Trevor Jackson, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, had been up for two days. His ears were ringing so loudly he could barely hear, and nobody was talking to him anyway. There was a sergeant hovering near him to make sure of that. Jackson had been allowed to call his wife at home in Huntington Beach, and he told her not to worry if she saw something on the news. But that was as much as he could say.
Jackson stood on the sun-baked blacktop of Vermont Avenue in the middle of the largest crime scene he'd ever seen.
More than 100 LAPD officers were spread over 35 blocks. There were federal auditors, collision investigators, representatives from the District Attorney's office. Detectives combed the area, numbering hundreds of shell casings and bullet holes, and drawing chalk outlines around anything that might blow away.
In daylight, the scene looked very different than it had at night, Jackson thought. In the thick fog that was present nine hours earlier it had taken officers awhile even to realize they were being shot at – and even longer to get permission to shoot back.
Now, in the sun, investigators were cataloguing traces of that chaos, breaking it down into a thousand components, with each component to be labeled and checked against the matrix of department policy. These parts would be reassembled over the next year, to be used in a use-of-force review hearing that had the power to end an officer's career.
Detectives would want to get Jackson's story. But not yet. So he waited, kept in isolation from his fellow officers for the same reason police separate suspected criminals after arrest; to prevent collaboration on a cover story, to minimize lying.
Jackson had nothing to cover up. It wasn't a borderline case, he thought, it wasn't a kid. A month prior, officers had shot and killed a 13-year-old boy, Devin Brown, after the boy had steered a car at police. The news was filled with outrage. The mayor of Los Angeles, in the last days of a close election, announced that he, too, was "joining in the anger and frustration."
"Everybody knew that thing was going on," Jackson said later. "Nobody wanted to be the one made an example of."
Amid the uproar, the LAPD created a new rule. Police wouldn't be allowed to fire at people in moving vehicles unless something other than the vehicle itself posed a threat. But nobody had been trained on the implications of the new rule.
So when a pair of gunmen tried to wage a small war against the LAPD, they were able to fire barrage after close-range barrage at officers who had to wait for permission to shoot back.
After the shooting, Jackson had been taken back to the station, debriefed and read his rights. Around midday he was hustled back out to the scene to wait another eight hours in the sun, suffering the weariness of an adrenaline hangover. His ringing ears and enforced isolation forced him inward, thinking less about the shootout and its possible consequences than about his family at home in Huntington Beach, his daughter and his wife, six months pregnant with another.
"We're out here (working) in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, and the people you care most about aren't even going to know something happened," Jackson said later.
Was it worth it, this work life that kept him away from the rest of his life so much?
At that moment it wasn't even the strain of risking his life that pressed heaviest. It was simple exhaustion. His work day had started with a traffic court appearance hours before his shift, and as the sun beat down him, it was stretching toward 36 hours.
Maybe, Jackson thought, the gunshots would stop ringing in his ears if he could get some sleep. He climbed into a van and closed his eyes. An LAPD sergeant sat in the front seat to prevent any chance of conspiracy.
The night of March 9, 2005, Jackson wasn't working with his usual partner, Trevor Wilson, a former basketball player for UCLA and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Instead, Jackson was partnered for the first time with Rich Ramos. The pair had been in the station for several hours, answering questions on a test, bored. Around 3 a.m., they heard a call telling them that a police cruiser was engaged in an active pursuit of an apparent drunk driver on Vermont Avenue.
"Let's go check it out," Jackson said.
Jackson and Ramos started following the chase, in the fog, from a block away. They watched as the driver of a Chevrolet Blazer stopped occasionally to throw a beer can or a cigarette at pursuing cars.
With nothing much happening, Jackson was ready to head back to 77th Street.
In the fog, the first shots fired were reported as firecrackers.
But Jackson's fellow officer, Kyle Remolino, in the vehicle nearest the Blazer, realized what was happening. He reported shots fired.
"How do you know those are shots," someone asked over the radio.
"Because there's a bullethole in my windshield."
Still, the police didn't shoot back.
The Blazer did a U-turn around a median and, like a passing man of war, opened fire on the line of patrol cars waiting to make the turn. The officers ducked behind the ballistic panels in their doors.
Again and again the Blazer pulls this broadside maneuver. But, every time, nobody shot back.
"I didn't want to see any of these guys get hurt," Jackson said. "I couldn't live with myself if that happened."
Jackson asked the sergeant in charge for permission to engage. But he was told to stand by.
When a lieutenant arrived and took over as incident commander, Jackson's patrol car pulled near. Jackson and the lieutenant spoke through their open windows.
"We gotta do something," Jackson said.
"Go do it."
Ryan Vargas can't get the cops to kill him.
It's March 9, 2005, in Los Angeles, and Vargas, 20, has a plan to die. He's even told his friends to watch the news because he's going out like Scarface.
But as the foggy night unfolds, things aren't going according to plan.
Vargas and friend Tony Diaz are doing their part, driving a Chevrolet Blazer up and down Vermont Avenue and shooting at police, their 500-round box of ammunition getting lower and lower.
