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Police say extensive training helps guide deadly force decisions

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 12. 2013 11:43PM
A New Hampshire State police cruiser guards a crash scene, the site of a police-involved shooting in August. (Pat Grossmith/Union Leader)

Law enforcement officers spend hours training for scenarios in which split-second decisions involving the use of deadly force against someone in a vehicle need to be made based on limited information.

On Sept. 30, a New Hampshire state trooper fired shots that killed a woman after a car chase that ended in Manchester, authorities said. Wendy Lawrence, 45, was at the corner of Kennard Road and Dave Street after leading police on a chase that started on Interstate 89 in the Concord area. Lawrence, of Canterbury, was shot four times and died from a gunshot wound to the chest, authorities said.

On Aug. 14, two Weare police officers were involved in the fatal shooting of an alleged drug dealer during an undercover operation. At some point, officers fired their weapons and wounded the suspect, Alex Cora DeJesus, 35, of Manchester, who drove off in his car, authorities said. The car crashed a few hundred yards away.

Both incidents are still being investigated.

Police say traffic stops are among the most unpredictable and trickiest parts of police work.

"It can be one of the most routine events in the daily life of a police officer, but so much training goes into preparing for them because things can change so quickly out there," said Mike Selicki, chief of the Kensington Police Department and president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.

Unpredictable situations

Traffic stops are unpredictable because, among other factors, the officer does not know what the driver is thinking, said Selicki. Across the country last year, 17 of 116 officers killed in the line of duty were killed during traffic stops, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

"You can do a certain amount of scenario training and preparation, but once you're in the field, it's very different and hard to foresee how people will react," said Capt. Mark Bodanza, in-service bureau commander of the Police Standards and Training Council in Concord. "You are constantly reassessing the situation, second to second."

Each year, officers at departments across the state are required to take part in a four-hour training session on the proper use of deadly force, said Capt. Benjamin Jean of the Police Standards and Training Council.

"It's important for them to understand the law and how it applies," said Jean, "because an officer only has seconds to decide whether to use his weapon or not."

Courses offered through the Standards and Training Council put officers through real-life scenarios designed to sharpen their skills. Interactive video simulations portray people with and without weapons, in different locations and varying lighting, and of different gender, ethnicity and size. Officers are taught to evaluate a person's body language, general appearance, whether they appear to be attempting to avoid being noticed and how they are behaving.

Bodanza said one simulation involves officers dealing with a man who threatens their lives during a traffic stop. They draw their guns as the man reaches into his backseat and comes out pointing. But they learn to hold their fire because the man emerges pointing a finger at them, not a gun.

It's done with simulation

The action is virtual, projected onto a white screen while officers practice loading and firing weapons that have an air tank to provide recoil but no ammunition.

The Fire Arms Training Simulator, or FATS, is a system worth between $40,000 and $65,000. Officers rotate in and out of a room, practicing responses to high-pressure situations. Another member of the department sits behind a computer, deciding how the story will unfold, depending on the officers' actions.

"Any training you can get is good training, especially when it comes to use of force," said Bodanza.

After each scenario, officers and their superiors review a tape, dissecting each decision and even the aiming accuracy of the firearms, which include a rifle, handgun, Taser and pepper spray.

But the exercise is less about target practice and more about taking control of a situation to de-escalate it, Selicki said.

"The last thing anyone in law enforcement wants to do is discharge their firearm," said Selicki, "unless the officer involved determines the situation warrants it."

Narrow window

Standard protocol in police departments throughout New Hampshire, as well as state law, restrict use of deadly force.

According to RSA 627:5, an officer is justified in using deadly force only when it is reasonable to believe that it's necessary in order to defend the officer or a third party.

After an officer-involved shooting takes place, standard protocol dictates the officer or officers involved immediately be placed on paid administrative leave while the incident is reviewed by the Attorney General's Office.

Jeffery Strelzin, senior assistant attorney general, said officer-involved shootings don't get special treatment.

The review of the Lawrence shooting "is progressing, but we are still conducting our investigation," Senior Assistant Attorney General Susan G. Morrell said last week.

Police understand

"Police officers don't go 'crazy' and become trigger happy and begin to shoot whoever comes their way," said Rafael Rojas Jr., an assistant professor in the Justice Studies Department at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester and president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Justice Educators and a former New York Port Authority officer.

"Police have been trained to make immediate decisions when dealing with the public under all circumstances. We exercise more restraint than anyone else, as we have to explain to a grand jury why an action we took led to the death of an innocent person or criminal."

It's a life-changing event," said Selicki. "Police officers are not out looking to hurt people. We want to help people."

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