Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Gunfight Analysis: The Richard Mendoza Incident

Los Angeles: With only 9 months left on probation, Richard Mendoza was not going back to prison. When the the female officer told him to get out of the car, he knew the police would discover his pistol. Mendoza also knew that surprise was on his side so he decided to take the chance.

The Los Angeles Police Department released video of an officer-involved shooting that left the suspect Richard Mendoza dead and one officer wounded in the leg. The shooting happened during a traffic stop in North Hills, California, on the night of July 27, 2018. The video shows a female officer speaking to Mendoza who appears to be cooperating and following her instructions when she tells him to step out of the car. (Click here to view the video)

Video then shows Mendoza pulling out a pistol and shooting her in the leg. He then turns to shoot at her partner, Officer Miguel Alarcon, over the car.  However, Officer Alarcon quickly fires striking Mendoza in the head and torso. Mendoza later died at a hospital. Police records show that Mendoza was a gang member and had previous convictions on drug and weapons charges. Mendoza indicated during the verbal exchange with the female officer that he had nine months left on probation at the time of the shooting. Mendoza likely attacked the officers hoping to escape rather than be arrested and returned to prison for charges of a felon in possession of a firearm.

In the video you can see Mendoza glancing at Officer Alarcon out of the corner of his eye just before he exits the car and shoots the female officer. Mendoza was likely trying to confirm the male officer’s position in preparation for engaging that officer. You can see Mendoza’s pistol on Officer Alarcon’s body cam video as Mendoza exits the vehicle. The female officer’s body cam shows Alarcon glancing away at just that moment—understandable if unfortunate. Officer Alarcon was simply maintaining situational awareness of their surroundings.

From the time the female officer could have seen Mendoza’s pistol until he shot her was approximately 0.86 seconds—far too short a time for her to react. Officer Alarcon clearly reacted an instant before Mendoza fired at the female officer and before Mendoza turned to fire at him. It is not clear from the various videos whether Officer Alarcon was reacting to Mendoza’s aggressive move toward the female officer or whether he glanced into the car just in time to see Mendoza’s pistol as Mendoza was exiting his car.*

I believe it was the latter. Officer Alarcon fired his first shot in 0.72 seconds after Mendoza’s shot which leads me to believe that he saw and reacted to Mendoza’s pistol. The car dashcam video shows Alarcon dip his shoulder in a manner indicative of drawing his pistol an instant before Mendoza shoots the female officer. The dashcam and Officer Alarcon’s body cam both show that he had started lateral movement to his left at the instant of Mendoza’s shot.

After he shoots the female officer, Mendoza turns and aims his pistol where he likely believed Alarcon was still standing; however, Alarcon had moved.  Video analysis does not show Mendoza firing a second shot and I believe not seeing Alarcon where he expected to see him caused momentary hesitation.  In any event, it is likely that Officer Alarcon’s first shot strikes Mendoza before he can fire. The video shows Mendoza beginning to fall 0.5 seconds after Alarcon’s first shot and Mendoza continues falling until he hits the pavement. Alarcon’s second shot ricochets off the top of the car and may not have hit Mendoza.

Officer Alarcon is positioned over the car trunk at this point, likely out of Mendoza’s immediate line of fire. Alarcon’s 3rd and 4th shots go through the car’s rear window. His 3rd shot may have struck Mendoza, his 4th shot probably did not because Mendoza had fallen out of his line of sight by this time. Officer Alarcon fires four shots in 0.90 seconds or a rate of fire of 0.30 seconds between shots. Studies show that Alarcon’s rate of fire would fall within the range of a typical police officer of 0.25 – 0.30 seconds between shots.**

What can we learn from this incident? The person who takes the initiative gets to start the fight—all they require is decisiveness, marksmanship, and the will to win. Mendoza had the initiative in this fight and his surprise attack immediately dropped the female officer.

Officer Alarcon in this incident faced a reactive event where the bad guy was already preparing to shoot him. Studies and countless officer involved shooting videos have shown that the initial reaction of many officers (and private citizens for that matter) who are facing a deadly threat is to stand flat-footed, draw, and try to return fire—this is how most departments train their officers—stand and deliver. That is also what square range practice and many “shooting courses” typically teach.

However, Officer Alarcon did not employ the typical stand and deliver tactic, but rather he dynamically moved off the “X”, drew his pistol, and fired before Mendoza could fire at him thereby ending the gunfight.

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* The Los Angeles Police have not released any accounts of the incident from the officer’s perspective; so some of my analysis is educated guess. 

** Police Officer Reaction Time to Start and Stop Shooting: The Influence of Decision-Making and Pattern Recognition, William J. Lewinski, PhD; et al.; Law Enforcement Executive Forum, Vol. 14, No. 2 • June 2014

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Mindset: The Cooper Color Codes

Dominick Maldonado
“When I changed into another position, I see just the most surreal sight,” McKown said from his bed at Tacoma General Hospital "It's a young Arabic-looking boy . . . with a ball cap on and an AK in his hand. McKown drew his 9mm pistol but then had second thoughts of shooting "a kid."

