When Should Cops Go for Their Guns?

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Six years ago, I was killed by a guy with a baseball bat. The worst part was a cop yelling at me afterward, “Didn’t you consider the bat a deadly weapon?”

I hadn’t, and having my head bashed in assured that the lesson has stayed with me ever since. I’m around to talk about it because it was, of course, a simulation. The Duluth, Minnesota, police department had invited me, as then-editor of the local paper, and other prominent people in town to take the department’s training on the use of force.

We were outfitted with nonlethal and lethal weapons, including a Taser and handgun (unloaded, shooting a laser beam), taking turns reacting to characters on a giant screen. Situations included an active school shooting, encounters with vagrants, and domestic calls, with an officer selecting the scenarios.

In one, I shot a baby in the leg. Everyone shot it—only some shot it in the head. In another, I tried talking the subject down, which didn’t work because the simulator wasn’t interactive. The officer operating it gave me credit for trying, even if I ended up dead that time, too.

The main take-away that day was the department protocol: Always use the next-highest level of force than the person confronting you. That was my mistake with the baseball bat guy: I was trying to Tase him—to no avail; the probes bounced off—after he’d introduced a deadly weapon.

“It gets to gun very quickly,” Scott Lyons, Duluth’s police chief from 1992 through 2002, says of the next-highest-level policy. A person using his fists is answered by a baton or pepper spray; for a hammer or knife, it’s the gun.

But such policies—often referred to as the “use of force continuum”—are by no means universal. In the years since my time at bat in Duluth, simulators have become ubiquitous, and police trainers have expanded their repertoire, with an emphasis on ways to ramp down the level of force. If I say, “How about those twins?” and the bat guy decides to hit fly balls instead, I can re-holster my firearm.

“The buzzword right now is de-escalation,”says Mike Duke, a former Mesa, Arizona, police sergeant now with VirTra, a maker of high-end simulators. “Create an opportunity to use your verbal skills. That’s your biggest tool.” Trainers operating the new equipment can raise or lower the degree of threat depending on the participants’ responses.

“Not all the scenarios are ‘shoot/don’t-shoot,'” Duke says, adding, “All are winnable. They’re not ‘gotcha’ scenarios.”

The use of force isn’t just about choosing which weapon to use but whether to engage with a subject in the first place, says Lyons. Following his tenure as chief in Duluth, Lyons headed the law enforcement–training program at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in nearby Cloquet, Minnesota, for 11 years. There, in addition to simulations, he ran his students through cases of actual police-involved shootings.

A now-textbook case is the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The most critical decision point, says Lyons, may not have been the scuffle between Brown and Officer Darren Wilson at Wilson’s squad car window, or later when Wilson shot the (reportedly) approaching Brown.

Rather, says Lyons, it may have been Wilson’s decision to pursue Brown right after the initial struggle, when Brown was walking away from the squad car.

“In that case, maybe the best decision is ‘I’m going to wait for some backup,'” says Lyons, instead of Wilson’s decision to try apprehending Brown by himself.

(In an interview for an August 2015 article with the New Yorker, Officer Wilson is quoted describing his 2008 police academy instruction in terms that sound reminiscent of the training I took: “Wilson found the classwork fascinating, especially when he and other cadets role-played at handling stressful situations. If they made a mistake, Wilson said, the instructors pounced: “They’re—bam!—in your face. Done. ‘You’re wrong.’ ‘It’s over.’ ‘That person just died.'”)

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