Friendly Fire 

When OPD rookies Timothy Scarrott and Andrew Koponen fired on Willie Wilkins, they thought he was just another street thug. They were wrong.

Officer Timothy Scarrott saw him again each morning when he woke up: The man in the gray sweatshirt. He was pointing a gun at the other guy's head. Then he leaned forward as if he was about to fire.

On this particular morning in early February 2002, the image was fresh in Scarrott's memory. But this time, he had to replay it out loud in a sworn deposition. Flanked by his attorneys, the 24-year-old patrol officer took his seat inside a downtown conference room.

"I hope you can bear with me," the rookie said. "This is my first deposition."

The attorneys took Scarrott back in time to the night of January 11, 2001. He had been on the force for only four months, but already had developed a nightly ritual. He arrived in the locker room around 8 p.m., polished his badge and boots as usual, and read the bulletins before the lineup, where he'd get his assignment from the shift supervisor.

That night he'd ride with Andrew Koponen, or "Kop," as the guys called him. At 29, Kop was older than Scarrott, but also a rookie with just four months of experience. The two were assigned to one of the city's toughest 'hoods, Beat 34 -- the flatlands of East Oakland.

Unknown to both of them, another young officer had prepared for duty in the locker room earlier that afternoon. Unlike Scarrott and Kop, he'd already made a name for himself. Willie Wilkins, 29, had seven years under his belt and a reputation as good police. The man worked overtime, undercover, Beat 34 -- didn't matter, friends said. At his locker, Wilkins bumped into his friend of seventeen years, Officer Torrey Nash.

Nash could tell Wilkins was going undercover. Instead of police blues, he wore a gray Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt, loose jeans, and gold hoop earrings. The olive-skinned Wilkins had trimmed his goatee, stuffed $280 in his wallet, and carried his personal gat, a chrome-plated model that was a far cry from the department's lumpy black Glock. Beneath his shirt, Wilkins wore his badge on a military dog-tag chain. He rolled out of the parking lot in a silver Dodge Durango.

As Scarrott recalled how the night began, he admitted replaying the events in his head to maddening lengths. Each time he reviewed where he and Kop started out, how the night ended, and how they got there, he couldn't imagine doing anything differently. It was an accident, he said. It wasn't bad policing. He did what he was trained to do. It was just how things went down.

Exactly what went down that night is still in dispute. Even Scarrott and Kop, who stood less than fifteen feet apart during the shooting, remember it differently.

Officer Nash, Wilkins' longtime friend, recalled it yet another way. In the eyes of this ten-year veteran, Wilkins was in the process of making a textbook arrest on a high-risk suspect when the rookies breezed onto the scene and opened fire.

In any case, the whole episode lasted about five seconds, perhaps ten or fifteen. Everyone's recollection differs, depending on their vantage point. And even though the officers and the two other eyewitnesses won't talk about it now, their versions are laid out in lengthy court depositions and police reports -- all of which, varied as they may be, converge at the same tragic ending.

"I had hoped when he turned around and looked at me, I thought maybe he'd drop the gun," Scarrott said. "Maybe he knew we were the police. Maybe he'd give up, and at least lower the gun and point it at the ground and drop it. But when he turned around and looked at me and didn't drop it ... I didn't know what he was going to do."

Scarrott and Kop didn't know each other well. Both were stocky, well-built guys who'd ridden in the same car a few times in late 2000, but had never socialized outside work. On the day after the shooting, both spent hours with Concord psychologist Robert Flint, who specializes in dealing with cops. Flint soon diagnosed both men as having post-traumatic stress disorder and suggested they visit the On-Site Academy in Gardner, Massachusetts.

The academy was the only place of its kind in the country, a shrink house for cops and firemen who were having trouble coping. Five days of group therapy. No booze, TV, or Internet, just wall-to-wall counseling sessions. No cop wanted to end up there.

The counselors told the rookies that to heal, they would need to get back into the routine of police work.

They'd need to put on their uniforms, go to the range, and fire their guns. Still, even while counseling together, the two men didn't so much as share a meal, and kept the details of the shooting to themselves. "We talked about how we felt about things," Scarrott recalled of the counseling, "not specifically about the incident."

Neither man had imagined anything like this when they joined the force.

Scarrott grew up in Fairfield, and wanted to become a cop after high school. He got an AA degree in criminal justice from Solano Community College and applied to departments all over California when he was 21. In 1998, the Oakland department took a look at the young man, but he came up short. Scarrott recalled a sergeant telling him the OPD was looking for guys with "more life experience." While he waited for other police departments to respond, Scarrott sold car stereos and installed car alarms. One year later, the OPD called back.

At the academy, Scarrott was asked how he would deal with it if he had to take a life. "It scared me," he recalled in his deposition. "I was raised a Christian, and in the Bible, 'Thou shalt not kill.'"

Kop was a little more seasoned when he got hired. He grew up in Livermore, and took ride-alongs with BART cops just for fun. He graduated from Humboldt State with a degree in political science, and joined the Army. He was hired by the Oakland department in 1999, but took time off when his unit was sent to the Middle East. "When I came back, the sergeant said, I think, basically, 'Wanna ride with him?'" Kop recalled of his meeting with Scarrott. "And I said, 'Sure.'"

On New Year's Eve 2000, the pair had their first memorable experience together. They responded to a domestic violence call, and found a wild boyfriend choking his girlfriend and smashing her head against the front door. A fight between the officers and the man lasted "several minutes," Scarrott said. It wasn't much, but the partners had gotten a taste of the streets.

They'd been trained that things happen quickly on the job and that keeping a level head was key. But when shit got hot, the mind could play tricks. In Massachusetts, when Scarrott and Kop replayed the shooting, they saw how unreliable their memories were. They learned about the phenomenon of "temporal exclusion," when the mind, under duress, misjudges lengths, distances, and time frames. And they learned about "auditory exclusion," when the mind blocks out sounds, words, phrases.

For Scarrott, time had distorted to slow motion. Kop had it worse. Time froze on him.

Thursday nights, when the department's staggered workweeks overlap, are always well staffed. Generally, there are more cops than patrol cars. Since veterans get to pick the best shifts and beats, the graveyard rotation in East Oakland's "Dogtown" usually falls to the new guys. They call it that for all the pit bulls that guard the one-story homes. It's also not unusual for stray dogs to end up roaming the neighborhood in packs.

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