With Boston police under fire after an Emerson student was killed, Billy Kennedy is teaching the next generation of cops why sometimes the best decision is not to shoot. It's a life-or-death decision he faced in a chase 17 years ago, and it's what drives him today.
By Kevin Cullen | March 20, 2005
To this day, Billy Kennedy doesn't quite know why he's alive and Roy Sergei isn't. When Ted Jeffrey Otsuki, a career bank robber, came running out of an alley and pointed a gun at him one night in 1987, Kennedy's instinct was to press himself against the wall of the Back Bay storefront where he and Sergei, a pair of Boston cops, had given chase. The shots whizzed past in an instant 13 in all. "I felt the bullets go by my face," Kennedy recalls. "I fired a round at Otsuki. Then two people came up. He got behind them. I pulled my finger off the trigger. He went around the corner, and I couldn't see him."
During Otsuki's trial, at which he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, a witness testified that after Otsuki got out of Kennedy's line of fire, the robber ducked into a doorway. "He was waiting for me to come around the corner," Kennedy says, "to shoot me."
But his instinct to pursue was overtaken by his instinct to help his partner. Because the bullets meant for Kennedy had missed him and struck 42-year-old Sergei, who had been following behind. "I went back to Roy."
A third cop on the scene, 21-year-old rookie Jorge Torres, was badly wounded, hit in the arm and chest. A fourth, Christopher Rogers, got lucky and, like Kennedy, wasn't hit. But as he held his partner, Kennedy confronted a frightening reality: The bad guy was a better gunfighter than the good guys.
Now 49, Sergeant Kennedy is too much a cop to engage in psychobabble. But he won't deny that what happened near that alley 17 years ago is why he now reports to duty at tiny Moon Island off the Quincy peninsula, at the Boston Police Department's firing range. He is one of the department's firearms instructors, an accomplished competitive shooter and something of a guru when it comes to the use of deadly force and the question that every cop must be prepared to answer every day: When to shoot and when to holster? Kennedy's mission: to train officers to use force so that they aren't killed or injured; to minimize the risk to both cops and the people they use force against; to make sure that when cops do come up against someone determined to hurt them or others, that they incapacitate the bad guy as fast as possible.
But in the end, no amount of testing or simulated training can prepare even the most veteran officers for what might unfold on the streets, a harsh reality the Boston Police Department is facing after its Special Operations unit and its then-commander, Robert E. O'Toole Jr., came under a series of investigations following the death of an Emerson College student during the rowdy celebration after the Red Sox championship victory over the Yankees last October. Victoria Snelgrove, 21, was killed by a pepper-spray projectile fired from a so-called less-lethal weapon. It was the first time Boston police had used the weapon in a public-order situation. In fact, that type of weapon had been used only once before by Boston police, while subduing a mentally disturbed man who had attacked a college student and was trying to harm himself. But that successful deployment came in a small, confined space.
Kennedy often thinks back to what happened near that alley 17 years ago. It haunts him. It inspires him. It defines him. And he's determined to make sure no more cops land in situations like the one he was in, when the bad guy gets off the lethal shot.
In 1985, Kennedy was a young recruit preparing to graduate from the Boston Police Academy. One day, the chief instructor, Bob Dunford, called him in to his office. "Your father's been killed," Dunford said. "I'm sorry."
Billy Kennedy searched for words, but there were none. Tom Kennedy was one of six children born in Ballinasloe, Galway, in the west of Ireland. The family farm went to an older brother, so Tom took up carpentry and, like so many of his generation, had to leave Ireland to find work. In 1949, when he was 36, he immigrated to Boston. In 1952, at an Irish dance on Dudley Street in Roxbury, he met a French Canadian girl from Salem named Jeanne Guerrette. They married, bought a house in Allston, and raised two boys and two girls. Kennedy worked six days a week. He went to bed every night at 9:30. He got up every morning at 5. No one can recall him ever missing Sunday Mass. Over the last 30 years of his life, he took three vacations, all of them to Ireland. He never drove a car and often walked to work, lugging a heavy toolbox, as he was doing the last moment of his life, at 72 the oldest working member of Carpenters Local 33, as he crossed the street in front of Copley Place. A speeding car struck Tom Kennedy and raced off. The driver was never identified. That such a decent man could be left to die, broken in two, in the middle of Huntington Avenue was a lesson for his son that life was anything but fair. But just weeks after burying his dad, Billy Kennedy was sworn in as a Boston cop with all the fresh-scrubbed idealism of a kid.
