Oakland police share use of force training with public, media
on December 13, 2010
As part of Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts’ new strategy to involve the community in policing policy, on Saturday officers held two sessions—one for the community and one for the media—on when police are legally allowed to use force.
At police headquarters in downtown Oakland, officers explained the training they receive on when to use force, took questions on specific scenarios and brought visitors to their training facility where attendees were allowed to participate in interactive video simulations of dangerous scenarios officers face in the field. “We’re not just teaching officers how to shoot at targets,” Sergeant Bryan Hubbard told journalists gathered in a classroom on the fifth floor of headquarters. “We’re teaching them how to think before that.”
The information sessions came a month after the officer-involved shooting of Derrick Jones, who was killed in East Oakland while trying to flee police. But on Saturday Oakland Police Department Assistant Chief Howard Jordan said the decision to offer the sessions was not related to Jones’ death. Jordan told reporters Batts had conducted such sessions when he previously headed the police force in Long Beach, California, where he is credited with drastically reducing crime, and that he has planned to initiate such meetings here since he was hired.
“Force” is defined as any action by a police officer meant to encourage compliance with his orders. An officer’s range of options is broad: giving loud commands, grabbing an arm in order to secure handcuffs and firing a gun all count as force.
Starting in 2011, OPD police officers will be trained in a method called “force options.” This allows an officer to choose the correct use of force for a given situation instead of following a prescribed route up a “force ladder.” For example, it may be more appropriate for an officer to use his can of mace before touching a person.
Police officers are legally allowed to use “reasonable force” to restrain a person subject to arrest or when a person fleeing an officer poses an immediate threat to himself, the officer or nearby civilians, Hubbard said. But, he said, much of the decision of whether or not to use force and what type of force to use is up to the responding officer.
“In law enforcement we want to teach people, here are all the different things you can do so that we don’t get to this point [of lethal force],” Hubbard said. “In a lot of ways that is complicated, but we put them through exercises so it’s all in their mind.”
Hubbard walked journalists through some of the legal history surrounding when it is legal for police to use force, explaining that case law regarding police officers’ use of force is interpreted under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits “unreasonable” search and seizure. But, Hubbard said determining what’s “reasonable” can be very hard. First, officers have to assess the threat, he said. Then they have to decide what type of force might be needed. And often, which response is best must be determined in a split second. “It is really easy to sit in a classroom and think, ‘Oh, this makes total sense,’” Hubbard said. “The application? Totally different thing.”
There are a few more definitive guidelines surrounding the use of lethal force, which is the most controversial type of force police officers may use. Courts have ruled that laws allowing the firing of a gun simply to prevent the escape of an unarmed subject are unconstitutional. (Shooting at someone who does not pose an immediate threat is considered an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.) The Oakland Police Department does not allow officers to fire warning shots, shoot at a moving vehicle or fire a gun from a moving vehicle. But for almost every other scenario outlined by curious journalists, Hubbard and other officers at Saturday’s information session gave the same answer: “It depends.”
The journalists wanted to know, is it OK to use lethal force on a fleeing suspect who is carrying a gun?
It depends, responded the officers — is he firing at you? Does he pose an immediate threat to others?
The journalists tried again: Should you reach for a Taser instead of a gun if a person is coming at you with a knife?
It depends, officers responded — how fast is the person moving? Do you have time to switch your gun for your Taser?
For every situation proposed, officers were ready with a dozen possible variables, showing that making split second decisions about how to respond is incredibly tricky.
During the second half of the training, the visiting journalists had a chance to make a few of these split second decisions. A basement room at OPD headquarters once used for shooting practice is now the interactive training department. A large white screen stands in the middle of the long room. A projector is mounted on the ceiling about 20 feet away and a computer sits on a desk off to the right. There is also a mini-wall, about the height of a patrol car, off to the left. Scattered on the desk with the computer were a red plastic gun, a blue plastic taser and a black plastic can of mace. But instead of bullets, electricity and pepper spray, these “weapons” are loaded with laser beams.
