After twenty years, questions still remain in the killing of Anthony Dwain Lee….
Back in 1990 or so, Rhino Records presented a series of mid-century civil defense and police training films curated by Dr Demento at West LA’s Nuart theater. The police films in in particular were a hoot. Officers are depicted entering someone’s home for unspecified reasons. The Dragnet-style narration urges them to use their host’s hospitality to suss out plain-sight evidence of drug use. All the film really needed was to depict a pair of LA’s Finest stepping over a dead body, prone on the living room carpet with a knife in its back as they peer closely into the ashtrays, seeking out residual signs of marijuana use.
Foolishness that, along with the stop, drop & roll approach to a sudden nuclear detonation in your neighborhood, was as amusing as it was mildly horrifying.
Until a few decades later, when LAPD actually put it into practice, with deadly consequences.
All Hallow’s Eve 2000. Benedict Canyon. 9701 Yoakum Drive. A growing tradition — Halloween party at The Castle. The hosts, by all accounts well liked in the community. They offer guests valet parking to avoid traffic snarls, contact locals door-to-door to forewarn — providing hotel accommodations to those most effected by noise — promise an early witching hour and hire enough security to keep things from getting out of hand. They’re good neighbors, people said later. But this is L.A. (my hometown). Someone’s just got to call the police.
Around 1:00 am, as things are beginning to wind down, officers Tarriel Hopper and Natalie Humphreys arrive to investigate the noise complaint. Security staff meets them in the kitchen, then setsoff to find the hosts. Officer Humphreys waits. Officer Hopper, however, leaves the kitchen, and wanders down a dark side path. He stops at the glass door behind which were party guests Anthony Dwain Lee, 39 and Jeff Denton and Will Frey. The two are chatting inside, when, according to Denton, a light flashed on them from without. As Lee, an actor who appeared regularly on LA Law and NYPD Blue, turned to the light, the glass explodes as nine shots were fired in rapid succession. Lee goes down.
By the time registered nurse and party guest Steve Sims persuaded Officer Hopper to let him into the room to check on Lee and the rest, Lee was dead. The Los Angeles County Coroner determined he had been struck by four .45 caliber bullets from Hopper’s service weapon, once in the back of the head and three times in the back. Investigation later determined that while Hopper emptied his weapon at Lee, the first five rounds missed entirely.
According to Hopper, as he approached the glass door bedroom, he witnessed what appeared to be a drug deal going down. He aimed his flashlight inside, only to see Lee turn and point a large handgun in his direction. Drawing his weapon and firing, Hopper contended that Lee continued to point the weapon at him throughout. As he feared for his life, he believed there was no other option available to him. What he was doing on that dark path when he should have been waiting to speak to the hosts to resolve the noise complaint has never been clarified.
Lee did have, along with a costume described variously as a “gangster hoodie” and/or “devil mask” a hard rubber model of a Desert Eagle .357, the sort used by film crews when they need to simulate a non-firing version of the famous Israeli-designed handgun. Two days later, at a press conference, LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, demonstrated how realistic Lee’s prop appeared by comparing it to a real Desert Eagle .357. “He [Anthony Dwain Lee] left Hopper no choice,” Parks told the press and public.
Lee’s sole surviving close family member, his sister, Tina Lee-Vogt, engaged attorney Johnny Cochrane to file a $100 million dollar wrongful death suit against LAPD and the City of Los Angeles. In 2003, Lee-Vogt settled for a $225,000 settlement in the death of her brother, while LAPD’s own internal investigation found the shooting to be in policy, and the LA County DA declined to prosecute. Their findings were endorsed by the LA Police Commission in a fairly typical rubber stamp.
As the twentieth anniversary of this most egregious shooting approaches, questions remain.
To begin with, while descriptions by Frey and Denton confirm that Lee “drew the gun” and pointed it at the door behind which Hopper stood, thereby justifying to an extent the fear he claims to have felt for his safety, what Hopper was hoping to accomplish there in the first place — at a party where people wore all sorts of costumes, including police and military and carry weapons, faux and real — remains to be answered. The DA’s report claims that “He and his partner had chosen to enter a situation where they were outnumbered by guests at the party from whom they received no cooperation.”
They didn’t choose to enter the situation, the party, they were summoned. Of course they’re going to be outnumbered. And while it’s interesting to note that the DA’s summary implies that members of the public, i.e. partygoers, should have stood forth to solve the officers’ problems for them, they did receive some cooperation. Security guard James Partee had gone in search of the hosts, whom he presumably knew by sight. The officers didn’t. Had they continued to wait in the kitchen, Anthony Dwain Lee would have continued his evening unshot. What was Tarriel Hopper hoping to accomplish, wandering around a dimly lighted scene wearing a uniform that many there would naturally take for a costume? Ostensibly he was looking for the hosts to discuss the noise complaint. But, when you go to a party, especially if you’re invited by a friend of a friend (as these often are), do you keep track of the hosts’ whereabouts? Common sense suggests that asking individual guests to point out the hosts at a gathering of this magnitude is just plain silly.