"I wanted to help people," he says. "We all think like that. You want to take bad guys off the street, and you want to protect people who can't protect themselves. It's why you become a cop. I know some people say most cops are on a power trip. I don't buy it. I never saw it. Most cops come on the job very idealistic. The job can make you cynical, but I don't know anybody who came on the job cynical."
Kennedy had been on the job for just two years when he found himself kneeling on Massachusetts Avenue, cradling his wounded partner. Roy Sergei had never even gotten a chance to unholster his sidearm.
In the year that it took to catch Ted Otsuki and then to hold him accountable at trial, Kennedy gradually learned just how much of an advantage the criminal had over the cops chasing him. The son of a Texas farmer, Otsuki had come to Boston to set up a bank-robbery ring. As a career criminal, he had done far more firearms training than many police officers - realistic, mobile training, more useful for gunfighting than the stationary-target practice that was standard for most cops. When he opened fire on the four officers pursuing him, Otsuki's SIG Sauer semiautomatic pistol put the cops' service revolvers to shame in terms of power and speed.
Kennedy says he got off one shot, hitting Otsuki in the waist and arm, before bystanders came into the line of fire. After Otsuki was found guilty, Superior Court Judge Robert Mulligan was moved to speak from the bench: "I want to make an observation concerning Boston police officers based on observations made in other trials, but especially in this one, specifically about the scrupulousness with which Boston police officers handle their firearms. In this case, neither Torres nor Rogers drew their firearm even though they knew they were about to confront a man in a dark alley. And when Officer Sergei came running, even after he heard shots, he did not draw his firearm. I don't know if I would take on any person lurking there without my firearm. I have seen evidence of officers taking on men armed with sticks, knives, and even guns and disarm them without drawing their guns."
It was an education for Kennedy. And he decided he needed to become an educator. "I can still work the street," he says. "I just think I can do more here."
In 2002, then-commissioner Paul F. Evans infuriated the police unions and many ordinary cops when he issued a regulation prohibiting officers from firing at moving vehicles. Evans's order came after a series of eight fatal shootings by police in less than two years, culminating with the death of Eveline Barros-Cepeda, who was shot when the car in which she was a back-seat passenger hit an officer and sped away.
Kennedy was not among those complaining about the regulation, because he knew that while firing into a moving vehicle is a natural response by officers who see a car barreling down on them, it is almost always pointless. "You can fire into the car, and you might get lucky and get a head shot and kill the driver, but you will not stop the car," he says. "Cars usually create tactical nightmares. The only situation [in which] I'd shoot is if I'm going to die." Kennedy says police need to be taught tactics that reduce their need to use force, that there is no greater accomplishment than when an officer averts violence by using brain instead of brawn.
One day, Kennedy and a partner got a call to help a Northeastern University officer who had squared off with a psychotic homeless man. The campus cop had his billy club out, but Kennedy had a different tactic in mind. Kennedy approached the man, whose fists and jaw were clenched. "You want a cigarette?" Kennedy asked nonchalantly.
As he lit a cigarette for the man, Kennedy said: "You see those guys over there? Those guys are gonna hurt you. If you come with me, all I'm gonna do is put these handcuffs on you, and I'll take you to the police station. You have my word as a man that no one will lay a hand on you."
The man dragged heavily on the cigarette, his wide eyes darting back and forth nervously. He made only one request: "Can I finish this cigarette?"
Kennedy says the biggest challenge facing police officers, or anyone else who picks up a gun, is overcoming the human instinct not to hurt someone. He has studied history, especially war history, in drawing up his training regimen: "We have a basic disposition not to hurt other human beings." He cites, for example, Gettysburg, where 90 percent of the 27,000 muskets found after the battle were still loaded and 12,000 had been loaded more than once - evidence, to some, of the soldiers who were unwilling to shoot other human beings. Kennedy says it was during World War I that American soldiers began using "humanoid targets" for training purposes.
"It was subliminal," Kennedy says. "We dehumanize the enemy: They're `Nazis,' `gooks,' `slopes.' When you dehumanize somebody, you have a real increase in the incidence of shooting at other people." He continues, "The point of shooting someone is to incapacitate someone as fast as possible. The department didn't prepare me for a gunfight. The bad guy has a three-quarter-second advantage."
Kennedy's training regimen seeks to challenge officers, to force the recruits to think fast, to resist the wrong choice. "The challenge rule is first you draw on a target and say, `Boston police. Drop the weapon.' Then I tell them to holster. If they do, I rip them." Police should not holster their gun until the threat is gone, he asserts. "We might say, `Two to the body torso.' Then we'll cite a location and a number of shots. I have told them to respond only to location and number. Then one instructor yells, `Kill him.' If I can get one to fire, they all fire."
