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Police: Vernon Hills shooting ‘a last resort’

VernHills police officer medirelations member  SharJoseph. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Vernon Hills police officer and media relations member, Sharon Joseph. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: May 14, 2013 6:12AM

When a Vernon Hills policeman shot a suspected attacker last week, it was the first officer-involved shooting in the village’s 57-year history.

It was not the first Lake County police shooting in recent memory, but area officials say the use of deadly force is uncommon — and a last resort.

Most agencies keep logs of how often guns are removed from their holsters, and investigations are done any time a weapon is fired.

“As police officers we’re trained for when it happens, not if it happens,” Vernon Hills police spokeswoman Sharon Joseph said about using firearms on suspects. “We went a long time without needing to and we hope we wont need to again anytime soon.”

Mundelein resident Howard R. Lazarus entered the Vernon Hills police station in the early hours of Wednesday, April 3, and initiated a violent confrontation with an officer using a replica handgun. The officer fired when Lazarus pointed the realistic-looking fake gun at him. Later, police found a note on Lazarus explaining he had a death wish.

“He had every right to shoot the suspect,” Joseph said. “There was no way to tell if it was a real gun. At that point, you have to assume it was real.”

The Lake County Major Crimes Task Force is investigating the incident to determine if deadly force was necessary, while the officer involved remains on administrative leave.

Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran said “death by cop” occurs everywhere with more frequency of late, and it puts both law enforcement and nearby citizens at risk for “selfish reasons.”

“There’s always some sort of trigger, whether it be economic or interpersonal,” Curran said. “We’re dealing with a lot of people with mental illnesses and we have less resources to offer them. We’re also seeing less people turning to faith with their troubles.”

Deputies diffused two similar situations in June without the use of their guns, Curran said. One was in Antioch and the other in Gurnee. Otherwise, deputies have only fired their guns three times in Curran’s six years in office, he said. All three incidents occurred within an 18-month span.

“We’re not cowboys or commandos,” Curran said. “Nobody is proud of having to fire on another human being.”

The first shooting happened in January 2007, when an intoxicated man took hostages in a bar near Antioch and later rushed out the door firing his .22-caliber handgun at deputies. The man was shot and killed.

In March 2007, an altercation in Wauconda turned into a six-mile police chase to Park City. A deputy sheriff shot the male suspect in the head when he pointed a gun at then-Park City Police Chief Mike Scornavacco. The man survived his injury and faced charges.

A woman wielding a samurai-type sword was also shot twice by deputies in April 2008 when they responded to disturbance calls outside her home near Antioch. Officials at the time said she lunged at deputies when they ordered her to stand down. Shots were to her abdomen and buttocks, and the woman survived and later faced charges.

“The major crimes task force ruled our actions justified each time,” Curran said. “Ultimately we tell our officers to go home to their families every night.”

Regardless of why, Curran said the use of guns in any way is heavily monitored. Deputies are trained to only draw their weapons if they intend the fire, he continued, and they must not point directly at the suspect until the very last moment.

Those three shootings were classified as “isolated incidents,” Curran said, and deputies only remove guns from holsters about a dozen times a year.

“Most people obey verbal commands,” Curran said.

Mundelein’s only shooting was in March 2005 when three officers attempted to corral a college student from Chicago on DUI charges. One officer fired after he was hit by the suspect’s car. The driver was struck in the back twice and police later learned he was drunk and high on cocaine. He eventually faced charges.

“The Illinois State Police justified that use of force,” Mundelein Police Chief Eric Guenther said. “In most violent situations we prefer to use non-lethal measures after slowing the pace and attempting to reason with the individual.”

Guenther said Tasers are used two-or-three times a year, as are “Super-Sock” beanbag-propelling weapons.

“The other thing to remember is that nobody had ever heard of Newtown or Columbine before their shootings,” Guenther said. “Their statistical likelihoods were low. We all have to be prepared for a lethal confrontation and hope it doesn’t occur.”

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