the building testified to this. No matter how well-prepared or trained we are, the entire event is dictated by the suspect. The suspect chose to arm himself; he chose to ignore our commands to drop his weapon; he chose to open fire on the officers first. He chose to shoot one of the officers. In that context, a deadly, violent situation, he was DOA as a result of multiple gunshot hits. The assumption [in the letter to the editor] was we would have thrown down our arms and submitted to him.”

“There were eight officers who fired their weapons a total of 43 times. [Reports indicate that 42 shell casings were found at the front of the house and three were found on the back porch.] That contrasts with the suspect, who fired his ten times. There was fire discipline being used here: preventing escape, keeping bystanders away. With an active shooter, at this point, there are no choices. In a situation like that, in all likelihood, someone is going to die. Once firearms are employed in an active shooting situation by a suspect, in a combat situation, the goal is to stop the threat as rapidly as possible.”

“In an age when all the officers are carrying semi-automatic handguns with ten to 14 rounds, we don’t want them to have to stop and reload. When being shot at, their training is to shoot to stop the threat. A half-dozen officers can fire a lot of bullets in the blink of an eye. New York City is under extraordinary scrutiny [because of a recent incident], but it has the lowest usage of deadly force for cities over half a million [in population]. But now it’s open season [in the court of public opinion] because [the police] shot at one guy 50 times [in New York]. Separating the politics from the facts is [difficult], because there are people who presume to speak for disadvantaged and poor neighborhoods who can mobilize against police, rather than mobilize against poverty in city neighborhoods. Those same leaders are silent, MIA. But when it comes to police use of force, they’re all there.”

“A factoid for you: in our use of force data, from January 1, 2002 to today, March 30, 2007, this police department has made 35,961 arrests. In that period of time, we shot people two times: once in August 2005—a man fleeing from a home invasion with a semi-automatic, who was wounded—and Mr. Brevoort. People need to know things like that. We are a busy urban department, confronting a serious crime problem, assertively making a lot of arrests. Here we have two uses of deadly force in the course of five years, which is a pretty low ratio.”

At the start of our conversation, Flynn asked if I wanted to know if his blood pressure had gone up after reading the two letters to the editor. Did it?, I asked, and he said, with a hint of irony in his voice, that no, he handles these types of things smoothly and professionally at all times. At the end of our conversation, he said it had been therapeutic. I hope the same is true for readers, many of them residents of this city, where the police and broader community are working so hard to collaborate on our crime-fighting efforts, striving to foster an environment where people can express courage in deed rather than word alone.

Watch the front page of the Sunday Republican this weekend for more on this case, likely detailing District Attorney William Bennett‘s assessment that shots fired were not excessive.

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