He's 26 years old. His whole life was driven by other people besides me. So why should I blame myself for my inability to control him for that one second that I was in physical contact with him? —David Klinger
LOS ANGELES — It all happened in seconds. But those brief moments would forever change life for David Klinger, a self-described "beach kid" who'd dreamt of being a police officer since he was a kid. He'd entered the Los Angeles Police Academy in 1981 with a clear motive. He wanted to try to help make life better for the people of violence-ridden south-central Los Angeles.
Now he was standing with his gun pointed at Edward Randolph, who at 26 was just three years older than himself. Randolph had a butcher knife aimed at the throat of Klinger's police partner, Dennis Azevedo, who was on the ground trying with all his might to hold back Randolph's attack.
"Shoot him," Azevedo cried out to his rookie partner.
Deadly force by police has made headlines from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore. Just this month, a Los Angeles police officer was found "unjustified" in shooting and killing a 25-year-old mentally ill man. Across the country, most officers are exonerated. But more and more people are calling for strategies to make such incidents less common, notably through improved police training.
For Klinger, it has long been a very personal issue — one that led a young cop who entered the "kill zone," as officers call it, to become a researcher seeking to understand the dynamics of confrontation. In doing so, he hopes to be a voice of reason in an emotional national debate, and an advocate for change.
When Klinger showed up in his ranks on the night shift, Tim Anderson, then an LAPD sergeant, wasn't sure he was the kind of recruit who'd make it in neighborhoods plagued with gang warfare.
Klinger, a quiet, devout Christian, whose dad was a classical clarinet player, had moved to California from Miami, at age 13, with his mom and two sisters after his parents split up. "Here's a kid from a very mild-mannered side of life who ends up here," Anderson says.
But Klinger was determined. "I actually asked for this to be my assignment out of the academy," he says, sitting in a restaurant north of Los Angeles after revisiting the scene of Randolph's shooting.
That night in 1981, he was teamed with Azevedo when they were called to a home where an armed burglar had been reported. As a police helicopter circled overhead, a large crowd gathered to watch across busy Vernon Avenue.
"Get out of here!" the officers yelled. Most spectators ran, except Randolph.
Azevedo says he didn't think Randolph could hear him, or maybe didn't speak English. So he ran across the street to try to get him to move.
"In the blink of an eye," Azevedo recalls how Randolph lunged forward and stabbed him in the lower chest with a blow stopped — just barely — by his protective vest. Stunned, Azevedo tried to draw his gun, but he tripped on uneven pavement, he says — and Randolph jumped on him with the knife raised.
Rushing over, Klinger grabbed Randolph's left wrist, but Randolph broke free. Klinger pulled his own gun and fired at close range.
"I blamed myself for 20 years for not being able to wrest the knife from him," he says.
Investigators ultimately determined the fatal shooting was justified and that the rookie officer had saved Azevedo's life. But Klinger still found it difficult to rest easy.
In the year that followed, there were nine more times he says he could have shot a civilian — and believes he would have been justified in doing so. But he but didn't shoot because the suspects dropped guns, or other officers intervened.
Feeling like a "magnet" for trouble, he moved to a smaller department in Redmond, Washington. But he found no better fit there. It was time for something new.
Today, the 57-year-old Klinger is a professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He earned a doctorate and has written a book, "Into the Kill Zone," telling the stories of officers who've shot and killed people.
He also has done research on methods officers can use to avoid deadly force. This spring, testifying at a U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearing on deadly force, one topic he discussed was "tactical positioning," a strategy in which officers keep a safe distance, unless there is imminent danger.
"Often times, officers find themselves in too close, too quickly, and they don't have any option other than to shoot their way out of it," Klinger says. "That's where I really think we fall down in American law enforcement."
He uses last year's police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as an example. Though he agrees that Officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Brown, he also says that shooting might have been avoided if Wilson had waited and called for backup.
Such assessments anger some. But Klinger says police agencies must ask, "What can we learn from this?'"
Even now, there is disagreement among Klinger's own former colleagues about whether the 1981 killing of Edward Randolph could have been avoided. They agree that Klinger was justified in the shooting.
But Anderson, their sergeant, says Azevedo should have ignored Randolph and let him take his chances as they pursued the burglar, who ultimately got away. "He should've never engaged this suspect by himself," says Anderson, a former SWAT team supervisor, who's retired and now advises police departments on tactical operations.
Azevedo, also retired after a long law enforcement career, stands by his decision. He says it was his duty to try to protect a person he thought was an innocent bystander.
Either way, Klinger has let go of his guilt with the help of a counselor who, as he puts it, helped his heart accept that he "did what he had to do."
Speaking of Randolph, he says, "He's 26 years old. His whole life was driven by other people besides me. So why should I blame myself for my inability to control him for that one second that I was in physical contact with him?"
It has been, perhaps, the most difficult lesson the professor has learned.