Vargas: Use of force reasonable when lives are at stake

By Joe Vargas

Let’s face it, most of us can agree there is no such thing as a fair fight when you are trying to save your own life and the lives of others. The rules of engagement are simple: Keep yourself alive, and keep others safe and alive.

That works, unless the force you use is disturbing and ugly. But in reality, the only time that use of force might look pretty and effortless is in the movies.

Recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an Orange County Deputy Sheriff might have used excessive force when he kicked a suspect on the ground in the head three times in September 2013 in Laguna Niguel. A previous court ruled in the Sheriff’s Department’s favor.

I would agree with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that kicking someone in the head does seem awful. The video is pretty disturbing – but that’s based on just a 30-second clip.

So, what the heck really happened that night? The court ruling and most media gave a very sanitized narrative of what occurred.

For more details, I read the Orange County District Attorney’s investigation findings.

All I can say is, the situation was about as scary as it can get for anyone, including the deputies responding.

The deputies knew they were responding to a call of a man down in the street with stab wounds. They responded with lights and sirens on. Prior to their arrival, dispatch received more calls from neighbors. Dispatch informed the deputies that there were now two victims, and the suspect “had almost cut another man’s arm off.”

Deputies arrived at the scene within minutes. The first deputy parked his vehicle and was directed by a woman frantically pointing to a breezeway. As the first deputy was trying to figure out what was going on, he was ambushed by a raging man yelling, “I’ll kill you…… you mother f*****.”

Because of the speed and ferocity of the attack, the deputy ran behind his car — he didn’t even have time to draw his gun.

Simultaneously, the deputy in the second car saw this and backed up to create distance. It was then he saw the other deputy being chased by the suspect, saw the deputy fall to the ground, and saw the suspect stab the deputy with a knife.

At this point, the adrenaline going through the deputies’ bodies must have been on overload with a fight-or-flight response.

The second deputy raced to the rescue. He was in such a hurry that he didn’t have time to put his vehicle in park. Seconds mattered. The deputy fired shots at the fleeing suspect, who fell to the ground. The deputy proceeded to empty his weapon until the slide locked back and was empty.

If that wasn’t enough, the suspect was still moving.

The deputy needed to make sure the man wasn’t a threat to anyone’s safety before he could drop his guard to help his fellow officer.

The deputy was aware that three people were wounded, perhaps fatally if he didn’t act quickly. With the suspect still moving on the ground and his weapon emptied, the deputy ran to the suspect and delivered three separate kicks to the head.

Can someone lying on the ground be a threat?

Ask Deputy Constable Justin Gay of Houston, Texas. In early November, Gay was responding to a disturbance call when he encountered a suspect. A fight ensued, and the deputy used a Taser on the suspect. The man fell to the ground, only to pull out a concealed weapon. Gay was shot six times. After 18 hours of surgery, it looks like he’s going to recover.

So, how many Mississippis do you wait while people are potentially dying around you?

The Orange County deputy rendered aid to his partner, who was lying on the ground in a “cross position.” The wounded deputy told him, “I’m bleeding out, I’m bleeding out.”

The suspect was found to be under the influence of methamphetamine, which probably explains his crazed behavior.

Three years after the occurrence, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is sending this case back for trial. In the court’s opinion, a jury should determine the “reasonableness” of the force used, stating, “a reasonable officer would then reassess the situation rather than continue shooting.”

I’m certain the deputy’s only intention was to save lives and stop the threat from a deranged knife-wielding lunatic. That seems pretty reasonable to me.

Joe is a retired captain. He can be reached at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com