In 2004, Blizzard Entertainment released the multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft (WoW). Players in the game have named characters and play individually or in teams while communicating with each other. Players must move from area to area and level to level to battle various threats and collect needed items. A video released by a group of players in 2005 became an internet sensation and has millions of views. The video starts with a group of players in a dungeon planning out a strategy. They must enter a particularly dangerous area and obtain a piece of armor for a character named Leeroy Jenkins. A detailed plan is developed while the players are huddled around in a group, with assignments doled out to various members. Unfortunately, however, Leeroy is quietly sitting off to the side and not saying anything, ostensibly because the person controlling Leeroy is off fixing himself a plate of chicken.
As the plan is finalized, one character advises the rest that the plan will provide them with the admirable survival rate of 32.33%, which is apparently better than they are used to. Leeroy suddenly jumps to his feet and yells, “All right chums, let’s do this! LEEEEROY JEEENKINS!” and runs into the next chamber, oblivious to the plan. The other players follow Leeroy and attempt to stick to their plan, but his actions doom them all to multiplayer death at the hands of the dragons Leeroy unleashes. As the players of the now deceased characters tell Leeroy at the end of the video what they think of him and his actions, Leeroy states, “At least I have chicken.”
The video is hilarious to watch and, as was long suspected and later confirmed by the creators, was created to be an internet meme. Showing the video in a room full of experienced police officers and administrators not only leads to laughter, but also paves the way for a discussion of actual incidents in which officers rush into situations without communicating with other officers or considering the available facts. While these real-life incidents may not unleash dragons, their outcomes are sometimes equally catastrophic.
Learning from Leeroy
While designed for comic relief, the video depicts important concepts relating to police response to incidents—using available discretionary time to communicate with each other and develop a plan based upon the information you have available. This plan needs to consider Priority of Life, which requires an assessment of risk—who is at risk and who is causing the risk—and whether action is warranted or justified (we would usually want a better survival rate than 32.33%!). If the risk can be isolated—that is, the only person at risk is the one causing the risk—then you may have discretionary time to discuss and plan a proper response. If not, as in the case of an active shooter, you must take appropriate action.
Effective communication among multiple officers may allow for consideration of all available options, leading to a more effective plan. Acting individually without using available discretionary time increases the chances of a less-than-optimal result. In my years as an attorney and a police instructor, I have reviewed the facts and results of countless cases. I have also been asked to review numerous fact patterns by officers and administrators. A significant number of incidents that do not end well have common denominators: a failure to use discretionary time and a failure to effectively communicate actions before they were taken. Communication, in the context of this discussion, has two facets: communication with other involved officers and an attempt to communicate with the person involved in the incident.
Two cases serve as examples of how failure to assess risk, plan and use discretionary time can contribute to a tragic result.
Glenn v. Washington County
Eighteen-year-old Lukus Glenn came home from a high-school football game intoxicated and agitated. He became angry when his parents would not let him take his motorcycle out. Lukus argued with his parents and then started damaging household property. Lukus had no history of violence and his parents had never seen him intoxicated. The parents called a couple of his friends to come over and help to calm him down, which they could not do.
A significant number of incidents that do not end well have common denominators: a failure to use discretionary time and a failure to effectively communicate actions before they were taken.
Lukus then held a pocketknife to his neck and threatened to kill himself. His mother called 911, advising the dispatcher Lukus was holding the knife to his neck and threatening to kill himself if the cops came. A staging area was established nearby, but the first two deputies bypassed it, responding directly to the scene. The first deputy positioned himself about 8–12 feet from Lukus with his weapon drawn and pointed at Lukus. While Lukus stood with the knife to his neck, the deputy screamed at him to drop the knife or he would kill him. The second deputy arrived a minute later. He started behaving the same way as the first deputy. Family members tried to calm the deputies down, but the deputies ordered them to get back into their house.
A sergeant radioed to the officers to use their tactical breathing and to control the situation. An officer from a local agency arrived with a beanbag shotgun and the first deputy ordered him to “beanbag him.” Lukus was struck by multiple beanbag rounds and attempted to retreat toward the house.
The deputies had already determined that if Lukus went toward the house—where the deputies had told the family to remain—they would shoot him. They fired 11 rounds at Lukus and he died on his grandmother’s porch.
The entire incident took less than four minutes. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied summary judgment to the officers, finding the reasonableness of their actions was questionable. The court had difficulty finding it would be reasonable for the solution—deadly force—to be better than the problem—a person threatening to kill himself.
