Gunfire from the Sky

November 9, 2015

The Guardian’s The Counted reports on the killing of one Nicholas Alan Johnson, who on Sept. 18, 2015, was shot by police firing from a helicopter. Johnson was unarmed at the time.

The Counted’s team tells the story of how, “Johnson, a home burglary suspect, was shot by deputies from a helicopter during a high-speed chase. He collapsed after fleeing his SUV when he crashed into another vehicle.”

Of five stated facts (other than Johnson’s name) in the summary, two are significantly incorrect, and one is so incomplete as to be misleading.

What Really Happened

First off, a “home burglary” involves illegal entry into a dwelling with the intent to commit theft. But Johnson was not wanted for home burglary.

And, while “high-speed chase” sounds very dramatic, The Counted omitted one aspect of the chase that would have sounded even more exciting. I suspect they did so because, had they described the chase accurately, even the most inattentive reader would have immediately gleaned some key context that might have tended to make the police action here look more sympathetic — if not downright heroic.

As I have pointed out before, in policing and in policing stories, context is everything. Officers firing from a helicopter is (as one would hope) a rare event. The last time San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies fired at a driver from a helicopter was in 2001.

Why would these cops go to such lengths in the case of Nicholas Alan Johnson?

Some of the other extensive media coverage available helps explain: “The drama began when deputies tried to arrest the holdup suspect during the lunch hour Friday in Fontana,” writes the Press-Enterprise, referring somewhat more accurately to the crime of which Johnson was suspected. A “holdup” is not a “burglary” but rather a “robbery” (the taking of property from an individual using of threats or violence).

Actually, according to the Associated PressCBS News, the Press-Enterprise, NBC Los Angeles and several other news outlets quoting Sheriff’s department sources—including this official press release from the Sheriff’s Department—Johnson was wanted by police in connection with a far more heinous crime than home burglary or robbery: He was wanted as a suspect in a home invasion robbery in Devore on Thursday, Sept. 17th. Home invasion robbery is a truly terrifying crime, during which someone forcibly enters the home of another and commits robbery with the occupants present. It’s serious stuff.

Still, clearly, a home invasion the day prior surely doesn’t rise to the kind of exigent circumstances that would justify helicopter gunships today, right?

Well, according to every news outlet mentioned above and then some (as well as the Sheriff’s statement), the reason was that when Sheriff’s Specialized Enforcement Division deputies recognized and tried to stop Johnson’s Chevy Tahoe, Johnson fled and, “refused to stop, and a pursuit was initiated at approximately 12:49 p.m. The pursuit continued through Fontana and San Bernardino, reaching speeds in excess of 100 mph with the suspect running several stop signs and red lights, narrowly missing several pedestrians. The suspect then entered the northbound 215 freeway traveling southbound at a high rate of speed into oncoming traffic continuing to jeopardize the safety of the public.”

So now we’re starting to understand what really happened (no thanks to the Guardian). Johnson was driving 100 mph the wrong way on the freeway and through city streets at lunchtime. When the deputy in the helicopter fired “several” shots at the suspect’s vehicle, the Sheriff’s Department statement said, Johnson was hit before he exited the vehicle.

But Johnson wasn’t done — he leapt out of his still-moving vehicle  against traffic on the freeway, and his car wrecked out in a head-on collision with another vehicle, which contained an adult male, an adult female, and a 13-year-old male juvenile. The male passengers were treated and released. The female was hospitalized with injuries.

Note that The Counted stated Johnson had jumped out after his Tahoe hit the other vehicle. That’s clearly not the case.

Mr. Johnson was unarmed but he was clearly very dangerous. He was fleeing a violent crime at 100 mph in a 5,300-lb. vehicle going the wrong way on a crowded freeway. He sent the Tahoe crashing into oncoming traffic. He was killed for it.

Journalism isn’t easy. It takes fielding reports and taking into account multiple, sometimes contradictory, accounts to get at the most coherent and comprehensive story you can. (Not much different from police work, actually.) At least one witness questioned the safety of the use of the helicopter to fire at a vehicle. Another witness stated that wrong-way car chases are inherently dangerous and lauded the police action. Other media looked at the record of officers firing from the air.

In an article mainly devoted to the topic, the Press-Enterprise reporters reported that, “Deputies who fly for the Sheriff’s Department are required to show proficiency shooting from the sky, a skill they practice at the academy at Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore.” Their training is conducted every 90 days at minimum.

The paper quoted the director of the Sheriff’s Aviation Unit as saying that shooting from the air at a vehicle is rare, but it, “is something we’ve trained for for quite a long time. We do qualify on the ground and in the air … We actively train to protect the citizens.” Since training for the unit began in 1981, there have been seven deputies involved shooting from the air, a Sheriff’s spokesman said.


This case has been added to the StreetCred Police Killings in Context dataset. PKIC is free, open, non-commercial and non-partisan. You can read about the dataset, its methodology and peer review, and get, work with and create your own analysis products or derivative works from the data, free.

We maintain this database because getting these facts right is the only way to positively inform policy and improve policing. In this case, The Counted fails to tell what happened on several levels, doing us all a disservice.

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