Because Negligence Happens

The story out of Fort Worth doesn’t demand much by way of commentary, but needs to be known nonetheless. From the Star-Telegram:

Police officers responding to a burglary alarm call went to the wrong house because of poor lighting and fatally shot an armed homeowner, according to a search warrant affidavit released Wednesday.

Officers B.B. Hanlon and R.P. Hoeppner were dispatched to 409 Havenwood Lane at 12:51 a.m. May 28. But after arriving at 12:58 a.m., they “inadvertently began searching” across the street at 404 Havenwood, where 72-year-old Jerry Waller lived.

As the officers approached, they encountered Waller, who “was armed with a handgun standing near the corner of the home,” according to the affidavit.

The officers identified themselves and ordered Waller to drop the gun, but he pointed it at the officers, prompting Hoeppner to shoot Waller, according to the affidavit.

Waller was pronounced dead at 1:26 a.m. inside the garage.

What happened? Two things are clear, that the officers made a mistake and went to the wrong house and that Jerry Waller is dead. It isn’t hard to picture how a mistake resulted in the two cops being startled by a guy with a shotgun handgun. It isn’t hard to picture how a guy in his garage with a shotgun handgun to defend his home was startled by two cops. And yet Jerry Waller is still dead.

To the extent that there is anything to add to this very unfortunate situation, it’s that police are human and make the same dumb mistakes that anyone else can make. Should they be more careful, make sure they have the right house number before walking about with guns drawn. You bet.

Yet, to assume perfection in the performance of their duties is to end up like Jerry Waller. Despite all best human efforts of care, mistakes will happen. We can be angry about them and demand better, but no one has figured out yet how to make people foolproof.

On the other side, the question has to be asked why Jerry Waller found it necessary to grab his shotgun handgun and play Texas Ranger. Yes, it was his right to have a shotgun handgun, be in his garage and defend his family.  That’s not the question, and it’s unfortunate that bullets don’t respect people’s rights nearly as much as we might prefer.

Having the right to do something doesn’t make doing it a smart move.  One reason for this is that people, cops for example, sometimes make mistakes, creating an unintended situation that turns out to be deadly for someone.

Wouldn’t it have been a whole lot better if the cops shot no one and Jerry Waller was alive today?

18 comments on “Because Negligence Happens

  1. jill mcmahon

    I hope they get their butts sued off. And, I hope those officers are assigned to desks for the duration of their employment there. Have you ever tallied up how many incidents like this one that you’ve posted over the years, Jeff?

          1. jill mcmahon

            But he’ll like the praise he gets for running a really good criminal law blog.

  2. Nagita Karunaratne

    Reminds me of that Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood quote – ‘Nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot’

    It’s too easy to attribute mistakes to human error. No one asks why some event happened and if you trace back usually it is a series of compounding failures. Small mistakes made by one person at the start of a process turn into bigger ones by another person farther down.

    And after the fallout people are usually too busy deflecting blame to properly analyze what went wrong or even to find out where they deviated from the process in the first place. The result is that nothing really changes.

    That people are human and make mistakes is understood. The tragedy is to assume that people are infallible and a mistake is some personal failure of another and never try to understand why it happened in the first place.

    1. SHG Post author

      Yes, it always worthwhile to review what happened to figure out whether or how it can be prevented. But don’t expect that we will ever achieve the point of zero mistakes, no matter how perfect we try to make our world.

  3. John Neff

    I did a quick search and found that the FBI has an accurate list of police killed in the line of dutiy as part of the UCR. However they have nothing to offer about number of people killed by the police.

    The 2011 numbers are 72 officiers killed and about 400 justifiable homicies. The Wikipedia 2011 list of people killed by the police has about 150 entries but not all are named, the list is incomplete and dificult to verify. I am not aware of any study that can be used to decide if the deaths by cop were avoidable.

    I think the police war zone mentality is an important aggravating factor. It is not funny when a cop shoots thier own reflection because it means they scewed up.

