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A former cop who killed shares lessons on deadly force

First Published      Last Updated Jun 28 2015 12:15 pm

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.

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