Citizens Police Academy – Part II: To shoot or not to shoot

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Background: The Cleveland Heights Police Department has launched a Citizens Police Academy for members of the community who are interested in learning more about how the police department operates. The first course runs 6-9 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday evenings, for seven weeks beginning Aug. 11 and ending Sept. 30, 2014. This blog post is one of a series about my experience in the program. Click here for the full series.

Light reading: Ohio Criminal Law & Motor Vehicle Handbook

Most of the 9 hours of training covered so far in three sessions of the Cleveland Heights Citizens Police Academy have been on the dull schoolbook fundamentals that police officers need to know.

Stuff like the definition of crime, the nuance between jurisdiction and venue,  and the four culpable mental states as recognized and defined by Ohio law: purposely, knowingly, recklessly and negligently.

Each of the 20 “Citizen Cadets” received a hefty volume of the handbook of Ohio Criminal Law and Motor Vehicle Code, which Cpt. Geoffrey Barnard, commander of the CH Police Academy (he also happens to be a lawyer) quickly showed us how to use.

Its main effect was to draw out a litany of “what if” questions that would have done any 2nd-grade class proud while constantly threatening to derail the schedule.

But by the 4th and 5th hour of this two-day discussion, things started to get real. Brad Sudyk, deputy chief of police and also a lawyer, went over the laws governing arrest and the use of force – lethal and non-lethal.

We learned there are 3 types of police encounters:

  • Consensual encounters, when an officer engages a citizen in conversation;
  • Investigative detentions, when an officer has reasonable articulable suspicion that a crime has occurred or may occur;
  • Arrest, when an officer can demonstrate probable cause that the individual has committed a crime or plans to do so.

We also learned that force – everything from physical restraint to use of a gun – is justified in only two broad circumstances:

  • For control of a suspect
  • For defense of a police officer or someone else (I’m sure there are circumstances in which force can be used to protect property, but the lesson plan didn’t go in that direction)

These are the rules of engagement – the limitations and the triggers that come into play every time a police officer comes into contact with another person.

Then Sudyk shared the tool that he trains officers on for deciding whether lethal force is necessary. It’s simple and intended for use in fluid situations when there isn’t time to think. It looks like this:


It works this way:

  • When confronted with a person who poses a danger, the officer is obligated to determine if the suspect has the intent, the ability and the opportunity to do serious bodily harm – either to the officer or to someone else in the vicinity.
  • Then the officer must decide whether any options other than lethal force exist to diffuse the situation.
  • Lethal force is justified only if all three conditions are met and there are no other options available.
  • If an officer can’t demonstrate that he/she went through this process, the ensuing court case isn’t likely to go well for the officer or police department.

It was of some comfort to know that the impossible decision to shoot another person, made in impossible circumstances, is at least governed by a simple, clear guideline.

But it also emphasized a crucial point that civilians like myself can easily overlook: The police work that we hear about on the news tends to occur in a chaotic, dangerous, adrenaline-filled instant. But its justification is almost always decided after the fact by the work of reporters, pundits, politicians, activists, Facebookers, lawyers and finally judges.

So if you’re a police officer, the job involves boundaries that are constantly redrawn, rules that are frequently reconsidered, decisions that will always be second-guessed. You live with the knowledge that, at any moment, your work will place you in a horrific situation, and the only thing you can rely on is your training. And that too will be questioned in the inevitable aftermath.

It was impossible to absorb this without putting it in the context of this week’s biggest news story – the violent protests in Ferguson, MO, following the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Sudyk himself brought it up. He continually emphasized that there’s isn’t enough information to know yet whether the initial shooting was legally justified.

But when asked, he was direct in his opinion that neither event was likely to have happened in this community – the shooting by a police officer, or the heavily militarized police response to the ensuing protests.

Why? Because he claims the CHPD spends an inordinate amount of care and energy to support a culture in which officers would rather talk with people than fight with them.

I know some readers will laugh at this statement. They’ll think I’ve been bought and paid for as a PR tool for the police.

And I don’t have much of a personal yardstick by which to measure Sudyk’s claim. My handful of official interactions with police officers have never been confrontational, but they also have never involved me as a crime suspect or detainee. (OK, there was that speeding ticket a few years back, and I won’t say I liked it – but give credit to both me and the police officer for having the good sense to be cordial and get through it.)

But Sudyk does offer some supporting evidence:

  • It’s been years – at least 15 or more by Sudyk’s recollection – since a Cleveland Heights police officer has used lethal force. (Such an instance would be verifiable through public records; I have not taken time to research it. But I’ve been living here continuously for the past 23 years and can’t remember it either).
  • In the 3+ years Sudyk has been deputy chief, he said there hasn’t been a single reported use of non-lethal force by a police officer except in instances when the suspect was charged with resisting arrest. None has involved use of a baton or other implement.
  • As official policy, CHPD officers don’t carry Tasers/stun guns. I didn’t know this. To paraphrase and interpret Sudyk’s explanation, that’s because they are too easy to use; they don’t support a culture in which use of force is discouraged – and, while legally recognized as non-lethal, Tasers do occasionally kill.
  • Officers also aren’t permitted to carry Mace or other brands of pepper spray. Sudyk says that’s because it too often blows back onto its user, and the department simply doesn’t regard it as a desirable tool to use. It seems consistent with the philosophy about Tasers: It’s another option that merely supports use of force rather than discouraging it.

“We want our officers to be very good at using the art of persuasion,” Sudyk said – persuasively, I might ad.

If this was inconsistent with anything I’ve directly experienced, I’d say so. But otherwise, I’ve committed myself to experiencing this program without judgment. My reason for participating in the Citizens Police Academy is to understand public safety from the police officer’s perspective. I’m listening, learning and thinking.

As with all police work, the time for assessment will come later.




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