  4. Bruce Coulson

    Perhaps the following standard should be applied to initial investigations of this type.

    “The purpose of the AAIB is:
    To improve aviation safety by determining the causes of air accidents and serious incidents and making safety recommendations intended to prevent recurrence
    …It is not to apportion blame or liability. ”

    Or in other words, ‘the reason why’. Why did the officers go to the wrong address? Why was the lighting so poor? What could be done to assist officers in going to the correct addresses in the future? These are the questions that rarely get asked or addressed in these matters. Officers cleared of wrong-doing; let’s move on.

    1. SHG Post author

      Be careful what you wish for. Let’s say the fault was inadequate house numbers and poor lighting. So to correct it, the municipality enacts a law mandating that everyone have 12 inch house numbers posted on a two foot square sign, three feet from the curb, and a lit by a bulb of at least 100 watts, together with perimeter lighting covering 80 percent of the lot area. Failure to do so will result in a fine of $1000 or 30 days in jail.

      So that’s a good solution? It solves the police going to the wrong house problem, right?

      1. Bruce Coulson

        Well, it IS a solution… Of course, there are cheaper (and more practical) solutions as well. And solutions that don’t transfer the burden onto the property owner(s). Requiring house numbers to be clearly visible from the street (no obstructions) would also work and be less onerous.

        And when people start from the prospect of ‘what’s the best way of preventing this from happening again?’ rather than ‘something terrible has happened, and someone has to be held responsible’ you’re more likely to get practical results. Airlines aren’t completely safe; nothing can be. But American airlines seem to have a pretty good safety record using this method.

        1. SHG Post author

          So ten thousand people have to decorate their property according to government dictates, create massive lighting pollution, all at their expense, despite any choice on their part that this is neither how they wish their home to look nor spend their money, all because one tragic incident occurred and it should never happen again. And the handful of homeowners who refused to allow the government to dictate how they can use their own property went to jail.

          Of course, this is exactly how all those anti-bullying laws came about, and all those laws named after dead children, and you fell right into the trap, with the very best of intentions. Do you see it yet?

          1. Ken Bellone

            Having been listed on the deed to my late father’s home in a gated community with a very “active” HOA, I know all too well how folks make arbitrary rules “for the good of the community”. What’s good for the community Is, more often than not, the whim of somebody with an agenda. That is why I made he decision that I will never reside in such a community.

            Sure, town or municipal rules can and do become an issue, but I’m of the opinion less is often more, particularly when it applies to governance.

            I’ve been frustrated looking for an address when one is not to be found on house after house, so I can understand how such police missteps can occur. Showing up at the wrong home was a mistake greatly magnified by the victim himself. He has the right to protect his property, but some discretion would have helped. I am a fervent gun owner in an anti-gun state, and even I understand the logic of remaining indoors, locking my home, calling the police and only using force if someone forcibly entered my home. A police dispatcher likely could have settled the issue before weapons were drawn on either side. That is the tragedy here.

            I am more disturbed by the growing trend of no-knock raids on wrong homes and judicial precedent that there is no justification for firing on police officers illegally entering your home, even when there is no reasonable way you could ascertain their identities while simultaneously making the decision to stop a possible intruder(s). This story smells more like someone got a little too antsy and mistakes were made on both sides, with tragic consequences.

            1. SHG Post author

              It may turn out that there were mistakes made by the cops here that can be “fixed” without new laws that impair the rights of everyone else. It may be that it was just sloppiness, and had the cops tried a little harder, they wouldn’t have ended up at the wrong address. Who knows without assessing what went wrong.

              But wrong-house raids are a great example of the critical need for police to get it right, and the tragic consequences of careless work when people’s lives are involved. Ultimately, giving a damn, getting it right, avoiding mistakes to the extent possible, is a much better answer to all questions than new rules/law or burying a guy in a garage who did nothing wrong, though he could have handled things better.

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