Police training: What's reasonable when a gun is involved?

By David Kroman
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Controlling the use of force is a prime goal of the police reform effort.

By David Kroman

The two seconds it takes me to draw my 9-millimeter and get off three shots is not fast enough to save my life.

Sean Ryan, a firearms instructor at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien, has, thankfully, disabled the part of the simulation that actually fires airsoft pellets back at you. Still, the man on the life-size screen has shot me, the cop, before running off unharmed.

By contrast, Ryan’s draw is closer to one second and his aim is true. The virtual man who has jumped from his car crumples onto the grass.

The lesson for recruits is clear: Things happen quickly and, to keep themselves safe, police must be ready to respond. One second makes a big difference. “Action always trumps reaction,” says Deputy Director of the WSJTC Commander David Bales. “While the intent and goal is to de-escalate and resolve the situation without use of significant force, the officer must also be prepared for the worst-case scenario.”

How do officers balance responsiveness and their own safety with solving the problem in a reasonable and responsible way? As calls for more examination of police gather steam, how can police training meet the demands of the public while also protecting its students? “That’s the million dollar question,” says Joe Winters, the commission's crisis intervention instruction deputy.

With the advent of video – from police cameras as well as the cell phones of passersby – calls for police accountability have grown as loud or louder than they’ve ever been. New recordings surface nearly every month, from the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Walter Scott in South Carolina to the now infamous pool party in Texas.

The most recent video, released this week, shows a woman in Texas dragged from her car during a routine traffic stop. She eventually hanged herself — police say — in a nearby prison. Law enforcement officials and politicians have denounced the officer’s tactics.

Police training has, at least in some places, attempted to make moves toward adding more de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques. In Seattle, a police video of the 2010 death of woodcarver John T. Williams is largely seen as the spur that kicked off federally mandated reforms. Among the priorities for reform is a constant monitoring of how officers are trained.

The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, the jumping-off point for police recruits known simply as the Academy, has made changes as well, without any federal mandate.

Former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr took the reins as director of the Academy in 2012. She has set out to make its environment less militant with a greater emphasis on critical thinking and communication. After mining academia for more effective police theory, Rahr introduced LEED, Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity, a reminder to officers to slow down and make the involved parties feel heard. Crisis intervention training requirements were upped significantly. And she introduced Blue Courage, a class to teach officers how to take care of themselves, control emotions and avoid burnout. Rahr’s efforts have not gone unnoticed: She was recently appointed to President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a group charged with improving relations between the police and their communities

All of this is done for one reason: reduce the need for force. In some ways, Sue Rahr is the woman of police reformers dreams. And yet a subtle tension between public perception and what training officers call the reality of police work persists in the halls of the training campus in South King County.

The nearly five-month course at the Academy is a sort of college for cops: They stay in dorms, eat pizza in the cafeteria, attend classes and lectures, and practice mock scenes. If the department is the house, says Officer Hicks, the academy is the foundation on which it’s built. “Nobody shows off the quality of a foundation,” he says, “but if you don’t have a good one, the whole house will fall down.”

Rahr’s reforms have been met with some skepticism. When she came aboard, she says, about a third of all academy staff quit. Some street level police challenged her approach directly.

This skepticism of new training techniques is not just pointed at Rahr. A recent New York Times video of an SPD training showed huge pushback from officers being shown de-escalation tactics. In fact, as a result, two officers were put under investigation.

At the base of these debates is the fear that de-escalation and safety are mutually exclusive. The concern trickles down to the recruits as well as the veterans. “I saw a video of an officer talking to a teenager in Arizona,” says one Academy recruit. “They were talking for two or three minutes, but when the officer turned away, the kid pulled out a .22 and shot him.” The recruit, who’s a tall, bald man with thick forearms and tattoos, says the softer approach makes him a little nervous. Before coming to the Academy, he says, “I thought cops were tougher.”

Another recruit agreed. “I hear they used to be real tough here,” he says with a twinge of longing. “But now it’s really easy. It’s like community college.”

Even as Director Rahr has emphasized listening and empathy, one priority remains: officer safety. That will not change, which in turn means guns aren’t going anywhere. “Officer safety is critical,” wrote Rahr in a Harvard Kennedy School publication. “We must maintain vigorous instruction on physical control tactics and weapons.” She has made good on her word, actually increasing firearm and tactical training since she took over as director.

"Those are basics of police tactics," says Seattle University Professor of Criminal Justice Mathew Hickman. "You’re always going to be trained on firearms."