Then again, there’s always the possibility of that spliff in the ashtray. A nice, juicy drug deal. Maybe felony weight if God is good and the angels are smiling down upon us. This is what seems to have been on Tarriel Hopper’s mind as he wandered around unfamiliar grounds in the dark, snooping through glass doors.
Another key point is that, quickdraw or not, did Lee know there was a cop outside the door? That one seems rather easy. How could he? By all three witness accounts, Lee had his back to the door when the flashlight shined through, and a few seconds only passed after he turned with replicagun in hand and the hail of gunfire ensued. It was dark in the room, but darker still outside. Unpolarized glass acts like a mirror when the lights are on and its dark outside. Add Hopper’s flashlight to the mix and Lee would have been blinded. Perhaps he was horsing around at a party where he expected to be in the company of like-minded folk intent only on having a good time. The appropriateness of any use of force is measured in comparison to “reasonableness”. What would a “reasonable person” or a “reasonable cop” do? What was more reasonable in this context? That Lee could play quickdraw with another party goer, or that he’d run square into a bona fide cop more than willing to take his prop for the real McCoy?
In the immediate aftermath, it might also have been reasonable for then LAPD Chief Bernard Parks to call for a full and impartial investigation before weighing in. Sure. Impartial. Snicker all you like. Shouldn’t we all be left to investigate our potential transgressions in the fullest and most impartial manner? But Parks couldn’t even do that.
The shooting took place on October 28. By October 30 Parks is telling the press that it’s in policy (i.e. Lee left Hopper “no choice”). Parks couldn’t even wait for the sake of form? One can only imagine, but at that point LAPD’s first Black Chief from within the department, was besieged on all sides. The LAPD/Rampart scandal was then in full bloom, shaping up to the become the worst law enforcement corruption case in modern US history. Mayor James K Hahn, along with an LA Police Commission that had finally been given some teeth by the Christopher Commission, were not going to recommend Parks’s tenure be extended for a second term. Even the rank and file were restive. Individual officers had specified in their wills that in case they were killed in the line of duty they didn’t want Chief Parks officiating at their funerals.
While this is pure speculation on my part, I have to wonder if Hopper being Black didn’t offer Parks the opportunity to throw the troops a bone — demonstrate quick and decisive support for the man on the scene — with very small likelihood of fallout. Because, it’s telling that even Johnny Cochrane didn’t seize upon race as a component to the shooting, saying only that “LAPD believes there isn’t a single shooting it can’t justify.”
Stranger still, is that Cochran’s firm eventually dropped the case when key witnesses, the two security guards, James Partee and Tremayne Webster, couldn’t be located in time to meet a filing deadline. The City’s $225,000 payout was essentially a standard weregild, meaningless as an admission of wrongdoing. True, when the Police Commission rubber stamped both the department’s own shooting board and the DA’s decision to decline prosecution they advised additional “tactical training” for both Hopper and Humphries. What form this additional training might take, especially for Tarriel Hopper, was left unspecified.
While eyewitness descriptions of Lee drawing the realistic looking prop and pointing it in the direction of the window substantiated Hopper’s account, more troubling was the coroner’s report suggesting that Hopper kept shooting at Lee as he turned away from facing the door. Hopper claimed Lee continued to point the weapon at him throughout the entire incident, but that is simply not possible. Per Hopper’s testimony, and Biodynamics Engineering’s analysis (the latter a firm hired by LAPD to recreate the incident) Lee, with his back initially to the door, turned to face the door and Hopper and continued to turn as gunfire erupted until he was once more facing away from the door. Only then did four of Hopper’s .45 bullets strike him in the back of his head and back. How could Lee possibly have kept his “weapon” trained on Hopper, particularly as he turned away and presumably fell, while Hopper continued to discharge bullets into his body?
The answer to that question, one at least satisfactory to the DA, was supplied by a Dr William Lewinsky, whose 2000 article in POLICE MARKSMAN, Why Is the Suspect Shot In the Back? certainly made him the go-to source when rationalizing dubious officer-involved shootings. In a phone interview, during which the incident was described verbally to Dr Lewinsky, he agreed that Hopper’s actions were consistent with the overall rationale offered in his PM article. “In self-preservation mode, the officer’s entire focus is devoted to drawing, aiming and firing of his weapon. The officer is unlikely to perceive anything but the sights of his weapon and the acquisition of his target.”
In short, once Hopper decided to fire, there is nothing Lee might have done to stop him. The only limit, per Lewinsky, is the number of rounds chambered in his firearm’s magazine. According to Lewinsky, the sudden realization that he faced a real weapon accompanied by dropping his own and trying to surrender, would have availed Lee nothing.