That's when Billy Kennedy stops the lesson and explains the real world to young cops. "Every bullet fired has a lawyer attached," he tells the trainees. "You will lose your house. You will lose your career. You will lose your life as you know it."
Kennedy smiles. "They leave here like broken puppies," he says. "We teach them not to shoot as much as we teach them to shoot." He wants police to have more alternatives to deadly force. "We're trying to go to less-lethal force. But there are limitations. I've been sprayed by [pepper] gas, hit by beanbags, and I was still able to draw my pistol."
He is a fan of new technology, including energy-wave systems that disorient targets by creating painful heat sensations on the surface of the skin. As for using force, he says, "It's like a toolbox. The problem is tool selection."
Kennedy says there are many misconceptions about the use and efficacy of deadly force, many of them fed by popular culture, especially Hollywood films. "Most police recruits," he says, "like most civilians, have impressions created by popular culture. People think if you shoot someone with a shotgun, it knocks them down. Not true. There are a lot of myths, probably the biggest ones being, in the heat of a gunbattle, you can shoot someone in the legs to immobilize them or shoot the gun out of their hands. When someone's moving, it's virtually impossible to do that. People watch these ridiculous movies and think that bullets immediately incapacitate someone or knock them off their feet.
"If you hit me dead-center in the heart with a shot," he says, "I've still got a minute in which I can hurt you. Think of taking a half-gallon of milk and pouring it out onto the ground. That's how much blood you can lose before you lose consciousness. You can do a lot of damage in that time. Bullets kill by striking the central nervous system, but that's rare. That's a small target it's a head shot or you bleed to death. Pistols are not efficient; they are convenient. We carry a lot of bullets because we miss a lot."
Boston cops carry 40 rounds of ammunition for their 9mm handguns: 14 in the gun, plus two additional 13-shot clips. Though unable to cite a specific study, Kennedy claims that Boston cops are better shots than most. "We hit more than 50 percent of our shots," he says, referring to bullets that police fire at suspects that strike their intended target. "The national average is about 30 percent."
Kennedy says the use of force by police is influenced by regional and cultural mores. The average cop shoots about 200 rounds in training. Many go their entire career without firing their weapons outside of training. But unlike the military, Kennedy says, cops are "100 percent round-accountable."
"We're not a gun-friendly state, so you begin with a cultural bias against weapons, in that they are seen by most people as being destructive rather than protective. So we shoot less. In New England, cops compensate with security in numbers. In Los Angeles, they have far fewer cops for a large area, so they compensate with tactics. And they tend to use more force."
Four years ago, The Washington Post examined the shooting records of the 33 largest city police forces in the United States between 1990 and 2000 and found that Boston had the lowest average number of fatal shootings by police, fewer than one a year. By contrast, in Baltimore and New Orleans, cities with populations similar to Boston's, police averaged 6.3 and 3.5 fatal shootings annually, respectively. Breaking down those numbers, Boston also had the lowest rate per 10,000 violent crimes and, separately, by the number of officers on patrol; only Honolulu had a lower rate of fatal shootings per 100,000 residents.
According to Boston police records, the largest number of intentional discharges of weapons by officers in one year between 1990 and 2002 was 19, in 1990, while the lowest was just two, in 1997; in both years, only one of those shootings was fatal. In that 13-year period, Boston police killed 17 people, the most occurring in 2002, when four of the seven shootings by police that year were fatal. There was a spike during a 22-month period between 2000 and 2002, when eight people were shot dead by police, but police commanders insist that was a statistical fluke, not an indication that officers were becoming more trigger-happy or reckless. There were 17 total discharges (14 intentional) in 2002, of which four were fatal, and in 2003, there were six total discharges, and none was fatal. Last year there were 11 discharges, and two were fatal.
Kennedy contends that Boston police show, on average, more restraint than most. "Boston cops don't shoot for nothing," he says.
Because of several ongoing investigations, Kennedy won't comment on what went wrong outside Fenway Park last October, but other experts say projectiles fired from crowd-control weapons can curve in flight. They also say Victoria Snelgrove's death was something of a fluke: that the only way a pepper-spray projectile can kill someone is if the projectile enters the eye socket at a certain angle - something that, tragically, occurred in Snelgrove's case.
Howard Friedman, a Boston attorney who has sued police officers many times for using excessive force, agrees with Kennedy that Boston officers are among the least trigger-happy in the United States. Friedman credits a cadre of aggressive lawyers willing to take the department to court, local news media that don't accept the police version of shootings at face value, and the department's leadership, especially the last three police commissioners. "The tone is set from the top on down," says Friedman. "Bill Bratton was the first to really articulate the accountability issue and to emphasize training. Paul Evans was good, too, especially in prohibiting the shooting at cars, which had been a longstanding problem. And Kathy O'Toole is willing to listen to those outside the department on this issue."
