By Ed Meckle, Retired LAPD
Tear Gas: [definition] A solid liquid or gaseous substance that on dispersion in the atmosphere irritates mucous membranes resulting in blinding of the eyes with tears, used chiefly in dispelling mobs.
Okay, so everyone knows what tear gas is right? Well, yes and no. You know what it is but unless you have been subjected to its use, you can never really appreciate the effect it has upon the body. How it removes any desire to continue your present activities.
Three years USMC plus two reserves, LAPD academy, plus five Metro years has given me more than a nodding acquaintance. I heard the lectures, gave the lectures, been gassed, gassed others, watched film and demonstrated its use.
However, I had never seen it used under actual field conditions, until this night.
I was assigned to Metro and was on my way home at end of watch. It was probably somewhere between 0100 and 0200 hours. I lived close to downtown and always tried to use surface streets at that hour. Any morning watch copper can verify that the streets are usually strangely quiet and empty—almost otherworldly—a science fiction movie and you are the last person on earth.
I awakened from my reverie when an overtaking black and white blew by me code three. Seconds later, it was followed by a second, then a minute later, a third.
I stopped, rolling down all the windows to listen. The air was filled with sirens. Something big was going down and I wanted to be there.
I caught the last car and followed him to the action. As I got close, I heard sporadic gunfire. The scene was an old-fashioned shopping center. Two blocks of older two-story business buildings, glass storefronts, with second floor living quarters, and flat tar-paper roofs. The street was filled with 12-15 black and whites with officers crouched behind them. The sharp smell of tear gas hung in the air.
I parked about a block away and walked in. No challenge. I am in civvies, so I hang my badge, but didn’t draw even a glance.
The center of attention is a second floor, corner apartment at the far end of the block. A police search light was set up mid-block and focused on the windows fronting the street. The rest of the block was an unreal collection of light and shadow. An expended tear gas canister lay on the sidewalk below the window.
At this point I assumed a barricaded suspect as I was at the wrong end of the block and too far away to get involved. I picked a good spot and settled in to watch.
Behind the light, a sergeant with a bull horn talked to the suspect. Then the suspect suddenly appeared and fired two quick shots at the light. By the time the officers reacted, he was gone but “what the hell.” They volleyed 2-3 rounds each.
Have you ever seen an action movie where a machine gun fires dozens of rounds and strikes a house in slow motion? Amazed, I watched as glass shattered and window sills splintered. I could almost hear the old building moaning.
This scene plays out a few more times with the same results.
I was out of the line of fire when the suspect shot so I wasn’t worried about my safety. Not so the officers. Several are around the corner shooting at the side window and there have been several ricochets.
I watched the window screen fall half off, the gutter downspout shot away and a piece of tar paper flutter to the ground. About the time I wonder what could happen next, I hear the deep throated thomp of the teargas gun. The sound was unmistakable as the stubby barrel launched a “flight right” grenade. It looked like a small rocket. As it cleared the barrel, fins snapped into place to stabilize flight. The round was well aimed and went through the window.
We wait. Gas drifts from the window. No suspect.
Two officers with gas masks enter and then returned quickly, holding up four fingers. “Code four,” all over.
in those days, things were done in a more casual manner. This was before SWAT. No one had ever heard of “fire discipline” and officer involved shooting teams were in the future.
As a result, half the cars were gone within five minutes.
I figured I would find out the results when I went to work that night.
I did: twenty-five to thirty officers fired several hundred rounds at the suspect with zero hits.
Then, a sergeant fired one round from a teargas gun. It struck and killed the suspect. Killed by something that looked like a Buck Rogers toy rocket ship.