Weinmann v. McClone
Jerome Weinmann drank half a bottle of vodka after an argument with his wife. His wife called 911 and told them Jerome was in the garage, threatening to kill himself, and had access to a shotgun. This information was passed on to the responding deputy. The deputy knocked on door of garage, but got no response. He peeked in two windows but could not see Jerome. The deputy did not try to speak with Jerome through the door, but he heard sounds in the garage like “pattering on cupboard doors.” Within three minutes of arrival, fearing that Jerome may be attempting suicide, the deputy decided he would force entry into garage.
Jerome was sitting in in a lawn chair with the shotgun when the deputy kicked in the door. While the facts of what happened next are disputed, the deputy recalled that while Jerome never pointed gun at him, it was pointed in his direction. The deputy shot Jerome four times. Jerome survived with permanent injuries and filed a §42. U.S.C. 1983 case, claiming excessive force.
The issue was whether the deputy was entitled to qualified immunity. Both the district court and the Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit found he was not, and denied summary judgment. The 7th Circuit reasoned “…a person has a right not to be seized through the use of deadly force unless he puts another person (including a police officer) in imminent danger or he is actively resisting arrest and the circumstances warrant that degree of force.” The deputy argued he was in a “fatal funnel” coming in through the only door, so he was in imminent danger. The court rejected that argument, reasoning it would allow officers to shoot suicidal people any time they entered through a single door.
Risk Assessment, Planning and Communication
Before analyzing these cases, or any other police incident, it is important to understand the need to balance the risk of hindsight bias and the importance of objectivity. It can be difficult for officers to quickly assess a situation, and what is clear after the incident may not be as clear at the time. In analyzing these situations, the intent is not, nor cannot be, to unfairly criticize law enforcement officers acting in good faith in difficult situations. Instead, the intent is to try to learn from past tragedies to prevent future ones.
Critical in both cases is that the only person currently at risk was the person causing the risk. Neither of the persons involved threatened anyone but themselves.
In the Glenn case, the deputies bypassed the staging area where a plan could have been formulated. Seeing Lukus had a knife to his neck, the deputies moved quickly to get the family away from him. This isolated the risk, but the officers’ actions created several objective issues. First, they remained within 12 feet of a person with a knife. As a result, Lukus could have charged the officers faster than they would have been able to react. The officers were certainly justified in having their weapons at the ready because of the presence of the knife, but they limited their own defensive capability by remaining in proximity.
The second issue was both officers screaming commands at Lukus. This is contrary to proper contact-and-cover training since it can create confusion. One officer should do the talking—which leads to another issue. Lukus was in crisis and de-escalation was appropriate. Understanding his purpose—wanting to kill himself—may have led to more effective communication.
Years of researching and evaluating fact patterns and cases leads me to a rather simple conclusion: All officers are potentially one decision away from a changed life.
Jerome Weinmann was alone in his garage, so the risk was already isolated to the person causing it even before the deputy arrived. The deputy defended his actions by stating he was at risk since he was in a “fatal funnel” in the doorway. While correct, this is also the exact reason why he should not have entered as he did. Entry unnecessarily placed the deputy at risk.
In both cases, the priority of the officers should have been containment while keeping themselves as safe as possible. Using the discretionary time created by containment, officers can conduct the proper planning and communication. It is important that all officers are on the same page. This should then lead to proper communication with, and possible de-escalation of, the person at risk.
While these are extreme cases, the problem of moving too fast can occur in other settings where the risk does not justify the action. A classic example occurs at the end of a vehicle pursuit. Reality police TV shows and YouTube are full of examples where officers run up on the suspect vehicle, guns drawn, screaming at the occupants, all while fully exposed and vulnerable to the occupants and friendly crossfire. This is contrary to the training officers should have received in performing high-risk stops.
But it is also predictable that officers may react in such a manner under extreme emotional arousal and stress. Should they? No. We are all human, however, and can be susceptible to such vulnerabilities, especially in the absence of ongoing refresher training of perishable skills. I know I was, especially as a young officer. Training our officers to think, plan and communicate with each other, when possible, is important. We frequently train officers in physical skills, but equally if not more important is training in the mental processing of an incident and decision-making. Learning from our own mistakes and those of others is critical.
Also critical is helping each other by intervening when another officer is not responding properly. The behavior of the first-arriving deputy in the Glenn case was mimicked by the second deputy, rather than corrected. The police culture may resist the thought of one officer correcting or challenging another officer mid-incident. But that must change. If you were flying in an airplane or undergoing a medical operation, and the pilot or doctor in charge was acting in a dangerous manner, I would guess you’d want another member of the crew to take action.
Years of researching and evaluating fact patterns and cases, especially over the last few years, leads me to a rather simple conclusion: All officers are potentially one decision away from a changed life. This has happened to many officers over the last few years. No one is perfect, and we all have the potential to make bad decisions. If you are willing to think, slow down, and help and listen to each other, you may be able to avoid a tragedy. Leave Leeroy Jenkins in the dungeon where he belongs.