The issue of cops emptying their weapons at suspects is one that has arisen in other shootings, dubious and otherwise. I’ve spoken to some cops myself and read their comments in interviews. When asked, why transform the likelihood of causing serious injury — with a single shot or two — into the near certainty of killing someone — with a fusillade, the answer is nearly always a single word: training.
How cops, and the support-your-local-police-at-any-event crowd, perceive cases such as these is partly why, after two decades, I’m writing about it.
I learned about the shooting while participating in the old Usenet group, alt.law-enforcement. Regulars consisted of active duty and retired cops, far right-wing agitators, a few from the far left police-always-wrong crowd and even a centrist or two, such as your humble correspondent. Throw Away Your Toy Guns! announced the message linking to the story. Reaction quickly followed party lines — you could almost see the shrugs at the other keyboards as cops reacted to news accounts describing Anthony Dwain Lee as a “Buddhist”, well aware that his size and color put him at risk when interacting with the authorities.
JADN concluded cops and their ultra-right apologists.
Just Another Dumb Negro…
The possibility that Hopper had acted recklessly, putting himself and all of the other guests needlessly at risk, failed to compute in their minds. There was, ran the implication, just no accounting for the stupidity of non-white people in dealing with the cops.
Of course Lee knew Tarriel Hopper was a real cop and not a party guest in costume.
Of course he just wanted to get a rise out of Hopper, no doubt to amuse his friends.
In addition to Hopper also being Black, follow up reports that traces of cocaine, THC and ETOH were found in his blood sealed the deal.
The question was asked: Do you really believe a man like Anthony Dwain Lee would intentionally point a realistic looking replicagun at someone he knew to be a cop?
The answer, typical when cops are confronted with unlikely behavior in order to justify a particular use for force, is: I’ve seen it happen [that shrug again].
If it happened once, it must be happening now.
Combine that with the police officers’ doctrine of radical subjectivity:
If an officer believes s/he is in danger, s/he is.
If an officer believes a suspect is armed, s/he is.
If an officer believes a weapon is real, it is.
And the [thank you, Jesus!] fact of Hopper being Black as well.
And we’re left with yet another nothing-to-see-here-folks-just-move-along-incident in Tinsel Town.
The District Attorney’s office, tasked with representing Lee and his family, along with LA County’s 10.5 million residents, expressed sympathy for Hopper and Humphreys only, declaring they were “outnumbered” and lacking cooperation from the party guests. When the need arose to consult an outside expert to explain away the clear discrepancy between Hopper’s statement and the coroner’s findings (i.e. Lee was shot in the back while supposedly still pointing his “weapon” at Hopper), they selected an expert who specializes in rationalizing such discrepancies.
By the time Hopper shined his flashlight into the Yoakum Drive bedroom, it was already too late. Perhaps realizing how reckless he’d been in the first place, Hopper declared he was only seeking out the party’s hosts, which, if true, just means he’s not very bright. More likely, after taking in his surroundings, Hopper, with just three years on the force, sensed the opportunity to make a drug bust or two — to find the spliff in the ashtray and take some of these overpaid, oversexed, overindulged Industry succubi to jail.
For his point of view, the timing couldn’t have been better.
Fast forward twenty years, witness how dilatory the authorities were arresting McMichaels father and son for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and realize how little things have changed: 74 days pass between the killing, which was recorded on video, and arrest of the perpetrators. Their defense, the classic he resembled the suspect in a string of burglaries, weak bullshit in the extreme, especially given that with the exception of a firearm stolen from a unlocked vehicle in front of McMichael residence (these are, obviously, some smart motherfuckers to leave a firearm out for anyone to take), there haven’t been any burglaries reported in the area. But, wasn’t it worth a shot? After all, the he-resembled-a-suspect claim has been a veritable a magic carpet ride to freedom in killings from Amadou Diallo to Philando Castile.
The second prosecutor to recuse himself, George Barnhill, evidently didn’t see a conflict of interest as he defended the McMichaels, stating they had a “solid case” and maybe Arbery shot himself as he fought for the weapon. The latter is particularly egregious because it doesn’t mean a damned thing. Suppose that’s how it went down? Arbery knew he couldn’t outrun a shotgun blast. At , that point his only tactic was to try to gain control of the firearm that McMichaels had brought to confrontation. Luckily Barnhill, as reported by CNN stepped down anyway, at the request of Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper.
It’s too soon to say whether or not prosecution in the death of Ahmaud Arbery will result in the kind of ignominious acquittal that concluded so many similar cases. But with Georgia DA’s already lining up behind the McMichaels, professing clear sympathy for their predicament, as the Los Angeles DA did for Tarriel Hopper, and very little, if any, for the victim in this case, confidence in a just outcome seems unwarranted.