McKown told Dominick Maldonado (the shooter), "I think you need to put that gun down, young man."* 

The “kid” turned and shot McKown five times, once in the leg and four times in the torso. "Every one of his shots got some part of me," McKown said. McKown’s reluctance could easily have cost him his life.

Cooper’s Color Code

The Cooper Color Code as Jeff Cooper promulgated it was not a system for describing levels of potential danger, but rather a technique to enable a law-abiding citizen (i.e. someone in McKown’s circumstance) to overcome a natural reluctance to use lawful deadly force against another. Quoting Jeff Cooper: “The color code is not a means of assessing danger or formulating a tactical solution. It is rather a psychological means of overcoming your innate reluctance to shoot a man down. Normal people have a natural and healthy mental block against delivering the irrevocable blow. This is good, but in a gunfight it may well get you killed. The color code enables you to change your state of mind by three steps, each of which enables you to overcome your mental block and take lifesaving action.” **

Cooper’s color code conditions are White, Yellow, Orange, and Red as follows:

    -- Condition White: Completely unprepared and unaware of your surroundings. In Condition White you may be in deadly danger and not realize it. If you are attacked in Condition White you are unlikely to be able to effectively respond and you may be seriously injured or killed.

    -- Condition Yellow: State of relaxed alertness and situational awareness. In Condition Yellow although you are not aware of any specific situation which may call for immediate action, you know that you may have to defend yourself today. You understand that the world is full of hazards, many of which are human, and that your readiness to take defensive action can mitigate these threats. If you are attacked in Condition Yellow you will probably prevail if you are armed and may be able to take effective action even if unarmed. 

    -- Condition Orange: In Condition Orange you become alert to the possibility deadly threat in your immediate environment. In Condition Orange you understand that you may have to shoot a specific threat, right now, today. At this point your normal reluctance becomes easier to overcome because your training tells you that someone is threatening to use unlawful deadly force against you or another innocent. You begin actively looking for threat indicators and start conscious analysis and assessments of potential threats.

Although you remain cognizant of the legal and moral aspects of the situation, you focus your mind on the possible need for immediate defensive action. Looking deep—what’s in their hands? Are they looking at you or past you? Can you safely leave the area? Should you? Your hand may establish a firing grip on the pistol, you may draw the pistol at home, but probably not in the shopping mall or other crowded public place. The actions of that threat—standing right there—dictate your next moves.

    -- Condition Red: You have drawn your pistol because you are justified in taking the threat at gunpoint; you can articulate why this is so. In Condition Red you have decided to act the instant the threat’s behavior warrants an immediate response. You wait for a trigger or take other lifesaving actions as the totality of the circumstances dictate.

An addition to the Cooper Color Code: 

    -- Condition Black: The color code as many instructors currently teach: The threat has tripped a final trigger. You must immediately use proportional deadly force to defend yourself or another innocent.

Cooper contended that “Condition Black” was unnecessary and that Condition Red sufficed because in his view you have decided you are ready to use lawful deadly force when you enter Condition Red and as a result, there is no need to go beyond that condition. As stated above, many who teach Condition Black contend that there is a difference between being ready to act and deciding to act; that being in a Condition Red state of readiness does not necessarily imply immediate action.

Cooper himself alluded to this fact: “In Condition Red, you are ready to fight. You may not actually have to act on that, but your body and mind are now prepared for physical conflict. While this does not mean you instantly attack someone, you are certainly ready and waiting for a specific trigger or predetermined action that will launch the process. This state is where you have made a decision that you are ready and willing to fight back. Most people quite properly find this a difficult step, but the difficulty may be eased if it is anticipated. Thus you cannot shift any farther upscale than Red, because in Red you have already surmounted the barrier. Adding categories merely complicates the problem without achieving any useful objective.”*** 

So is Condition Black necessary? I guess it depends on how you view the problem. If the color code “conditions” describe a state of readiness as well as a mindset, then Condition Black is not necessary as Cooper contends. Once a critical trigger is tripped in Condition Red, you are no longer in a state of readiness, but rather a state of action—you are actively responding to a deadly threat. If you accept this view, black may be a decision point; however, it is not a condition.

Massad Ayoob teaches that Condition Red delineates the gunpoint situation where you have clearly identified a threat (I am ready to shoot this person) but the threat is not using unlawful deadly force at that instant (I am not going to shoot this person yet). Massad defines Condition Black as the instant an unlawful assault using deadly force is in progress upon you or other innocent people. In other words, a trigger or decision point at which we have no alternative but to use lawful deadly force to neutralize the threat. In this view, Condition Black, describes the various triggering events that cause you go from readiness to action. 

The threat does appear and you take the threat at gunpoint ready to fire. Do you need another psychological mechanism to help you pull the trigger? Jeff Cooper would have said no and I tend to agree. I don’t think we need a “Condition” Black; however, describing Black as a decision or trigger point may be useful after the event. 

This is the first of two articles on the topic. In part 2, I will provide examples of how the color code can equate to judicial standards of proof and some specific examples of the color code conditions addressing real world events such as the Tacoma Mall shooting I mentioned in the introduction. 

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* Tacoma News Tribune, 

** Jeff Cooper's Commentaries Volume Six, No 9, pg 45-46

*** Jeff Cooper's Commentaries Volume Eleven, No 12, pg 56