Local law enforcement agencies discuss officer safety, training for force
In the wake of two separate officer-involved shootings in Placer County in one week, authorities are discussing the training members of local law enforcement receive when it comes to officer safety and using varying degrees of force.
Between the start of 2009 and the end of 2010, more than 100 police officers and sheriff’s deputies were murdered by suspects in the line of duty in the U.S., according to records from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Due to the high level of danger involved with law enforcement — both for the officers and, in some situations, the public — the state of California requires defined, uniform protocol for law enforcement personnel through the Commission on Peace Officer Training and Standards, or POST.
“POST is a voluntary, incentivized program that law enforcement agencies can choose to participate in,” said Charles Evans, a legislative analyst with POST. “We set the minimum standards for training that the Attorney General says should apply to everyone, which includes the use of force.”
California currently has 40 different POST-affiliated police academies. Experts from POST certify the mandatory training and curriculum cadets receive from these academies and then conduct regular audits on their classes. But an academy education is only the beginning: POST requires law enforcement agencies to keep their officers’ training on tactics, safety and the use of force constantly updated.
One of the people that job falls to at the Roseville Police Department is Sgt. Doug Blake. “From the time an officer is at the academy, to the training they get here at our department, it’s emphasized that officer safety is one of the highest priorities,” Blake said. “We do training on everything from defensive tactics, to verbal techniques, mindset, physical presence, empty-handed force, non-lethal force and deadly force. Almost all of it is drawn from situations that have already happened. Anytime an officer across the nation has something go wrong with force, or is killed on duty, we get debriefed on it. We learn what worked well for safety and what didn’t. The hope is you can see how to keep a dangerous situation from becoming a deadly one.”
In Placer County, police officers and Sheriff’s deputies carry several non-lethal weapons on their belts, primarily Tasers, batons and pepper spray. Some patrol vehicles are also equipped with bean-bag shotguns, rubber bullets and pepper ball launchers, which fire projectiles that spread hot pepper irritant to briefly disable suspects. When available, police K-9s are also considered a less lethal option for force.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on what it terms as an “objective standard for reasonable use of force,” which emphasizes evaluating the officer’s decision-making based on what he or she knew at the moment the confrontation happened.
“It’s not a standard that takes hind-sight into consideration,” Blake said. “It recognizes that law enforcement officers encounter tense, volatile and rapidly evolving situations that have a lot of unknown factors.”
Blake also pointed out that the California state law dictates peace officers do not have to retreat while trying to make an arrest, adding “that can be interpreted that we’re almost obligated to stay in the fight, and not retreat, until the situation is under control.”
Despite these legal definitions, the use of deadly force around officer safety can become a controversial topic in certain publicized cases. On Saturday, Sept. 22, Paul Storey was shot and killed during a confrontation with two officers from the Roseville Police Department. The 35-year-old was allegedly struggling with one of the officers in a way that made the other officer fear for his partner’s life. The next evening, around 7:30 p.m., Placer County Sheriff’s deputies fired on Shaun Rainsbarges after Tasers allegedly failed to stop the Colfax man from charging them with a knife. Rainsbarges was hit but survived.
Storey and Rainsbarges were both domestic violence suspects. Though domestic violence calls are considered among the most dangerous situations peace officer encounter, news reports on cases such as those of Storey and Rainsbarges trigger some in the public to question why non-lethal force was not employed instead of deadly force. From Blake’s perspective, the public may not understand the physical limitations of non-lethal weapons, such as Tasers, which have been known to fail, or pepper spray, which if used in the wrong scenario can leave the officer partially blinded.
Blake’s counterpart trainer at the Placer County Sheriff’s Department, Lt. Troy Minton-Sander, also stressed that law enforcement agencies are limited on how much information they can release in the early phases of investigating any officer-involved shooting. “There are a lot of details that can’t be made public in the beginning for specific reasons,” Minton-Sander said. “It takes a certain amount of time before all of the facts are known. The bottom line is that the law enforcement agencies in Placer County do everything they possibly can to prevent lethal force situations from happening.”
Minton-Sander noted one way his agency tries to avoid fatal outcomes to cases is by requiring its deputies and detectives to engage in nearly triple the number of training hours every year than what’s required by POST. That in-field instruction includes handling vehicle pursuits, de-escalating emotionally charged situations and understanding the facets of domestic violence.
“It’s about more than force,” he said. “It’s about solving problems in the community. But, when it comes to the use of force, our officers are required to make split-second decisions about life and death, and all we can do is try to give them as many tools as possible to do that.”
Scott Thomas Anderson can be reached at scotta@goldcountrymedialcom. Follow him on Twitter at ScottA_RsvPT.