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Lt. Sekou Millington of the Oakland Police Department uses his taser to respond to a video scenario of a man wielding a knife.
Justice Lab

When Do You Go for Your Gun?

Training cops in the use of force.

Six years ago, I was killed by a guy with a baseball bat. The worst part was a cop yelling at me afterward: “Didn’t you consider the bat a deadly weapon?”

I hadn’t, and having my head bashed in assured that the lesson has stayed with me ever since. I’m around to talk about it because it was, of course, a simulation. The Duluth, Minn., Police Department had invited me, as then-editor of the local paper, and other prominent people in town to take the department’s training on the use of force.

We were outfitted with nonlethal and lethal weapons, including a Taser and handgun (unloaded, shooting a laser beam), taking turns reacting to characters on a giant screen. Situations included an active school shooting, encounters with vagrants and domestic calls, with an officer selecting the scenarios.

In one, I shot a baby in the leg. Everyone shot it — only some shot it in the head. In another, I tried talking the subject down, which didn’t work because the simulator wasn’t interactive. The officer operating it gave me credit for trying, even if I ended up dead that time, too.

The main take-away that day was the department protocol: Always use the next highest level of force than the person confronting you. That was my mistake with the baseball bat guy: I was trying to Tase him — to no avail; the probes bounced off — after he’d introduced a deadly weapon.

“It gets to gun very quickly,” Scott Lyons, Duluth’s police chief from 1995 to 2002, says of the next-highest-level policy. A person using his fists is answered by a baton or pepper spray; for a hammer or knife, it’s the gun.

But such policies — often referred to as the “use of force continuum” — are by no means universal. In the years since my time at bat in Duluth, simulators have become ubiquitous, and police trainers have expanded their repertoire, with an emphasis on ways to ramp down the level of force. If I say “How about those Twins?” and the bat guy decides to hit fly balls instead, I can re-holster my firearm.

“The buzzword right now is de-escalation,”says Mike Duke, a former Mesa, Ariz. police sergeant now with VirTra, a maker of high-end simulators. “Create an opportunity to use your verbal skills. That’s your biggest tool.” Trainers operating the new equipment can raise or lower the degree of threat depending on the participants’ responses.

“Not all the scenarios are ‘shoot/don't-shoot,’” Duke says, adding, “All are winnable. They're not ‘gotcha’ scenarios.”

The use of force isn’t just about choosing which weapon to use but whether to engage with a subject in the first place, says Lyons. Following his tenure as chief in Duluth, Lyons headed the law enforcement training program at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in nearby Cloquet, Minn., for 11 years. There, in addition to simulations, he ran his students through cases of actual police-involved shootings.

A now-textbook case is the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The most critical decision point, says Lyons, may not have been the scuffle between Brown and Officer Darren Wilson at Wilson’s squad car window, or later when Wilson shot the reportedly approaching Brown.

Rather, says Lyons, it may have been Wilson’s decision to pursue Brown right after the initial struggle, when Brown was walking away from the squad car.

“In that case, maybe the best decision is ‘I’m going to wait for some backup,’” says Lyons, instead of Wilson’s decision to try apprehending Brown by himself.

(In an interview for an August 2015 article with The New Yorker, Officer Wilson is quoted describing his 2008 police academy instruction in terms that sound reminiscent of the training I took: “Wilson found the classwork fascinating, especially when he and other cadets role-played at handling stressful situations. If they made a mistake, Wilson said, the instructors pounced: “They’re—bam!—in your face. Done. ‘You’re wrong.’ ‘It’s over.’ ‘That person just died.’”)

Refraining from giving chase may run counter to an officer’s urge to stop a bad guy from getting away, especially if the officer is focused more on controlling the situation than preserving the peace.

In fact, says Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, policing in America is all about control.

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“As much as people say it's about protection, the first thing that police officers learn about is the use of force,” she says. Regardless of a department’s policy, as long as officers have guns, “If things go the way police officers do not want them to go, they can use force.”

Haberfeld is also less-than-impressed by simulators.

“With all due respect to all these simulations, you can never, ever, in a million years replicate the sense of fear that enters a police officer’s mind when they're on the street,” she says. The machines also promote unhelpful competition, she adds, as my group exhibited in comparing who shot the baby where.

“It's not just about training. It's about personal maturity and your personal background,” continues Haberfeld, who served in the Israeli Defense Forces and later the Israel National Police. “People with military backgrounds are (wrongly) considered prime targets for recruitment. The only thing that military people are trained for is to kill. Nobody teaches the soldier to de-escalate.”

To find candidates better at de-escalation, she says, “The only solution is to look at recruitment and selection.”

Or look to police chiefs. A page from history suggests they could get their officers to practice de-escalation more often by mandating it.

In 1961, Albany, Ga., police Chief Laurie Pritchett learned that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was planning a mass protest against racial segregation. Unbeknownst to the civil rights leaders, Pritchett studied King’s nonviolent techniques and ordered his officers to respond in kind.

“No violence, no dogs, no show of force,” Pritchett recalled telling his officers in a 1985 interview for the documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”

“I said, ‘if they do this, you will not use force. We're going to out-nonviolent (them.)’”

King left town with segregation in Albany unchanged. It would be two years before authorities in Birmingham, Ala., turned police dogs and fire hoses on marchers, sparking worldwide outrage against the segregationists.

If Pritchett could use nonviolent tactics to thwart a campaign against oppression, what’s stopping modern chiefs from employing similar methods for more routine policing?

“Laurie Pritchett shows backing off the use of force can be directed to any police force, at any time,” says the Rev. Kristin Stoneking, executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The group trained King and earlier civil rights leaders in nonviolence as far back as the 1940s.

Stoneking says there are myriad ways to disarm a subject nonviolently if one is encouraged to do so. Police hostage negotiators do it routinely, and some of those skills, she says, could be taught to officers on the beat. Coming at it from a different perspective, Lyons agrees.

“There’s a training called Verbal Judo. Look it up. It’s very good,” Lyons says. “It’s what to do in conflict situations.”

Maybe even when responding to the guy with the baseball bat.