Sheriff's deputies made several tactical blunders when they encountered Marine Sgt. Manny Loggins in a shadowy school parking lot on Feb. 7, but shooting him may still have been justified, according to police procedure experts interviewed by Patch.
The analysis might displease both sides of the controversial case, which is still under investigation and has fueled between Camp Pendleton brass and the deputies union.
On the one hand, police experts defended as he tried to drive away. But they also said it never should have gotten to that point.
Could bloodshed have been avoided?
"Definitely," said Michael Levine, a retired DEA agent who now works as a trial consultant, expert witness and police instructor.
In particular, Levine and two other police veterans faulted the actions taken by deputies after Loggins stepped out of his GMC Yukon and reportedly walked off into the darkness, leaving his two young daughters in the SUV's back seat.
The deputies should have immediately removed the children from the vehicle, blocked the Yukon with police cruisers, and stopped Loggins from getting back behind the wheel, which is when Sandberg opened fire, the analysts said.
Levine and the other experts cautioned that their opinions were tentative and based solely on public accounts of what happened. Nevertheless, their analysis offers a counterpoint to the deputies union, which , saying he "created a situation that put his children in danger and ultimately cost him his life."
According to , the trouble began when Loggins zoomed into the San Clemente High School parking lot around 4:40 a.m., crashing through a low metal gate that separated the lot from campus athletic fields. After Sandberg pulled up behind the Yukon, Loggins got out and walked away, allegedly ignoring the deputy's commands and making "irrational" statements.
started to follow, then heard screams from the Yukon. Inside, he found two of the Marine's daughters, ages 9 and 14. They said their father had been acting oddly, Sandberg later told investigators.
Backup units arrived in a flash. Then, as deputies talked to the girls, Loggins suddenly returned from the football field. Guns drawn, the deputies ordered him to stay away from the Yukon.
Instead, the 31-year-old Marine allegedly ignored them and climbed back into the driver's seat. After he turned the ignition and put the Yukon in gear, Sandberg fired through the side window, killing him. Sandberg said he acted to protect the girls from possible harm.
Deputy mistake No. 1, the experts said, was leaving the girls in the Yukon.
"Get those kids out of the car, protect the innocent, that's the most basic of police and law enforcement training," Levine said.
William T. Gaut, a former homicide detective and criminal justice instructor in Alabama who also now works as an expert witness and consultant, agreed.
"Under ideal circumstances, the children should have been removed to a secondary position of safety outside the wrecked vehicle," Gaut said.
Mistake No. 2, he added, was letting Loggins return to the Yukon. "The officers should not have allowed the suspect to reach his vehicle," Gaut said.
Dave Cohen, who retired after 20 years as spokesman for the San Diego Police Department, leveled a similar criticism.
"If additional deputies were there, and he [Loggins] was off in the darkness ranting and raving, how did they allow him to get back to the car?” Cohen said in a TV news interview with NBC San Diego. “Did they not have less lethal weapons -- a beanbag shotgun, Taser, K-9s?"
Another possible error: failing to make it impossible for Loggins to drive away, either by removing the keys from his vehicle after he walked off (although it's unclear if Loggins took the keys with him), or by using patrol cars to hem in the Yukon.
The spot where Loggins parked was a campus roadway about 20 to 30 feet wide, bordered by a chain-link fence on one side and the school gymnasium on the other. Straight ahead or turning left, the roadway led deeper into the campus, offering no easy vehicle exit. (To see an aerial view of the campus, click here).
Police "are trained to use their vehicles to block in a suspect," Levine said. "Did anyone get their cruiser up against his bumper?"
In comments posted on various online news stories about the case, some readers have asked why deputies didn't shoot out the Yukon's tires.
That technique is mostly a Hollywood invention, experts said. In reality, it's potentially dangerous. For starters, the steel belts embedded in car tires can cause bullets to bounce off, Gaut noted. And even if a bullet does penetrate, the tire does not immediately go flat. Or the damaged tire might render the vehicle uncontrollable, he said.
Hollywood myths aside, Levine and Gaut said published accounts present too many unknowns to make a definitive conclusion on whether deputies did or didn't follow proper procedure. As an expert witness, Levine added, he typically has access to autopsy reports and photos, complete sworn statements from all the officers and often video. But that's not the case here, as the shooting remains under investigation by the Orange County District Attorney's office, with assistance from NCIS.
Despite apparent mistakes leading up to the shooting, Gaut and Levine predicted Deputy Sandberg may not face criminal charges.
"Yes, there were some tactical errors by the officers," Gaut said by email. "[But] in the 'heat of the moment' it is difficult to make ALL the correct decisions on a timely basis. ... Remember, as the courts have ruled, we should not judge an officer's actions on the basis of 20/20 hindsight. The standard of judgment is ... what would another reasonable officer have done under the same or similar circumstances."
Gaut said police are allowed to shoot a fleeing suspect if the person has committed a violent felony and also poses an immediate danger to an officer or the public.
Sandberg's defenders could argue that litmus test was met, Gaut said, based on the version of events released by the Orange County Sheriff's Department and the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, the deputies' union. According to that narrative, Loggins rammed through a gate with his two young daughters in tow and not wearing seatbelts (although investigators haven't explained how they know the belts were unbuckled during the drive vs. after the vehicle parked).
"One could argue that this suspect committed a violent felony [hit-and-run and endangering children] and that he posed an immediate danger," Gaut said. "The evidence seems to indicate that the suspect had already driven erratically and dangerously, [and] intentionally wrecked his vehicle with unrestrained children in the back seat. A reasonable officer would likely conclude that the suspect, if allowed to flee, would continue the same behavior, thereby endangering himself, the children, other officers and the innocent public."
"At the point he gets back in his car, he becomes a danger," Levine said. "This is a crazy world, people kill their kids all the time. That's what the officer is presented with."
Retired San Diego police spokesman Cohen also tentatively sided with the deputy.
"It's a sad situation, but at this stage, until we know more, I do not fault the deputies for taking the action once he [Loggins] was in the car and driving away," he told NBC San Diego.
But friends and colleagues of Loggins, who was universally described as , remain outraged and baffled by official accounts of what happened.
Yana Pollard, a former co-worker who is planning a candlelight vigil to memorialize Loggins, said the unhinged, uncooperative suspect described by deputies "is not the Manny I know."