George Alleyn. Walt Frago. Roger Gore. James Pence. David March. Jake Kuredjian. Arthur Pelino. Randy Hamson.
If these names are unfamiliar to you, here’s a little history.
Alleyn, Frago, Gore and Pence were four young California Highway Patrol officers out of the CHP’s Newhall station who were gunned down in cold blood after stopping a car in response to a report that someone in the car had brandished a weapon. The suspects came out firing. The four officers left behind four widows and seven children. The 1970 shootout and ensuing manhunt became known as “The Newhall Incident,” and it resulted in changes to procedures for high-risk stops.
March was a sheriff’s deputy who grew up here in the Santa Clarita Valley. I had friends who knew him personally. He was shot and killed in 2002 during what might have appeared to be a “routine” traffic stop in Irwindale by a suspect who intentionally got stopped after telling friends that he wanted to kill a cop.
Kuredjian was a local sheriff’s deputy who was responding to back up other deputies and federal agents attempting to serve a warrant in Stevenson Ranch in 2001. During the ensuing standoff and shootout, the suspect shot Kuredjian in the head and killed him.
Pelino was an SCV sheriff’s deputy who covered Gorman. He was shot and killed in 1978 by a mentally deranged suspect who wrestled Pelino’s gun away from him during the booking process.
Hamson was the third SCV deputy who was killed in the line of duty. Unlike the others, his death was an accident. While following up on a 2004 nighttime traffic collision, he was trying to get the attention of an oncoming car that was traveling with its headlights off, and in the process he inadvertently stepped into the path of another oncoming car.
The point? Police work is dangerous. And in today’s social-political environment a lot of people seem to have forgotten that, or are willfully disregarding it. This danger is the “why” when we look at incidents like the one at a bus stop in front of Buffalo Wild Wings on Friday, Aug. 7.
The optics of it were bad.
A viral video shows multiple deputies detaining three teenagers at gunpoint while an angry group of bystanders yells at the deputies, accusing them of being racist — two of the teens were Black, one was white — and of having the wrong guys in the first place.
It turns out, they did have the wrong guys. After questioning the teens, deputies released them.
And, of course, because Monday Morning Quarterbacking is another of our national pastimes, the deputies are being roundly excoriated for it in the media.
As far as we can tell, here’s what happened:
Two versions of the incident were called in to the SCV Sheriff’s Station. One report said a couple of teenagers were attacking an apparently homeless man with their skateboards. The other said that the man in question had threatened the boys with a knife, and they were using their skateboards to defend themselves.
It turns out, the latter version was the correct one. And, side note to those three teenagers: I love the resourcefulness of them defending themselves with their skateboards. I’ve never considered a skateboard a self-defense tool, until now.
But deputies didn’t know that was the case when they pulled up to investigate a possible felony assault, and it appears at least some of the deputies had only heard about the call saying teenagers were attacking a homeless man.
So they drew their guns on the teens, and went through the procedure of detaining them. You’ve seen that procedure a thousand times at the end of car chases on TV: Hands over your head, walk backward, get on your knees and then they put the cuffs on.
If you’re an innocent person, and especially these days an innocent Black person, considering all of the public discourse about police behavior toward Black suspects, I can only imagine what a harrowing experience that was for those three teenagers.
To their credit, they each followed the deputies’ instructions to the letter. The situation could have easily gone south if they hadn’t, and that’s frightening for anyone.
But if you’re wondering the “why” behind the deputies drawing their guns, look back at those names of dead local cops. If you’re a cop, and you roll up on a felony call, unless you’re clairvoyant you don’t know who might come out firing at you.
And often, as in this case, you don’t know what you don’t know yet.
In some ways, this looked like any of a number of felony stops I’ve seen over 20-plus years in the news business. But I’m not here to blindly defend every action of every cop in every situation, either. In this one, there were a couple of things that bothered me.
First, one of the deputies pointed an AR-15 assault-style rifle at the teens. On its face, that seemed over the top. There were already multiple other deputies with their handguns trained on the teens, so it seemed like the situation was well in hand without the long gun. The Sheriff’s Department is reviewing its policy on deployment of the AR-15, and it should. Based on this incident, it seems some change should come about in how these situations are handled — but it should be done without compromising deputy safety.
The second thing that bothered me was, at least on the video, it didn’t seem like the deputies had their “listening ears” on. Yes, some people at the scene were shouting profanities and accusations at the deputies, which, by the way, is going to get you exactly nowhere.
But some were simply telling them they had the wrong guys, and in particular, one of them was a manager of the Buffalo Wild Wings, wearing her B-Dubs uniform, so she clearly wasn’t just some random person. She tried telling the deputies what really happened, but at least in the video, they didn’t seem interested in what she had to say.
I know it was a felony-level response and their first priority is to secure the scene, but there were enough deputies there that it would have been comforting if one of them had asked the manager to step aside to talk, and listened to what she had to say.
So that’s my take. Bad optics. The AR-15 seemed unnecessary, and more threatening than it needed to be. Better listening could have de-escalated the situation. There are lessons to be learned here, and acted upon.
But as far as the cops rolling up with guns drawn? I am close to someone who’s in law enforcement. And considering the names Frago, Alleyn, Pence, Gore, March, Kuredjian, Pelino and Hamson, if he rolls up on a felony stop, I want his gun drawn.
Every. Single. Time.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal.