OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — A series of missteps in the hours after two Oakland motorcycle officers were gunned down led to an ill-fated decision to storm the apartment where the suspect was hiding, a move that ended in two more police deaths, a panel of law enforcement experts said Wednesday.
The panel said the deadliest day in Oakland Police Department history — March 21, 2009 — was set in motion when the motorcycle officers ignored safety procedures by approaching the driver’s side window together during a traffic stop.
The driver reached outside the window and shot both officers — Sgt. Mark Dunakin and Officer John Hege — then crawled out the window and shot the men again in the street as they lay dying, the panel’s 18-page report said.
But the mistakes mounted exponentially after the first lieutenant on scene issued a citywide call of an officer down, adding chaos to the already tense situation when dozens of patrol cars responded.
“This lack of coordination contributed to an ineffective and poorly managed operation,” the report said.
The report’s writers were the most critical of another lieutenant, identified only as Lieutenant No. 3, who they say developed the plan to deploy a hastily assembled SWAT team to a nearby apartment and disregarded evidence that the suspect — parolee Lovelle Mixon — might still be hiding there.
Lieutenant No. 3 also failed to wait for snipers, hostage negotiators and a building blueprint, the report said.
“By not providing sufficient time for team preparation, Lieutenant No. 3 prematurely ordered the Entry Team to undertake a high-risk task from a position of extreme disadvantage,” the report’s authors wrote. “The hasty approval of this plan by senior commanders compounded this error.”
Within seconds of entering the apartment, SWAT team member Sgt. Ervin Romans was fatally shot by Mixon, who was armed with an assault rifle fitted with a magazine of ammunition and a bayonet.
Rather than retreating to a safe location, according to department procedure, the rest of the SWAT team continued moving into the dimly lit apartment. Mixon then fatally shot another SWAT team member, Sgt. Daniel Sakai, before being killed by other officers.
The panel also had words of praise for the quick and courageous actions of some officers, including what it deemed a thorough and appropriate decision to cordon off streets so the suspect couldn’t escape.
The report also praised the SWAT team for not shooting Mixon’s sister when she ran screaming through the apartment after the first shots were fired.
The five-person panel include high-ranking law enforcement officials from the Los Angeles police and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, and an official from the U.S. Department of Justice.
When scores of police units converged on the shooting scene, the report said, a lack of supervision and guidance put their lives and others in jeopardy. There was no command post and no clear on on-scene commander. No senior Oakland Police leaders arrived for 90 minutes.
The report said the officers who entered the apartment were an ad hoc SWAT team that had not practiced together. They disregarded alternatives such as using telephones or bullhorns to make contact with the occupants and should have retreated when they encountered unexpected assault rifle fire, the report found.
“This is the greatest tragedy in OPD history and one of the worst in the State of California and the Nation,” the report said.
In 2009, the number of officers killed in the line of duty by gunfire rose 24 percent from the year before, according to the nonprofit National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. As of last month, 47 police officers were fatally shot on duty, up from 38 for the same period in 2008 — the lowest number of gunfire deaths since 1956.