Police shootings have been very much in the news in recent months, from Ferguson, Missouri to Pasco, Washington. And police decisions to use lethal force have been closely scrutinized and often criticized.
Last week, Southern Oregon University held an event where law enforcement officers from a variety of local agencies run students through realistic training exercises, including training in when to use – and not use – lethal force.
In a darkened classroom, John Davis is on high alert. He’s standing in front of a large projector screen, holding a 40 caliber Glock handgun. As a filmed scenario plays out on the screen, Davis interacts with the characters.
Narration: "You respond to a robbery in progress as you identify a suspect fleeing from a building outside.”
John Davis: “Stop! Stop! Police!”
The suspect turns and points a handgun at Davis.
John Davis: “Drop that …” (gunfire)
As Davis moves in on the suspect he’s shot, an accomplice in a nearby car fires a shotgun. Davis returns fire. (gunfire)
The screen fades to black ... Davis -- a student in the Criminal Justice program at SOU -- turns to get feedback from Sergeant Jason Antley of the Medford Police Department.
Jason Antley: “I think that’s pretty much a no-brainer. You shot that first guy … Why?”
John Davis: “He pointed a weapon at me.”
Jason Antley: (Chuckles) “Yeah.”
Antley is operating the computerized training system to present Davis and other students with a variety of scenarios in which they have to make split-second decisions on whether to fire or not. The guns are real Glocks, refit to shoot a laser that registers on the projector screen.
Student Serafina Pinsky was faced with a very different situation. On patrol in a park, she comes across a pair of young boys who are handling a pistol. When they see the police officer, the kids panic and one loosely waves the gun around.
Kid: “Officer, what do we do? We found this gun in the bushes!”
Serafina Pinsky: “Put the gun down! Put the gun down!”
Kid: “It’s not ours. We didn’t do anything!”
Serafina Pinsky: “Turn around!”
Antley and Sergeant Geoff Kirkpatrick evaluate Pinsky’s handling of the situation.
Jason Antley: “Good. You’re thinking. I like that. Why didn’t you shoot that kid?”
Serafina Pinsky: “He had a gun but he wasn’t pointing it towards me and he was vocally letting me know that he didn’t know what to do and he put it down without any resistance.”
Jason Antley: “Absolutely. I agree 100 percent on your decision.”
After the exercise, Pinsky says it was actually pretty nerve-wracking..
Serafina Pinsky: “You know, you definitely feel the pressure of having a weapon and being put into a specific situation that is very real-lifelike and ultimately you have to make the decision whether or not to shoot and take someone’s life.”
Pinsky says when she graduates, she plans to work in juvenile justice. She doesn’t see herself becoming a law enforcement officer. But, she says ..
Serafina Pinksy: “In the field am going into I will directly work with police in many instances, so I feel that the more exposure that I can get to the trainings that are involved in police activity and get an idea of their perspective on things I try to involve myself.”
Sgt. Antley says the Shoot/Don’t Shoot training is designed to put police officers on the spot.
Jason Antley: “If we can get them accustomed to operating under stress and making good, ethical, lawful decisions under stress in training, that will translate to the same kind of behavior pattern out on the street.”
Antley is well aware of the increased scrutiny that recent events have brought to police use of deadly force. He acknowledges that police sometimes make bad decisions. But, he says …
Jason Antley: “Contrary to some peoples’ belief, we do help a lot of people. We help people with mental health issues get services, we help people that are homeless get services. We’re solving crimes. We do a lot of good work. And it is a bummer that that stuff is not what makes headlines.”
Antley says officers need to be aware that what they do is judged not only according to the law and department policy, but in the court of public opinion, as well.