Forty-four. The number itself is so staggering that we decided to use it as the headline for this week's cover story about Eureka's Dec. 6 officer-involved shooting. In our collective memories here at the Journal, never can we recall a local incident when officers fired so many bullets, much less in a situation where they didn't see return fire. And keep in mind this transpired in downtown Eureka shortly before 5 p.m., when pedestrians and vehicle traffic were at their daily peak.
The incident is but one of the latest examples of an escalating trend of gun violence in Humboldt County. Earlier this year, we ran a story ("Strapped," July 21) detailing the alarming rates at which the Eureka Police Department was seizing firearms from suspects. And while Eureka's per-capita seizure rate was the most disturbing — double that of Baltimore, three times that of Oakland and nearly five times that of Chicago — we found the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office was also finding suspects armed at a rate that would be shocking if it, too, hadn't been dwarfed by that in Eureka.
Now, here we are in December and Humboldt County has recorded an unprecedented 21 homicides and counting, eclipsing the previous record of 16 set back in 2014. If that's not scary enough, consider that the county averaged 8.18 homicides a year from 1986 through 2013, but has seen an average of 17 killings a year since. Trying to make sense of the madness, officials have blamed the county's escalating violence on everything from drug culture to a general disregard for human life.
Whatever the reason, if you're one of the men and women in Humboldt County who don a badge, a duty belt and a weapon daily to patrol our streets, these trends have to be terrifying. We can't ignore this as context to what we saw unfold in Eureka on Dec. 6.
And we must also recognize that we're dealing with limited information about that incident at this point, as the multi-agency investigation is just beginning and it will likely be months before we begin to know the full story. We don't know, for instance, if the four officers who fired their weapons during the incident "reasonably believed" they were protecting themselves or others from an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury, as EPD's policy requires before officers fire their service weapons at a suspect.
Nobody should blame our officers for taking the necessary steps to make sure they return home at the end of their shifts. While we ask a lot of those in uniform — probably too much, really — we can't ask them to become martyrs. But because we as a society give them guns and the authority to use them, we can and should ask and expect that they keep a level head, that they display courage amid chaos.
After interviewing witnesses to the chase and shooting on Dec. 6, it seems clear that 26-year-old Clayton Lee Lasinski first and foremost wanted to flee. It seems that one of the central questions in this incident will be what exactly happened when he hopped into an idling Mazda 3 at Sole Savers only to find an EPD officer — Steven Linfoot — with his service weapon pointed at him. Backed into a corner, did Lasinski point his gun at the officer? If so, Linfoot would almost certainly have been justified in opening fire.
But if not, if the officer simply opened fire to prevent a suspect — one who's only alleged crimes at that point were fleeing the scene of a traffic stop, briefly brandishing a weapon and evading an officer — from stealing a car and getting away, well, then we fear some of our officers may be falling prey to the same escalating violence and disregard for human life as others in this county.
That would be the scariest trend of all.