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Los Angeles • David Klinger had a troubling premonition, even before he'd entered the Los Angeles Police Academy: He was going to become a police officer, and he was going to have to kill someone to save his partner.

He dismissed the latter thought. "It had to be nonsense, right?" says Klinger, who graduated from the academy in 1981 at age 22.

And yet, one summer night shortly after, when he'd been patrolling the streets of the city's south-central neighborhoods for only four months, it all came true.

The rookie watched in horror as a man he thought was an innocent bystander pulled a butcher knife and stabbed his police partner, Dennis Azevedo.

"Shoot him," Azevedo cried, as he fought from the ground, holding the man's hands with all his might to try to keep the blade from striking his neck.

The events that followed forever changed David Klinger's life and redirected his work. Those few seconds would replay in his mind years later.

Deadly force by police has made headlines from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore. Just this month, a Los Angeles police officer was found "unjustified" in shooting and killing a 25-year-old mentally ill man named Ezell Ford. Across the country, most officers are exonerated. But more and more people are calling for strategies to make such incidents less common, notably through improved police training.

This is a story about a deadly shooting that turned the shooter into a researcher seeking to understand the dynamics of confrontation — one who hopes to be a voice of reason in an emotional national debate, and an advocate for change.


In 1979, nearly two years before Klinger entered the academy, pressure from the public over police shootings prompted the Los Angeles County district attorney's office to initiate Operation Rollout. The idea was that prosecutors would "roll out" at any of hour of the night to investigate incidents where an officer wounded or killed a civilian.

This was during the height of the city's gang turf wars between the Crips and the Bloods. When Klinger — a tall, lanky self-described "beach kid" from San Diego — showed up in his ranks, Tim Anderson, then an LAPD sergeant on the night watch, wasn't sure he was the kind of recruit who'd make it.

Klinger, a quiet, devout Christian, whose dad was a classical clarinet player, moved to California from Miami, at age 13, with his mom and two sisters after his parents split up.

"Here's a kid from a very mild-mannered side of life who ends up here," Anderson says.

But Klinger was determined. As a police officer, he says, he wanted to help people and be part of cleaning up the gang problem. "I actually asked for this to be my assignment out of the academy," he says.

Then came July 25, 1981, a date Klinger will never forget. He was teamed with Azevedo, a Vietnam War veteran, 33 and experienced, when they were called to a home where an armed burglar had been reported. As a police helicopter circled overhead, a large crowd gathered to watch across busy Vernon Avenue.

"Get out of here! Get out of here!" the officers yelled. Most spectators ran, except 26-year-old Edward Randolph.

Because of the helicopter noise, Azevedo says he didn't think Randolph could hear him, or maybe he didn't speak English. So he ran across the street to try to get him to move. Instead, Randolph pulled the butcher knife from a bag over his shoulder.

"In the blink of an eye," Azevedo recalls how Randolph spun around, lunged forward and stabbed him in the lower chest with a blow stopped — just barely — by his protective vest. Stunned, Azevedo tried to draw his gun, but he tripped on uneven pavement, he says — and Randolph jumped on him with the knife raised.

Rushing over, Klinger grabbed Randolph's left wrist, but Randolph broke free.

"I blamed myself for 20 years for not being able to wrest the knife from him," Klinger says now.

Drawing his own gun, Klinger pulled the trigger. "It was a soft pop, and I thought, 'That was odd,'" Klinger says, recalling how he watched the bullet hit Randolph in the chest from two feet away. Randolph later died on the street.

Because of his religious faith, he says, he had done his best to prepare for this moment even before entering the police academy.

The possibility of having to shoot someone was a concern he discussed with several people, including a pastor who'd quit being a cop after killing someone in the Watts riots in Los Angeles in the 1960s.

Although he'd never been in a fight in school or afterward — "I always have viewed trying to talk to people and reason with people as the best way to resolve things" — Klinger concluded he could kill, if it meant he'd be saving the life of a fellow officer or innocent civilian. He would heed his training at the academy: "You only shoot if you absolutely have to."

Still, LAPD was under fire, and with Operation Rollout in effect, word on the street among officers was that prosecutors were looking for a "scapegoat," to make an example of an officer to calm public uproar over police shootings, Klinger says. So, when he shot Randolph, he immediately thought, "I'm going to be indicted."

That didn't happen. Investigators determined the shooting was justified and that he'd saved Azevedo's life.

Earlier this month, Klinger visited the shooting scene with two of his LAPD colleagues — Anderson, his former sergeant, among them. Even today, Anderson said this isn't a place many people would feel comfortable because of a persistent crime problem. Many of the modest bungalows here still have windows covered with bars or grates, for security.

