EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The use of force by police often draws controversy. More so since the murder of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis Police.
But, as a team of federal agents that travels the country sharing their expertise in the use of deadly force with local police departments will tell you, it’s not easy making split-second life and death decisions.
In most cases, even the most liberal courts side with police officers in wrongful death cases because the law allows them to err on the side of community protection.
“This is the central question: based on the totality of facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time, was the use of force reasonable?” said Paul Massock, special operations division deputy chief for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “The ‘reasonable’ must be judged from the perspective of the officer on the scene at the time, not with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
The ATF team on Tuesday put on a use-of-force seminar for members of the El Paso news media who report on crime issues. The “walk-in-their-shoes” perspective included interactive training that showed the journalists how routine traffic stops can become deadly shootouts and how officers must make the call to draw their guns in a matter of seconds.
The officers are trained to read cues such as aggressive body postures, threatening language and what a person is doing with his or her hands. Sometimes the officers make mistakes, such as when a person reaches for the back of his pants and pulls out a cellphone, not a gun.
“Split-second decisions mean that officers can make mistakes. What the courts look for is if the mistake was ‘reasonable.’ You don’t need to see the glint of steel of a gun before firing. Maybe it was wrong, but it’s legally acceptable,” Massock said.
The ATF training includes dash-cam videos of officers who got shot because they did not perceive a person as threatening or relied on voice commands to get someone to drop a gun. “People talk about de-escalation, but de-escalation takes two persons to work. How many times does the officer have to shout, ‘drop the gun!’” Massock said.
In presenting “the other side” of public perception of eagerness on the part of police to use deadly force and of social media posts showing alleged excessive use of force, the ATF trainers argued that the public for the most part doesn’t have the full picture.
When officers appear to be predisposed to use force against someone it’s often because the 9-1-1 operator or police dispatch gave him information that puts him on his toes. “The officer has all the facts. Citizens often only see the end result. The officer has knowledge and experience that the general public does not,” Massock said.
Asked about a recent incident in El Paso involving a homeless man whom witnesses said was doing nothing wrong and may have had mental issues but nonetheless was allegedly beaten by police, the trainers said they were not familiar with the case since they’re not based in El Paso.
However, they said mental issues, diabetic shock and other medical conditions should be considered when trying to figure out why a person is agitated. But that’s provided and the officers have that information at the time.
Some of the journalists got to take part in interactive training that allowed them to use guns with blanks on video-simulated police calls. One journalist waited to shoot a knife-wielding woman who ended up stabbing a man. This reporter emptied the clip of a gun at a bank robber holding a firearm, missing most shots at the moving target and hitting the pavement and a wall. An accomplice inside a car who initially appeared to be a bystander shot the pretend cop dead.
Massock said an officer or a criminal may fire five to six shots per second in the heat of battle, which answers the question, “why did the cop have to shoot him so many times?”
The trainers said the courts have stated they allow police to use force on citizens because, otherwise, the law would only apply to those that want to comply with it, but not the transgressors.