The system works like this: Videos of different policing situations are projected against the freestanding screen. Officers stand at the ready with all of the plastic weapons in their belt. As the situation unfolds on screen, officer can decide which, if any, of the fake weapons to use. When they pull the trigger, the screen reads both their aim and the type of weapon they’ve used and triggers a new video clip with the on-screen subjects responding appropriately.
Officer Chris Saunders, who has 11 years of experience as a police officer at the OPD, demonstrated first. For today’s session the visitors could not choose from the entire holster of weapons. Instead, the decision is made simpler for the visitors: to fire the gun or not to fire the gun.
Saunders stood in front of the screen, his gun drawn. The screen flickered to life and a women’s voice said, “You’re responding to a robbery in progress as you ID a subject fleeing from the building.” Sure enough, a man ran out of the bank we were all watching on the screen. The video was grainy and looked like it was recorded in the early 90s, but it was clear enough to see that the subject was a middle-aged man at a full run and carrying a small black sack.
“Freeze! Police!” Saunders called.
The suspect stopped running, but as he turned towards Saunders he pulled a gun. Saunders dashed for cover behind the mini-wall and called for the man to drop his weapon. The on-screen suspect did not respond and Saunders fired. The suspect staggered backwards and fell.
“I watch him fall,” Saunders said later, explaining the thinking process he’d used during his demonstration. “I scan the area and I see the other person.”
The other person was sitting in a white car pulled up to the curb of the bank. He was barely visible on the blurry screen, but he had a gun and he fired at Saunders. Saunders fired at him too. Saunders hit him, then called for back-up.
As the screen faded to black, Officer Frank Uu, who was operating the training software, reviewed the entire sequence of events and asked Saunders to justify each of his decisions to fire his weapon. Since both of the men Saunders shot at were aiming guns at him first, Saunders easily justified the shots he had fired. “For every round [you fire], you reassess and have to be accountable for it,” Saunders said.
This backwards evaluation is called a “debrief.” It is an important part of the training process, Uu said, because it allows trainers to remind officers of department policy and it creates a space for officers to think about the different options they could use in a similar situation in the real world.
Then it was my turn. I stood facing the screen, the red gun out in front of me as Uu has just shown me. The gun was surprisingly heavy in my hands. The screen lit up and I found myself facing a concrete wall. Though I knew this was all fake and remained well-aware of my actual surroundings, I was suddenly tense. I felt a bit like I was watching a badly recorded action movie, but this time it was on me if the plot went awry.
The camera panned left and suddenly a man holding a gun vaulted over a concrete wall. I rushed for cover and said, “Stop. Police!” Though the man did stop and turn towards me, Uu told me later that he hadn’t heard my command. Did I even say it? Did I just not bellow loudly enough? Or in my excitement, did I just think it?
The man raised his gun and pointed it at me. I fired once, twice, three times. There was no response on screen and then the interactive ended. I shot well, the officers told me, but apparently the battery in the gun was dying, they said, because the screen didn’t read any of the shots I fired.
In the scenarios Saunders and I tried, the action was pretty clear—most people wouldn’t question the idea that a police officer should fire back at someone who is shooting at him. But as the other journalists stepped up to try their hand at the interactive, many of the decisions they faced were much tougher. One on-screen man seemed to be reaching for a weapon, but really just had a bag of something in his hand. The “officer” shot him, which the real officers told her she shouldn’t have done.
Another on-screen character fired a shotgun from inside his car, then jumped out of the car without the gun and shouted that he wanted to give up. While the “officer” dealt with the shouting man, another man appeared from behind some bushes and aimed a gun. The “officer” shot him, but not the angry, unarmed man, which the real officers said was the right move.
Though real police officers receive extensive and ongoing training, they still must make split second decisions under immense pressure. Sometimes, the officers at Saturday’s session acknowledged, they do not make the right one.
Hubbard said he expected more public sessions like this one to be offered next year. Such sessions are a way for police to engage in a dialogue about their policies without the pressure of dealing with a particular incident, Hubbard said. Though there will likely not be another open session on use of force training until next year, Hubbard said the Oakland Police Department is interested in addressing other issues of concern to the community soon.
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