Valley Voices

Is ‘shoot to kill’ a silent law enforcement tactic?

By Phil Fullerton

Phil Fullerton
Phil Fullerton

“I am in real trouble. My supervisor says I should have killed the n-------.”

I was seated next to a blue-clad, young police officer of the Los Angeles Police Department in a seething municipal courtroom in Southern California over a half-century ago. The robe-clad presiding judge of this lower court was assigning cases for hearing and trial.

It was obvious that there were too many cases for too few courtrooms. Many would have to wait perhaps for days or be assigned to a later date. The room was filled with attorneys and witnesses.

I was then a young attorney building a solo law practice. This hard-scrabble task was one that required a lot of energy, creativity, and a willingness to take pretty much anything that came in the door. The hope was that if I did a good enough job that each such person would recommend me to others.

With a burgeoning family to feed, I had eagerly taken a marginal fender-bender case in a small city. Cases involving small amounts were limited to the municipal courts then. These courts have since been merged into the general-jurisdiction superior courts.

I had driven to this court, leaving early in the morning to climb the Grapevine and descend into the Southern California basin. I was there on a motion, not the trial itself.

“Why is that?” I asked the officer. “Did you miss an earlier hearing?”

“I didn’t kill him,” he replied. “I fired a shot and wounded a burglar escaping in the leg. He fell, and I called an ambulance. My supervisor said that I would spend many hours in courtrooms for pretrial hearings and trials, maybe not only the criminal trial but a civil one as well.

“Dead men aren’t charged with crimes; they don’t go to court. If you draw your gun and fire, then be sure to kill them.”

Obviously this morning’s calendar setting was the first of a series of such events for this young officer. I looked carefully at him. He was clearly serious and clearly worried that he would be passed over for promotion. Or maybe not allowed to charge his time for this hearing.

I have brooded long and hard over this incident. It took place over 50 years ago, when the LAPD was noted as a violent and racist group. It has since undergone significant reform. This could have been an isolated incident.

I have known many law enforcement officers as attorney and friend. I even performed a wedding under a one-day license for a former officer. I have uniformly been proud to be their friend, and I have found them of impeccable ethics and behavior.

And yet. And yet. I think that all of these officers have been trained as marksmen. I once had a hobby of pistol marksmanship and would see the gun range filled with them sharpening their skills.

And then I look at the videos of these citizens being killed. In one incident, an officer killed a recumbent black person, drawing his revolver when the victim was helpless. In another, the victim was seated in the front seat of his car, unable to lunge at the officer.

If shooting was necessary, why weren’t these victims wounded? Why not shoot them in their gun arm? In the leg? Why are all of them dead, and why are so many shots fired when the person is often unarmed?

I can’t answer these questions. I continue to have faith in the law enforcement community. And yet, is it possible that this one incident in a remote Southern California courtroom so many years ago was the tip of an iceberg plunging deep into a murky and forbidding sea? That there is a silent law enforcement ethic to kill once you fire? Is this “Serpico” in blood color?

I can’t answer these questions and only pray that my experience on my lonely drive over the then-three-lane Grapevine reflects a weird and isolated conversation and not a horror that will dog the United States for decades to come.

Phil Fullerton of Fresno is a retired lawyer. Email him at