When can police officers use force to protect themselves or the community? This was the topic of discussion during last week's Citizens Police Academy class.
The Gila County Sheriff's Office has been conducting the academy weekly to inform the public on issues faced by law enforcement. Use of physical force is one such issue.
"Officers have about one-tenth of a second to decide what to do, and they will look at it in court for the next several months. Lt. Adam Shepherd said. "That short period of time will be scrutinized for a long time."
Deputies are taught a variety of responses to different situations to subdue a suspect.
According to Shepherd, the escalation of force typically follows this pattern:
"The officer should visualize himself or herself in the center of a wheel and be able to proceed to any level of force needed to counteract the level of force being used against them," Shepherd said. "It's really about balance of force, making the playing field even."
This wheel is similar to a pie chart that includes the following choices:
- Presence -- The sight and presence of a deputy effectively managing a situation, preventing the escalation of force.
- Verbal control -- This refers to the manner in which the deputy speaks to a person, which in itself can effectively manage a situation. Verbal control includes advice, persuasion, admonitions or orders.
- Soft hands -- Attempt to gain control and have the suspect comply with lawful instruction. The force used is insignificant while attempting to lead the subject.
- Pepper spray or Taser (non-lethal weapons) -- Chemical agents and electronic incapacitation devices (Taser) are restricted to situations where higher levels of force are unnecessary and lesser levels are inappropriate or ineffective.
- Compliance techniques -- These techniques are for uncooperative people who refuse to be taken into custody and who only respond to a combination of strength, leverage, take downs or control holds with sufficient force to make the lawful arrest.
- Defensive tactics (expandable batons) -- The GCSO authorized the carrying and using of the expandable baton as the only striking weapon. Deputies must be certified in the use of the expandable baton.
- Deadly force -- Firearms may be used in the defense of a deputy or others from what is reasonably believed to be an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to themselves or others.
Sgt. Craig Smith and Shepherd also talked about when it is legal for a civilian to use lethal force.
According to state statutes, self-defense is justified if a reasonable person believes that physical force is immediately necessary to protect himself or herself or a third person against an imminent threat of death or serious injury.
"Again, it is a balance of force," Shepherd said. "You don't have to let them shoot you before you shoot them. Just remember -- whatever you do, you're going to have to justify it to a jury."
The statues also say use of force is not justified in response to verbal provocation or if a person clearly communicates to the other his intent to withdraw from the encounter.
"Remember there is a big difference between threatening to shoot someone and pulling the trigger," Shepherd said. "If someone is on your property, you are justified in threatening force."
Police officers have a tool that has decreased the necessity of using a gun -- the Taser. The type of Tasers carried by law enforcement can be deployed up to 21 feet. Two probes, which resemble fishhooks, come out of the Taser and stick into a subject. The probes complete an electrical circuit and the officer sends 50,000 volts of electricity through their body, completely incapacitating them.
Once the probes are stuck in the subject, the officer can continue to send volts through them as needed until they surrender.
Although Tasers are not a substitute for a gun, they are effective for situations in which you have an unarmed, uncooperative subject, Smith said.
Tasers have also reduced officer and suspect injury, according to Smith, the department's Taser instructor.
All GCSO deputies and Payson police officers are now armed with Tasers.
Smith said medical studies show the Taser has no adverse health effects except for minor skin irritation where the probes puncture the skin. He also said that the Taser is extremely effective on high and intoxicated people, whereas pepper spray is not.
"We use the Taser before pepper spray," Smith said. "Drunks love pepper spray -- I don't know what it is, but they love it."
At the end of the class, Dave Luhm volunteered to take the "full ride," which is five seconds of a Taser hit.. Deputies stood at either side of Luhm to support him when the current went through his body.
"Just a heads up," Shepherd said. "Foul language often comes out of people's mouths when they get hit."
"I screamed like a baby the first time I took a hit from a Taser," Smith said.