But there's no response. The police – in part because of rules recently imposed upon them – are not yet returning fire.
Finally, a police cruiser pulls out of the pack pursuing Vargas and Diaz and settles in the Blazer's blind spot.
Officer Trevor Jackson lowers his passenger-side window and levels his Remington 870 shotgun.
As they pull up, Jackson's new partner, Richard Ramos, shouts out that he sees muzzle flashes. Jackson fires his four rounds, blowing out the windows. But most of the buckshot from Jackson's gun is blocked by the Blazer's wide pillars.
While Jackson switches to his pistol, the right-handed Ramos covers him with the only shot that's available – through the police cruiser's windshield. Ramos fires 17 shots in quick succession. Meanwhile, Jackson empties two magazines from his Glock .40, switching targets every few rounds between the Blazer's driver and passenger.
A few shots into Jackson's third magazine, something hits. The Blazer lurches, accelerating as it careens to the left and caroms off a curb, out of control. The Blazer then hops a curb, smashes through a wrought-iron fence and comes to a stop in a parking lot on the northwest corner of the intersection.
The men inside are still shooting.
Jackson and Ramos continue to shoot back. And, one after another, other LAPD squad cars roll on the scene, with 16 more officers eventually taking up positions and opening fire, most with handguns.
Five minutes into the firefight, a cease fire is called. Then someone spots the driver moving to reload. Officer Charlie Wonder walks up with a shotgun that fires a 1-ounce lead slug. He creeps around to the side, places the shotgun through an opening in the wrought-iron fence, and fires three shots. The slugs rip through the Blazer. The passenger, Tony Diaz, is dead. Vargas is pulled from the vehicle with 22 gunshot wounds. He lives.
Jackson made the obligatory visit to a psychiatrist, though he never had any nightmares about the shooting.
He saw a doctor, but ever since his partner fired through the windshield, his ears have been ringing. Over time, it's faded to the faintest drone. But whenever he's near running water Jackson hears a ringing sound.
Jackson eventually went out to Washington D.C. to receive an award for valor from a police league. He won a statewide Golden Badge award. But he's not pounding his chest about it. The Golden Badge award was, he says, for "heroism or whatever."
In May 2008, three years after the shooting, Jackson, along with several other officers, was awarded the Medal of Valor by the Los Angeles Police Department. He shared a stage at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood and Highland with Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief William Bratton.
Jackson had since joined the Huntington Beach Police Department, so the awards banquet was a chance for Jackson to see Ramos and some other old buddies. When he came up to shake the chief's hand and beamed out the crowd, he says now that he was amazed, impressed, humbled.
Jackson trusted in the good faith of the man shaking his hand. It had been someone else who'd reviewed his performance in the shootout and sent him and a dozen of his colleagues back to the academy for more training.
It took detectives more than a year to piece together the events of that night and present the case to a review board that oversees all LAPD shootings.
Half of Jackson's colleagues declined to attend to the review, since they weren't allowed to say anything in their defense. But Jackson went.
A detective gave a multimedia presentation on the events in question, offering detail that would put an MBA to shame. She'd linked up the actual radio broadcast from the shootout with PowerPoint slides and animation to bring it to life. Even so, Jackson said the presentation of an orderly series of independent actions made the blow-by-blow of that night seem like claymation.
"It's hard to get the chaos and the craziness of it… the gunpowder in your nose, the ringing in your ear."
One of the two captains of the 77th Street Division presented Jackson's side. Jackson had never met the man; he worked graveyard shift and the captain worked downtown.
The board had the option to reach one of four findings, three of which could affect Jackson and the other officers – no action, informal training, formal training or administrative disapproval for actions deemed out of policy. This last option is grounds for suspension or dismissal.
The board ordered formal training for Jackson. He was stunned.
Of the 17 officers whose tactics were reviewed, just four met with approval. Two were found out of policy, one for taking a line of fire that passed between two other officers and the other for using up his ammunition while standing in the open. Eleven were, like Jackson, ordered to attend formal training.
Nobody was criticized for inaction.
"It's bizarro world," Jackson said
"Putting something out of policy means there's a standard policy for a rolling gun fight between two cars. I don't know of any policy or training for that."
Jackson said the findings against him came from what he and others describe as an informal "burn 'em to learn 'em" policy among the LAPD brass. It's a policy that Bratton, he says, is dismantling.
Part of the new approach – an approach that changed Jackson's status to hero – includes the appointment of an awards coordinator who seeks out out nominations from field supervisors, the people who knew what was really going on.
"Under (former Chief) Bernie Parks, you weren't going to (get promoted) unless you were burning people," Jackson said. "Some of those people are still there. They want to beat anybody else to anything negative. Because if you don't, it shows you're too close to the troops."
About two years after the shooting – and a year after he was told to go back to formal training – Jackson left the LAPD and joined the Huntington Beach Police Department. The man who, after-the-fact, was named a hero in Los Angeles says he's happier with his new employers.