In one mock scene on a sunny Monday afternoon, a recruit is playing the role of a suicidal man. He is holding a kitchen knife to his wrists while pacing the grass. Two other recruits, in their roles as the officers, approach the man. Each draws his gun.

The two officers do a nice job of talking the man down. Eventually he drops the knife. The instructor gives them praise, pointing to the scene as a great example of de-escalation.

But he had one critique: “I wish you’d drawn your guns a little earlier.”

Few can expect Rahr, or any other training officer, to ever deprioritize officer safety. The theory, though, is that by teaching officers to be better communicators and better thinkers, safety can go hand in hand with a reduction in force. But as the officers are asked to use more critical thinking and to rely less on formulas, the onus of making the final decision to use force falls squarely on their shoulders. “A ‘physical control as last resort’ maxim places immense importance on officer discretion,” says Rahr.

Commander Bales is Rahr’s second in command at the academy. “We instruct recruits that Washington state and federal law require that all uses of force be both ‘reasonable’ and ‘necessary,’” he says. “The factors that go into determining both are myriad and contextual — they do not lend themselves to an ‘if-then’ approach to use-of-force training.”

The issue is that there seems to be a gap between what is reasonable from the perspective of police and what is reasonable in the eyes of the public. "The core problem is there’s three perspectives," says Seattle University's Hickman. "The public view, the police department’s, which is whether the use of force was within policy, and then there’s the court, which bases reasonableness on what an objectively reasonable officer who had the same knowledge would have done."

"That’s the crux of the problem," says Hickman. "Members of the public are perhaps not able to accept that legal threshold."

In a recent op-ed in the Kitsap Sun, Kitsap County Sheriff Gary Simpson wrote, “Somehow in the middle of the focus on police accountability, which is always constructive and appropriate, we have lost sight of the fact that people cannot pick fights with the police.”

Police shootings of suspects this year in Pasco and Olympia — one involving a man throwing rocks, the other involving a skateboard — elicited significant public backlash. The sentiment of many was that the police response was excessive and unwarranted, especially with regard to the death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, which received international attention. A cell phone video shows Zambrano-Montes running down a main street, occasionally turning and throwing rocks. Officers fired 17 shots, hitting him with six.

It's not uncommon for departments to denounce the cases of Eric Garner and Walter Scott or the tactics of police in Ferguson or, most recently, the abuse of Sandra Bland in Texas. But Pasco is a little touchier. Officers at the academy were generally hesitant to comment on Pasco because it is still an open investigation, But one word kept coming up: reasonableness. No one at the Academy condoned the actions of the officers in Pasco, but they did allow them the benefit of judgment to act on what they felt was appropriate at the time.

“We have to do what we can to know we’re not in a losing position,” Kitsap Sheriff Simpson says, in an interview with Crosscut. “We have to know we’re in a situation where we can come out on top.” According to Simpson, the stakes of losing a fight are too high. If an officer is knocked unconscious, his or her gun is now up for grabs.

“As officers, we are all necessarily committed to never to get into a position to lose our gun, which means we cannot lose the fight, ever.”

Simpson’s argument is echoed inside the Academy as well. With regards to use of force, says Deputy Winters, “We have to go one step higher. If the perpetrator has a stick, we use a taser; if [he or she] has a knife, we use a gun.”

“There’s a commonly held belief that we should fight fairly,” says Training Officer Jenifer Eshom. But to truly control the scene, she says, officers have to maintain the upper hand.

"I can certainly appreciate the public view of proportionality," says Hickman. "Proportionality is intuitive. It makes sense that the public should think force should be matching. But it’s also natural that, to gain control of the scene, [police officers] should have to use a superior level of force."

In officer interviews following the shooting of Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, all three officers said they feared for their lives. Such is the difficulty of placing the significance on officer discretion: Regardless of even video evidence, if those officers genuinely felt like their lives were threatened, no amount of oversight or training would have changed the outcome. Regardless of de-escalation training, lethal force is considered a reasonable reaction to fearing for your life. “Rocks can kill you,” says the training academy's Officer Russ Hicks.

When firearms training officer Ryan let me hold the gun out of the holster, my reaction time dropped to below a second. My shots were high, but I got them off in plenty of time.

In the halls of the Academy in 2012, Rahr found posters of skulls and crossbones and warnings of officers killed in the line of duty. The message was, the world is out to get you. The posters are fewer now, in their place reminders of LEED and de-escalation techniques. But in the corners of classrooms and the tops of stairwells, there is the occasional reminder that, yes, you can be killed. Be prepared.

The question, then, is how many stark warning posters should stay on the walls? How far should officers be willing to go before they use a gun? So far, the only answer to these questions seems to be: Be reasonable.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.