Reasonable Force: How Police officers train to make split second decisions
Eau Claire (WQOW) - A voice, a tazor or deadly force can all be used to defend law enforcement.
Police officers are required to use force daily, though the levels of that force vary depending on the level of threat.
Reporter Emily Valerio and Chief Photographer Steve Betchkal were given an inside look at the training the Eau Claire Police Department endures to be prepared for any situation that comes their way.
A police officer's tool belt doesn't hold a hammer or nails. Their gadgets make a utility blade and screw driver look tame. "Everything we wear on patrol weighs between eight and 11 pounds," Eau Claire Police Officer Terry Nicks said.
The burden of using those tools can weigh heavier than any measurement on a scale."We hear a lot of judgments as to, well why didn't the officer use a different weapon?" Officer Kyle Roder, with the Eau Claire Police Department, said. "Why didn't the officer go to a taser or pepper spray instead of maybe using a firearm?"
The answer ultimately comes down to location and level of threat. "If you're in a closed room obviously you don't want to use pepper spray due to cross contamination," Officer Nicks explained. "If they have heavy clothing on, the taser maybe ineffective."
If officers are presented with deadly force, they will not use a less lethal option, according to Officer Roder.
The decision to use deadly force is just 252 inches away. "Typically an edged weapon, at 21 feet. roughly, is considered a deadly threat," explained Lieutenant Jim Southworth with the Eau Claire Police Department. "What we're going to do is we're setting officer Nicks up 21 feet from me. I'm going to have an edged weapon on me, rubber knife, and I'm going to start rushing Officer Nicks. He's then going to have to make a decision."
Once Lt. Southworth starts to rush toward him, Officer Nicks shoots. "He reacted to that by trying to end that threat. The only way to end that threat, at that time, was to use a firearm," explained Lt. Southworth.
It took seconds to come within inches of the officer. "The suspect will cover that ground and stab you before you get your weapon our of your holster if you're not 100 percent fluid in your decision making and that gun coming out of your holster fast," Lt. Southworth said.
Part of a police officer's role to protect a community, and oneself, may require reasonable force. Mental preparation is key in a role that requires such force. No one enters this job or this line of work to have to do something like this, to have to end someone's life," Officer Roder said.
"If people drop the weapon then there's nothing to worry about," Lt. Southworth added.
But there are times when the job doesn't tolerate choice. It's been nearly sixteen years and Chief Jerry Staniszewski still remembers the details of March 12, 1999. He says, "Myself along with some other detectives were on our way to lunch," he said. "We were just about to park when a single tone went out that a man with a gun was at a hotel. As we arrived the individual had taken a hostage and was driving away. There was a high speed chase through town."
The chase ended when the squad car crashed into the suspect's vehicle. Leaving them muzzle to muzzle with the armed man and his hostage. Chief Staniszewski remembered the suspect putting a gun to the hostage's head.
At that point, instinct and training kicked in. "It was a decision that had final consequences to it," Chief Staniszewski said. "I wished it had never of happened or had been put in that situation but I don't doubt for a second that I made the right decision."
The chief said he's aware it could happen again; Any day, every day. "I hope I never have to do it again. In fact, I do think about what happens if it happens again? Because here I am in a smaller community, already been involved in one deadly force situation, so will people have confidence and second guess me as an individual because it may happen again," the chief added.
That criticism is a reality for officers everywhere. "One of the biggest challenges that a law enforcement agency faces when this happens is the scrutiny of not only the public, the media and community activists... It's a very stressful time for not only the officer but the department because there is a lot of second guessing and there isn't an automatic feeling that they made the right decision," Chief Staniszewski said.
"Officers are human. Officers are going to make mistakes. Sometimes we know the spit second decision officers make, as much training as they may have, may not be the right decision," Officer Roder added. "But again, they don't have that option of sitting back and analyzing it like we do see in the 24-hour news coverage or we see on social media."
Details masked by darkness become clear in the light of day. "One of the things that we see too often is we see fake guns. We see air soft guns, We see replica guns," said Officer Roder.
If you were given just a split second to decide what was real and what was fake, which would you choose? Lt Southworth said that when people have something in their hand, whether it be dark outside an officer has no idea what it is. "We have no idea if a fake gun is a fake gun, whether a cell phone is a gun and if it's low lighting and we're telling you to drop something, drop it. "
What doesn't make headlines are the times officers use reasonable force to deescalate a tense situation.
"The reality is, police officers take out their guns every day," said Chief Staniszewski.
Officer Roder said an officer doesn't have a mindset of shoot or don't shoot. "We hear that a lot," Roder added. "It's really what tool can I use and should I use, which tool am I authorized to use in this situation."
Tools not limited to the belt at their waist. "There are so many times when officers use communication, use their physical presence to avoid those situations," Roder said.
That's why officers train at 21 feet. Eau Claire Police are required to train at least 24-hours per year, but it usually ends up being more.
"The more we train the more likely we are to make those proper decisions," Officer Roder added.
Last year there were 24 officers in the state cornered into making that tough decision. To fire in self-defense. We expect police to get it right one hundred percent of the time. But is that a reasonable expectation of reasonable force?
"We have to remember in each of those shootings there's at least one officer who left his or her family that day thinking that they were going to a routine job," said Roder. "We're prepared to lose our life to protect our community in the line of duty. However, we're not prepared to lose our life at the expense of the bad guy who's trying to kill us."
In ten of those officer involved shootings the suspect was killed. When that happens, the officer doesn't go back to work right away. They are required to take some time off and there's also an investigation process that takes place.
In the Eau Claire Police Department there are currently three officers who have been involved in a fatal shooting.
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