Citizens Police Academy: Use of Force and Active Shooter

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The most anticipated session of the Hatboro and Horsham Citizens Police Academy occurred two weeks ago with the presentation of Use of Force as it applies to the difficult duties of criminal arrests and preserving public safety.  In the wake of recent controversies over the use of deadly force by police officers, I anticipated an extremely interesting presentation and lively discussion.

The Use of Force presentation was provided by Officer Mike Peters, a veteran of the Horsham Police Department since 1988.

The presentation began with the definition of Use of Force, which was mind-opening from the perspective that there is no single definition of Use of Force that’s generally accepted by police or other experts in the field of law enforcement.  For the purposes of our seminar the standard cited by the International Association of Chiefs of Police was used.

The amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling suspect.

From there the discussion moved to several key United States Supreme Court (USSC) cases, specifically Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor. 

Tennessee v. Garner involved a fatal police shooting of an unarmed burglary suspect who was attempting to flee from arrest.  A federal Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s ruling against the shooting victim’s father in a $2 million lawsuit, citing the shooting as an excessive and unreasonable means of effecting Garner’s arrest.

Graham v. Connor involved the forcible arrest of a man exhibiting erratic behavior, including an apparent shoplifting, while in the throes of a diabetic attack.  Although officers had restrained Graham forcibly, he had been released as soon the true basis of the incident and Graham’s behavior were determined.  However, Graham still took police to task for the use of excessive force.

Both cases led the USSC to begin to identify those circumstances where force can be used appropriately.  As in Tennessee v. Garner, the Court has stated rather clearly that deadly force should only be used on a fleeing felon who poses a significant threat of harm to others.  In Graham v. Connor the USSC ruled that use of force should be applied under the “reasonableness standard” of the Fourth Amendment.

Next Officer Peters launched into a discussion of Pennsylvania’s legal standard for use of force as cited in Title 18 (Crime and Offenses), Chapter 5, § 508.  The Code sets forth the following (not all-inclusive):

  • Law enforcement need not retreat from efforts to effect an arrest because of resistance or violence.
  • Officers are justified in using such force as they believe necessary to make an arrest; to defend themselves; or to protect the public in the course of their duties.
  • Deadly force is authorized only when the officer believes such force is necessary to prevent serious injury or death to themselves or others.
  • Officers are authorized to use force, including deadly force, to prevent the escape of any prisoner from a correctional facility.

The process by which the officer’s belief that force is necessary is articulated in the Use of Force Report. These are used widely throughout the country to document an officer’s perspective in a use-of-force incident.

Use of Force Reports will include the following (not all-inclusive):

  • Background information, including number of officers and subjects involved, witnesses and specifics of the location (layout, tightness of quarters, maneuverability, obstacles, etc.)
  • Approach or why contact was initiated; reasonable suspicion, probable cause, warrants, disturbance call, etc.
  • Tactical considerations: approach, distance, positioning, tactics
  • Early warning signs or pre-attack posture of the subject (if applicable)
  • Conditions of the subject: mental, emotional, drugs/alcohol, crisis, control, etc.
  • Weapons: on the scene, available to officer and to subject
  • Special considerations: perception of threat; officer’s knowledge of the subject; officer injury, conditioning, exhaustion

Evaluation of use-of-force incidents will include all evidence and the perceptions of the officer(s) involved as expressed in interview and on the Use of Force report.  In addition, such evaluation will look at physical comparisons between the subject and officer (size, weight, gender, skill level of subject); specifics and limitations in the physical location, the subject’s perspective if available, steps of escalation and de-escalation, etc.

Obvious principles in the use of force normally apply during an arrest for known or suspected criminal conduct, which can occur under circumstances of reasonable suspicion; probable cause; or known wants and warrants.  Arrest can only be achieved when the subject/suspect is under control.

An often overlooked aspect of any use of force incident is the suspect/subject’s frame-of-mind and willingness to obey lawful commands.  Often this decision is clouded by alcohol, drug use, mental instability, or their mindset towards authority.

Use of force must cease once control has been effected.  An officer’s responsibility is to determine how much force is necessary to overcome resistance.  Part of that decision-making process are situational components, such as number of responding officers, physical characteristics of the subject (size, gender, conditioning, etc.), and the choice of options available to the officer(s).  These options, known as the Use of Force Continuum, are in ascending order of intensity:

  • simple dialogue
  • escort techniques
  • pain compliance (very difficult to use on actively resisting individuals)
  • mechanical control (e.g. painful manipulation of the arms)
  • chemical sprays (hard to control, harmful to all in close quarters)
  • impact weapons (e.g. batons)
  • firearms

image004The goal of any confrontation is to exert control.  An officer must have the mindset that he must win such confrontations 100% of the time (self-preservation), while considering the likelihood of establishing control vs. the potential damage to the subject.  Finally, the use of force frequently escalates and de-escalates several times in the course of one confrontation.

