Friday, November 1, 2013

Police Shooting: Erick Gelhaus and Andy Lopez

It's happened again.  I was holding off on this one to see what the FBI investigation comes up with, but Peter Grant wrote about it here, Bayou Renaissance Man: The lynch mobs are out again, and he's defending the police officer with a vengeance. 

Keep reading to see my take on the whole deal.

On October 22, 2013 at around 3:00 PM Deputy Erick Gelhaus was riding in the shotgun seat of a patrol car.  He and his partner saw Andy Lopez walking down the street carrying an AK-47.  They pulled up behind Lopez, stopped the car and the driver gave a single blip of the siren.  Gelhaus piled out and ordered Lopez to drop the gun.  Lopez did not do as ordered.  Instead, Lopez began to turn to face Gelhaus, the rifle moved and Gelhaus opened fire.  Gelhaus fired seven shots, six of which hit Lopez and killed him.

Now the fertilizer hits the fan blades.

It turns out that Andy Lopez is 13 years old, and the AK-47 is not an AK-47 at all; it's a toy gun that looks real.  The commercial media hurriedly puts together a cross, finds a handful of nails and plans the crucifixion ceremony.  The police department goes into damage control, and police allies circle the wagons.  Because of the emotional turmoil and high visibility, the F.B.I. agrees to conduct its very own, separate investigation and we presume will release the facts as soon as they become available - although I'm not holding my breath here.

Ignoring the whole emotional reaction on one side or the other, I'll apply Ockham's razor to this situation, and everyone reading is free to disagree with me.

Fact: Both deputies have law enforcement experience.  Neither one is a twenty-something rookie, nervous as hell and out for the first time on what they're told is a dangerous street.  Both have been through this kind of thing before.

Fact: Both officers have firearms experience.  Gelhaus has a lot of firearm experience.

Fact: Despite his experience, Gelhaus once shot himself in the leg while handcuffing a prisoner.

Fact: This took place in the middle of the afternoon in an open space.

Fact: Andy Lopez is large enough to be any age.

Fact: The AK-47 looks real from a distance or from a quick glance. Looking at it in a photo anyone familiar with firearms can tell it isn't the real thing.

The most likely scenario is that Gelhaus and his partner believed their own eyes when they encountered Lopez.  Any question about the reality of the AK-47 would have been raised right away - Is that thing real?  The question wasn't raised.  They decided to make an arrest, and so went through their text book procedure.  Gelhaus steps out of the car and points his pistol at Lopez while ordering him to drop the gun.

For his part, Lopez is out for a walk.  He has a toy AK-47 that looks like the real thing, and so he's walking along in search of friends and possible targets.  He's 13 years old - half child, half young adult.  He still plays kid games.  It's likely he hears the car behind him, then he hears the blip of the siren.  But since he knows that he isn't doing anything wrong, there's no cause for alarm.  He hears Gelhaus shout at him and begins to turn to see what the matter is - because it can't be him; he's not doing anything wrong.

Before the car stopped, Gelhaus would have had time to think that this might be the one.  This might be that one time when he makes an arrest that goes real, real wrong and instead of dropping the gun and getting everything sorted out, Lopez is a hardened gangster with a snootful of PCP or meth or crack, and he spins around while unloading his AK.  Gelhaus knows that the car door and his vest are no match at all for 7.62mm ammo, and that he could get ventilated here.

When he got out of the car and shouted, Gelhaus would have had time to draw a bead on Lopez.  He sees Lopez start to turn and bring the AK-47 to bear, and that's it.  Gelhaus might have had time to think, "Holy shit, it's happening now!" but that would have been it.  Gelhaus fires seven shots, hitting Lopez six out of seven times.

Given Gelhaus's expertise, it's likely Lopez never knew what hit him.  He would have been dead before he hit the pavement.  Now Gelhaus gets to examine the body and see what he's done, and that's right where the nightmare begins.  There is no AK-47.  It's a toy gun, and it's obvious enough that Gelhaus wouldn't have had to pick it up to make sure.  Gelhaus would pick it up anyway, hoping that somehow it's real.  But it isn't.

Gelhaus gets a closer look at Lopez, who is DRT.  No gang banger.  No prison ink, no gang colors, no other weapons, nothing but a very average looking child.  Since Gelhaus can't take the bullets back, there's nothing to be done for it but have the meat wagon haul the remains away.

Eventually Gelhaus will discover that he's killed a 13 year old boy with a toy gun, but by then it probably doesn't much matter.  Gelhaus will not feel any worse than he already does, and whatever happens to Gelhaus in the future it will not get any worse than it is today.

And that is the most likely scenario that I can envision. 

Unjustified and unjustifiable accusations are going to fly back and forth over this one for years, and no matter how it shakes out people are going to be unhappy with the result.  The fact is that Gelhaus should not have opened fire, and he did.  If he could somehow undo what he's done, Gelhaus would be grateful for the rest of his life, and so would everyone else.  Andy Lopez's poor mother would be very grateful, even more than Gelhaus.  So the question is not about Gelhaus opening fire, because even if you asked him personally, Gelhaus will tell you that he should not have shot Lopez.

The question is: Can Erick Gelhaus be excused?

I don't know.  I'm waiting to see what happens.


flask said...

see, the thing is: 2d amendment.

if a citizen is automatically assumed to be guilty and shootable simply for having a firearm in view, that's not ok.

not only do the militarized police fail to wait on reasonable suspicion for search, but they criminalize just being.

not wishing to be searched, questioned, or shot does not make people criminal.

good lesson. police: you do not have the right to stop and question anyone you feel like, let alone kill them.

carrying a toy gun is not a criminal offense. in many states carrying a full automatic weapon into a walmart isn't a criminal offense.

and it shouldn't be.

JPD said...

No excuse. Should face the consequences for a bad shoot. Will not. This, like most others will eventually be a wrist slap.

Business as usual with LEO in the U.S.

CWMartin said...

I cannot fault the officers except on one thing: Why did they not use the patrol car as cover and wait to give the kid a chance to respond? Situational awareness: Don't give up cover unless you know it's safe. And if they were covered and still fired, shame on them.

Old NFO said...

Both sides lose... But I can also see the cops side as a combat vet, a person turning with a gun (toy or not) is going to set of a specific set of reactions and Lopez did just that... I feel sorrow for both the Lopez family and the LEOs neither will ever have peace again because of this.