By Adam Bowles
Pushed by civil rights advocates and others concerned about excessive use of firearms by police, some law enforcement agencies are adopting an approach that encourages officers to use less-than-lethal weapons and trains them in alternatives to extreme force.
“You can look at a lot of situations nationwide where an officer went out and got involved in a shooting when in hindsight they really wish they hadn’t,” said Maj. Steve Ijames of the Springfield, Mo., police department.
Ijames teaches a less-than-lethal weapons instructor certification course and a de-escalation course for two police organizations, the National Tactical Officers Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes special weapons and tactical training to 25,000 members, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the world’s oldest and largest nonprofit membership organization of police executives, with more than 17,000 members in over 100 different countries.
Since 1994, the nonlethal weapons training program has grown to about 35 presentations across the country every year. Ijames said the use of less-than-lethal weapons dates back to the 1880s, when police in Singapore shot broom handles to subdue people. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in use of less lethal bullets since the late 1980s, and especially in the last four years,” Ijames said.
Ijames and officials from the International Association of Chiefs of Police say there is enough anecdotal evidence to show that when police officers appropriately use nonlethal weapons such as pepper spray or find nonlethal ways to defuse a potentially deadly situation, the number of injuries and deaths — for both officers and others — decreases significantly.
In the past four months, Ijames said, officers in his department successfully used nonlethal force, including rubber bullets and beanbag rounds, in nine out of 12 cases in which an individual was shot.
“Most officers, in the absence of training and equipment, would have shot and killed, justifiably,” Ijames said. “The average cop would have perceived these (cases) as a deadly force scenario.”
In one instance cited by Ijames, a distraught man with a gun barricaded himself inside a car on his ex-wife’s property and shouted at police officers to kill him when he got out of the car. With a coat draped over his raised arm, as if to conceal a weapon, he rushed from the car and ran in the direction of the bright lights from the police cars. But the police officers had been trained to react in such a situation and had positioned themselves behind cover, away from the police cars. One officer fired four rounds of beanbag ammunition at the man until he stopped and dropped to the ground. They soon discovered he had left the gun in the car.
Ijames’ instruction on de-escalation focuses on scenarios in which police officers confront a suicidal or mentally deranged person, situations that are considered more controllable than, for example, a hostage situation, when officers often may have to place their lives in danger to resolve the crisis.
Patience, composure and keeping a safe distance from the suspect are the keys to de-escalation, Ijames said.
“The basic idea is to teach officers that place themselves in danger logical, thought-out ways to lessen that danger,” Ijames said. “It’s not rocket science. People say this is really basic: We should have been doing this a long time ago.”
Meanwhile, debate continues over when police should use lethal force. Some say an officer should only shoot when his or her life, or the life of someone else, is in immediate, obvious danger. Others say officers should have few restrictions on when to use lethal force in order to provide the best protection to officers and the public.
But the use of deadly force carries a cost. Civil unrest and disorder tend to follow a fatal shooting, said Rose M. Ochi, director of Community Relations Service, a Washington, D.C.-based mediation service that is an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. The service helps state and local officials resolve and prevent racial and ethnic conflicts, violence and civil disorders.
Ochi’s organization recently provided mediation services in Portland, Ore., after a black man died in a police officer’s chokehold. Discussion of police restraint techniques led to changes in policies regarding the use of force, specifically stopping the use of chokeholds. In May, the service endorsed efforts to reduce excessive-force problems and promote better community relations by providing officers with alternatives to lethal force.
“From Community Relations Service’s 35 years of conciliation experience in the area of race relations, we are convinced that incidents of police use of excessive and lethal force can be prevented, and the turmoil in the communities in the aftermath of such an incident can be reduced,” Ochi said in the report.
But she added that police departments can’t solve the problem simply by assuming that nonlethal weapons won’t result in injury. In fact, a false sense of their safety could lead to careless use, the report cautions. “There is a need to proceed with caution in establishing the threshold for police use of less-than-lethal methods or devices when they are introduced into the department,” Ochi wrote. “Officers should not be allowed to deploy any of these methods until they have been trained in their proper use.” The report advises that the application of less-than-lethal force or devices should be monitored since these means still have the potential to cause serious injury or even death.
Ijames said his officers are disciplined if they use less-than-lethal force in any situation that puts their lives in immediate danger and requires the use of deadly force. The officers who successfully complete Ijames’ certification course are expected to identify the appropriate response, including when to use chemical munitions, noise or flash diversion devices or rubber bullets and beanbags, which are fired from shotguns.
“Our focus is armed people who don’t do what we tell them to do, but where there is still no need for deadly force,” Ijames said.
Sometimes the strategy doesn’t work. Police in Springfield, Mo., recently confronted a suicidal man who rushed them with a knife. An officer quickly loaded rubber bullets into his gun, but the man had backed the officers against their vehicles so another officer was forced to shoot — and kill — the man.
Sometimes the nonlethal weapons themselves don’t work in stopping an aggressive, threatening individual, Ijames said. “It’s not a perfect product,” he said. “There are many ways you can simply not use it. Sometimes the rounds don’t work well. They don’t have the energy and it doesn’t stop reliably.”
In case those means fail, an officer at the scene is on alert to use deadly force. Also, less-than-lethal ammunition isn’t aimed at the head and chest because it could accidentally kill the person. Instead, legs and arms are the targets.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police is gathering information on the use and prevalence of deadly force, and preliminary data shows that police officers are much more likely to use less-than-lethal means to handle a volatile situation when given the choice.
According to the association, the rate of police use of force in 1999 — the most recent year for which data is available — was 3.41 times per 10,000 calls for service, based on information collected from 319 police departments around the country. Those departments responded to 39 million calls for service. There are approximately 18,500 police departments in the United States.
“The public has always been concerned about the decisions police make to use force,” said John Firman, the association’s director of research. “The image is that police use fatal force at higher rates. Obviously, police are using a huge amount of discretion when encountering a resisting subject.”
Since the association first began to collect data on police use of force in 1994, the number of agencies that have signed up for the free software to run the data-collection program has increased to 2,500. Local departments use the association’s software program to make policy decisions on the use of force. If deemed necessary, policy changes could include establishing a civilian oversight committee or appointing a civilian as a director of a police-training academy.
The secondary goal is to establish a national database, but experts say it will take decades before the information becomes statistically reliable. The departments remain anonymous in the national databank.
Police may use a variety of forceful methods when subduing a threatening suspect. The continuum includes — in order from least to most forceful — verbal commands, physical force such as laying hands on the subject, impact force such as a baton, chemical force such as mace or pepper spray, electronic force such as stun guns and, finally, firearms.
Pepper spray became a popular alternative to extreme force in the late 1980s. Firman said the number of suspect injuries, officer injuries and complaints against police departments have decreased since that time.
Firman said the international association’s new data bank will allow local police departments to weigh their use of force within a national context and determine whether they use firearms or force excessively. The association expects to release the next round of data at the end of 2000 or the beginning of 2001.
“If you find yourself on the wrong end of the bell curve they have an opportunity to take corrective action,” Firman said.