At this point, I have to be honest in my disappointment at the way the use of force presentation was structured.  This was the one presentation to which I was most looking forward; and I was disappointed for several reasons.  My primary disappointment was in the lost opportunity to have a frank, open, and honest discussion among a somewhat diverse audience that appeared extremely interested in the topic, particularly given recent controversies over police confrontations in places like Ferguson, MO and New York City.

My opinion, which I expressed to one of our instructors, was that too much information was crammed into this session, in part due to the inclusion of a presentation on active shooters which followed.  My suggestion was that Use of Force should be the lone topic for the evening with a suitable portion of the session dedicated to open discussion.  I believe this would serve as an opportunity for the instructors to provide their own most personal viewpoints and to instill a level of confidence in the public to whom these sessions are intended to reach.

To underscore this, I spoke to one of my fellow CPA attendees, a Liberian immigrant, who I discovered has been driving to Horsham from Northeast Philadelphia (roughly a 60-90 minute round trip) simply for the opportunity to learn and understand more about the role of law enforcement and the community-cop relationship.

Lawrence related his biggest question concerned why the community-cop relationship was so contentious.  (Living in Philadelphia certainly would provide a greater opportunity to witness such contention, in my opinion.) 

Lawrence framed the issue from his perspective in one way that confirmed some of my own opinions about the community-cop relationship and race.  He described his general experience with the police by stating that his limited interactions were much more contentious when a black cop was involved.  I took that to mean that for him it is more an issue of authority than race.

And that’s one crucial element of the community-cop relationship that might have benefitted from an open and honest classroom discussion on Use of Force.

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Active Shooter

The second half of the session was a presentation by the seminar’s work horse, SGT Pete Van Dolsen, Hatboro PD, that addressed Active Shooter situations, such as those at Columbine HS in Colorado (1999) and Virginia Tech University (2007).

Several crucial factors set active shooter situations apart from other criminal shootings:

  • The events are often well-planned by the perpetrators.
  • The shooters are very mission-oriented and as a result appear to remain very calm among the chaos they create.
  • The perpetrators often have trouble coping; are anti-social; and view themselves the victim of some wrong-doing

Prior to the calamity at Columbine, the police strategy in active shooter incidents was to surround, organize, then overwhelm the shooter(s).  Unfortunately the carnage at Columbine and the realization that in such incidents a death can occur every 8 seconds, changed that approach to one of immediate entry, search, confront, and arrest/neutralize.  The examples cited, going all the way back to the University of Texas clock tower shootings in 1966, illustrate that the quicker law enforcement engages the shooter, the sooner the killing of innocents stops.

There is no more time to kill when you are trying to evade capture or the aggressive suppression by trained officers.  In most cases, the shooter ends up killing themselves or completing their plan through suicide-by-cop.  In any case, aggressive police intervention changes the dynamic dramatically.  The shooter becomes focused on the police intervention.

One startling fact offered was the frequency in which shootings at schools has escalated.  Between 1966-96 there were 15 reported school shootings.  In 2013-14 there 17!

After several workplace shootings, my employer began offering training in surviving potential active shooter situations.  The need for this training was underscored in 2013 with the mass shooting that occurred at the Washington Navy Yard.

Our training emphasizes the following actions to take in an active shooter situation:

  1. Flee the area if at all possible
  2. If unable to flee, shelter in place preferably in a room with a door that locks without a window.
  3. If sheltering in place, make certain to follow all law enforcement instructions regardless of your state-of-mind or your assumptions of the shooter’s status.  Responders may not be convinced that all shooters are in custody or neutralized.
  4. If cornered with no escape path, fight with whatever is available.

Police reactions will adhere to the following pattern:

  • Contact mode:  location of the shooter is known
    • Contain, control, communicate, gather resources
  • Search mode:  location of shooter unknown
  • Rescue mode:  subject neutralized or gone from immediate area

First responder priorities in an active shooter situation will be the protection of:

  1. Shooting victims
  2. Other citizens
  3. First responders themselves
  4. Shooters

And so ended a very long night of rather depressing subject matter.

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One thought on “Citizens Police Academy: Use of Force and Active Shooter

  1. Yes, too bad the Use of Force segment was not given on its own dedicated night. Maybe if there is any range time in your class you guys will revisit use of force and possibly get to access a simulator or other shoot / don’t shoot presentation.

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