Even so, Anderson says, it's rare for rookies to face the situation Klinger did so early in his career. "This was the ultimate test for him" — and he passed, Anderson says.

Still, the death of Randolph changed Klinger's outlook. In the year that followed, there were nine more times he says he could have shot a civilian — and believes he would have been justified in doing so. But he but didn't shoot because the suspects dropped guns, or other officers intervened. He was relieved, though still bothered.

Feeling like a "magnet" for trouble, he tried changing to a smaller department in Redmond, Washington. But he found no better fit there. It was time for something new.

Graduate school had always been in his plans. He thought he'd eventually get a Ph.D. in history. Now, instead, he decided to get that doctorate in sociology and to study the criminal justice system, including the topic of deadly force.

Today, the 57-year-old Klinger is a professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"He's been good for law enforcement," says Robie McIntosh, a retired LAPD officer who helped train Klinger and who also visited the shooting site with him. "Like anything, it's always best to get both sides."

Examining police shootings under an academic lens, he has learned from other officers about a sense of time slowing down or tunnel vision, or even shifting to oddly mundane thoughts when a shooting happens. And he analyzes his own experience differently, realizing now that that the soft "pop" he thought he heard when he pulled the trigger was that type of perceptual distortion.

Klinger has written a book, "Into the Kill Zone," which details the experiences of other officers who've shot and killed people.

He interviewed scores of officers — many whose own stories stick with him to this day. There was the officer who shot a man who kidnapped his partner, and the off-duty LAPD officer shot through the heart while coming home from a softball game who managed to kill her attacker and survive her own wounds. There also were at least two officers who considered suicide after they shot and killed someone.

"Shooting someone changes just about every cop who does it," said a veteran officer Klinger interviewed, who "struggled mightily" after shooting two people in his career, killing one. "You'll just never look at life in the same way."

Beyond the book, Klinger also has done research on methods officers can use to avoid deadly force, while still protecting the public and themselves. He conducts trainings for law enforcement officers who are more likely to heed his advice, he says, because he's "been there, ... done that."

This spring, testifying at a U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearing on deadly force, one topic he discussed was "tactical positioning," a strategy in which officers keep a safe distance, unless there is imminent danger.

"Often times, officers find themselves in too close, too quickly, and they don't have any option other than to shoot their way out of it," Klinger says. "That's where I really think we fall down in American law enforcement."

He uses last year's police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as an example. Though he agrees that Officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Brown, he also says that shooting might have been avoided if Wilson had waited and called for backup.

Some police have reacted angrily, he says. "It's 'Oh, they're criticizing Darren Wilson' and 'It was a justified shooting.' And that's all they want to hear about it, instead of digging deep and saying, 'What can we learn from this?'"

For years, he replayed his own experience, wondering if, somehow, it could have ended without Randolph dead.

Even now, there is disagreement among Klinger's own former colleagues about whether the 1981 killing of Edward Randolph could have been avoided. They agree that Klinger did what he had to do. But did Azevedo get unnecessarily close to Randolph?

Azevedo stands by his decision.

"You can never let a citizen stay in a kill zone," says Azevedo, who worked for 35 years as an officer in LA and for a smaller department and is now retired in Whittier, California. "Kill zone," also part of Klinger's book title, is a term military and police officers often use to describe a combat zone or crime scene where shooting and deadly force could happen.

But Anderson, their sergeant, says Azevedo should have ignored Randolph and let him take his chances, as they pursued the burglar, who ultimately got away.

"He should've never engaged this suspect by himself.. He got physically involved when he shouldn't have," says Anderson, a former SWAT team supervisor, who's also retired. He now advises police departments on tactical operations and occasionally assists Klinger with his research.

After the shooting, Klinger and Azevedo both recall, investigators learned that Randolph was an ex-con from Texas who was angry at police. They say Randolph's friends told investigators that he planned to kill the next officer who gave him a hard time.

If that's true, maybe Randolph would have killed another officer if he'd lived, Klinger reasons. "We'll never know," he says.

What he has come to terms with is his guilt — which he says sometimes caused him to get angry with friends and family over even little things, or that brought on an anxious, uneasy feeling each year when the shooting anniversary came and went. After 20 years, he sought the help of a counselor, hoping to finally let it go.

"You can articulate verbally why you did what you had to do," he remembers the counselor saying. "Why can't you get your heart to accept that?"

That question struck a chord with Klinger.

Speaking of Randolph, he says, "He's 26 years old. His whole life was driven by other people besides me. So why should I blame myself for my inability to control him for that one second that I was in physical contact with him?"

It has been, perhaps, the most difficult lesson the professor has learned.