A traffic violator suddenly shoves a police officer, and the officer responds by firing two rounds into the subject’s chest. Is this a justified shooting or an overreaction? Could it result in firing and/or criminally indicting the officer?
Hopefully, you’d obtain more information before responding, but I believe many members of the general public, and quite a few officers, would say a shove in the chest doesn’t justify deadly force.
This is where the word context comes into play. If you’re a trainer in your organization, you’d better understand its importance. If you don’t, you might get someone killed or, at the very least, in a lot of trouble. Tough words, but true.
Referring back to the above scenario, let’s add some detail to put things into perspective. In other words, provide the context needed to answer the question of justification. The traffic stop is at the edge of a busy roadway, and the officer has directed the violator to the shoulder’s edge for safety. Instead of following instructions, the subject suddenly shoves the officer toward the busy roadway and, as the officer is struggling to maintain his balance, the subject advances again with outstretched arms to repeat the move. Only inches separate the officer from high-speed traffic and serious injury or death.
Alright, now what do you think? Without debating the legal fine points, I’m going to hope that anyone who has ever operated in the real world of policing recognizes this as a clear assault on an officer with the intent to cause death or serious injury.
What does this have to do with training? Everything. Trainers must provide real-world context to situations involving use of force and other critical aspects of policing. There are few absolutes in law enforcement; virtually everything is situational. And that’s why officers must be periodically challenged with circumstances that deviate from the expected.
A Real-World Example
For those who may be thinking I’m making a big deal about a simple concept, let me give you a real-world example to underscore the importance. In the January editor’s note, I mentioned Seattle PD Officer Ben Kelly and his shooting of Maurice Clemmons, the man who killed four Lakewood, Wash., police officers. We all know the before and after—Clemmons killed the officers and Kelly later killed Clemmons. Sounds pretty clear-cut, right? Wrong, very wrong.
I had the opportunity to talk at length with Kelly about this incident and here’s what many people don’t know: Kelly never saw a weapon. Kelly was contextually aware of the situation and was processing his actions at lightning speed. He fired multiple times because he had fully considered the totality of the circumstances when he pulled the trigger. He knew he was facing a person who had killed four police officers and was now moving in such a way that implied he might be going for a weapon.
OK, let’s take a time-out here so that the training value of this situation is fully realized. If Clemmons had been a “shoot/don’t shoot target,” so that an officer was looking at the same thing Kelly had seen, what would be the appropriate response? Absent the information that Kelly had in his mind, the answer would be “don’t shoot.” This is where a trainer must provide context and situational awareness so that training is applicable to real-world situations. Kelly told me he relied on his training, that it had prepared him for this situation and he was confident of his actions. Would officers at your agency be capable of making the same decision?
For those of you involved in scenario-based training, simulator operation, situation debriefs, force option instruction or even if you’re “just” a two-striper leading a discussion in briefing, don’t overlook the importance of making contextual variances part of the equation.
Jeff Chudwin, one of the most respected trainers in our business and the author of our Tactical Ops column keyed me into the concept of context. And it was Brian McKenna, the author of our Officer Down series, who pointed out the training value of Kelly’s situation. McKenna told me that the scenario pointed out a weakness in much of our training: The lack of contextual variables that mirror the reality of street situations. Kudos to both men for continuing to advance the state of readiness and improve the safety of those who serve.
Quality and realistic training improves an officer’s ability to process and prioritize the multiple stimuli that come into play as events unfold. Good training prevents officers from falling into a been-there-done-that-type response. There isn’t a more important calling than training those who serve. I challenge each of you to review your training methodology, and consider the concept of context. —Dale Stockton, Editor in chief