Kennedy says those who judge excessive force by the number of shots fired don't appreciate how quickly officers can fire or the fleeting nature of violent confrontations. "The average person can fire five rounds a second," he says. "Most gunfights last three to five seconds, with two to three rounds fired from a distance of 21 feet or less. These are brief, fast, intense experiences. The police officer has to see and identify the threat. Then he or she must select a tool, process the data, draw the gun, sight the target, and press the trigger. Most guys shoot until the weapon is empty."
Many point to the 1999 shooting of a West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, by four New York police officers as a classic case of excessive force, because he was struck by 19 of the 41 rounds fired at him in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building when he removed a wallet the police said they mistook for a gun. Kennedy disagrees: "That happened in about five seconds. I don't think it was excessive."
In January 2004, the city of New York agreed to pay Diallo's family $3 million rather than risk going to court, where a jury could have awarded even more.
Kennedy says public outrage that follows police shootings of civilians is understandable but says the ordinary person fails to fully comprehend the situations faced by cops in a sudden, violent confrontation. He cites the July 2002 killing of LaVeta Jackson, a 36-year-old mentally ill woman who was shot by police who had gone to her Dorchester home and found her two children, ages 3 and 6, dead. The officers said she leaped from a darkened storage room and came at them with a knife. Two patrolmen and a detective fired 18 shots at Jackson, striking her 13 times. Suffolk County district attorney Daniel F. Conley ruled that the officers were justified in shooting her. The officers each fired between four and eight shots from their 14-round clips.
"These cops were bending over, looking at these kids whose throats had been slashed, and suddenly this huge woman leaps from the dark with the knife she had used to cut her kids' throats," Kennedy says. "It's easy to sit in your kitchen, drink your coffee, and judge these cops. What would you do?"
Lawyers for Jackson's family disagree, as do lawyers for the family of Bert Bowen, who was shot to death last summer in Roxbury by two officers who were similarly cleared by Conley's office. As with most fatal police shootings, civil litigation seems inevitable.
Friedman believes there is an inherent conflict in having the district attorney investigate shootings by police officers who serve as the investigators in most cases prosecuted by the DA's office. Conley rejects that criticism, saying his office aggressively pursues any suggestion of police wrongdoing.
"If you shoot someone," Billy Kennedy says one day on Moon Island, "everybody's perception of you is changed. Internal affairs will look at you differently. Your wife will look at you differently. You will look at yourself differently, because until you do it, you probably don't think you are capable of shooting another human being."
Some can't handle it. "There's the morality thing that goes on in your head," Kennedy says. "I've seen some cops who've shot and killed someone - absolutely justified - but it bothers them, and they're never the same."
Cops who get shot often second-guess themselves, especially if they didn't return fire. Everyone is different. Kennedy returned to work a few days after his partner was shot. Jorge Torres, the rookie cop who fell on the same street with Roy Sergei, was never the same. He left the department in 1997, when he was 31.
Kennedy worries for Zenaida Flores, a young police officer he had once supervised. In August 2002, Flores was shot after she and her partner stopped a suspect in Chinatown. The man pulled a gun and fired a shot that struck her pager, perhaps saving her life. The man then stood over her and fired twice more, striking her in the leg and arm. Flores's partner chased down and shot and wounded the man, dodging five shots fired at him by the suspect.
"It's been rough for Zenaida," Kennedy says. "She's a good cop, but that's hard, coming back from what she's been through."
For Kennedy, there was never any real question whether he would go back to the job. What he went through made him more determined than ever. A year after his partner was killed, Kennedy returned to the police academy to tell his story. He recounted in vivid detail the chase, the muzzle flashes, the bullets whizzing by, and told of shooting back and breaking off his pursuit to return to his fallen partner.
"How many of you think I should have kept chasing the bad guy?" he asked the recruits.
Ten hands went up. Kennedy passed around a piece of paper, asking those who had raised their hands to write down their names and ID numbers. After the paper had circulated, Kennedy held it aloft. "This," he said, "is a list of 10 assholes I never want to work with. We caught the bad guy. It took us a year, but we caught him. But my priority is my brother or sister officer. Don't you ever forget that."
Fifteen years after friends and colleagues put up a plaque at the Hyde Park police station in memory of Roy Sergei, Billy Kennedy is honoring his late partner the only way he can, trying to ensure that names of other cops don't end up engraved on a station plaque.
Kevin Cullen is a member of the Globe staff. His e-mail address is [email protected].
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