Police and use of force: Training, common sense dictate how to react

Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the nation watched.

Then it reacted. There were riots, death threats, protests, numerous arrests and attacks on law enforcement.

Questions were raised and police tactics criticized. The situation quickly escalated even though few details were immediately known about the confrontation between Brown and the officer.

Throughout the country, law enforcement officers deal with the public on a daily basis and most of the interactions end peacefully.

Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar talked with The News Tribune about police training and tactics related to use of force.

Question: How many stops a day do officers typically have?

Answer: Every day is so different. You have self-initiated stops and dispatch calls. I’d say on a typical day officers do anywhere from 10 to 20 calls.

Q: How often do they escalate to where use of force is needed?

A: Very, very few incidents, at least in Lakewood, end in any use of force at all.

Q: Per policy, at what point can an officer use force?

A: You can’t really spell it out in a manual of standards. It depends on the person and how they’re acting. A police officer is basically reacting to what other people are doing. You’re trying to de-escalate it. Then you get to a point to where you may have to go hands-on. You want to get them in handcuffs so everybody is safe.

It depends on what you’re presented with at the time. As a police officer, you need to take training and common sense to dictate how you react to a certain situation.

Q: How do you define use of force?

A: Any force necessary to overcome resistance.

Q: Are officers trained to go straight for their gun?

A: They’re not trained to go immediately for their gun. We spend a lot of time training in verbal confrontation skills. We want to talk our way out of the situation.

One of my philosophies, one of the most important things you can learn as a police officer, is when not to exercise your authority. A lot of times people just want to be heard. If you just listen and let the person talk, nine times out of 10 that will get you the de-escalation that you need.

When you go in and you’re heavy-handed, that tends to aggravate people and they get angry.

Q: What type of training do officers get in relation to use of force?

A: It’s called verbal judo. Basically it’s verbal de-escalation skills. We also have a lot of training in dealing with the mentally ill because of Western State Hospital. We train extensively in that area. So we’re more cognizant of dealing with them.

One other thing I do is send officers to Dale Carnegie courses. It’s basically how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people-type of training. It works well for police.

Everything we do out there is selling. We’re selling the people the idea of calming down. We’re selling them the idea that they’re going to have to go into handcuffs; get into the back seat of the car; go to jail.

If you can walk them through the process, there’s less chance they’re going to be aggravated with you.

Q: What happens once use of force is used? How is it looked at internally?

A: The officer fills out a use-of-force form and a supervisor signs off. Then it’s reviewed by Professional Standards and Training. Then they forward it to the assistant chief for a final look-see.

If somebody thinks the action was out of policy, the review will go to me and we’ll decide if we need to pull the officer in and talk to him, or do we do an internal investigation. If somebody does something they could have handled better, we might talk to them and say, “Hey, did you try this?”

The goal is to use no force. If that doesn’t work, then it’s the minimal amount of force necessary to get the job done.

Q: What types of incidents most often lead to use of force?

A: A lot of times it’s domestic violence situations. You’re going into a situation that’s already emotionally charged. They’re already so agitated. A simple traffic stop or contact on the street … can turn into a use of force if the person wants to fight.

You might go to 20 domestics and never have to wrestle anybody. You just never know. That’s the fine line.

The premises we try to affect is to go into a situation as openly as you can, the least threatening as you can and handle it knowing that at any moment it can go bad.

Q: Do officers draw their guns only if they intend to use them, or can they use their weapon to try to regain control of the situation?

A: If an officer pulls out his gun, he’s ready. If that subject is putting the officer or the public in imminent danger, the officer will make the decision in the field as to where it goes from here.

Q: How are officers trained to de-escalate a situation and keep it from going south?

A: You learn how to position yourself. Keep your gun side away from people. Keep distance so you have time to react.

We have scenario-based training two to three times a year. It’s something we do in Lakewood because we want people to be well-trained. People who are well-trained tend to use less force.

If you’re not confident in what you can do in your abilities, you might jump to force too soon because you’re not sure you can handle it.