How are police officers trained to use force?

Wide discretion left to officers and departments

One of the many crucial questions raised by the tragic deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City is this: What is the typical training a police officer receives for deciding the appropriate level of force to use when apprehending a suspect?

To get some insight into police training, DecodeDC reporter Miranda Green talked with Ronnie Frigulti, president and primary instructor at Police Training Consultants in San Bernardino, California. Frigulti was the principal firearms instructor for the FBI in Los Angeles from 1980 to 1997, served on the FBI SWAT Team for 15 years and has been a certified FBI firearms, defensive tactics and police instructor for 22 years.

Green: When members of law enforcement go through training, what are they taught about the different techniques and weapons they can use to apprehend suspects?

Frigulti: It’s usually called a use-of-force continuum. It’s a set of circumstances where you would escalate from your mere presence and verbal commands all the way up the ladder to the use of deadly force. And the officer is taught to use the force necessary in reason to conduct the arrest. A compliant arrest, that’s the easy one where you would tell the subject he is under arrest and he would go along with it and turn around and put his hand on top of his head. When the subject is non-compliant, that is when you can escalate up the ladder.

There is no set uniform ladder unfortunately; there are recommendations. 

Green: What about the use of Tasers?

Frigulti: The Taser is a terrific weapon system, so before you go for control holds you might want to use a Taser. There have been reported Taser deaths but even those are questionable. But the Taser requires money and the policy that requires an officer to carry it and they have to also be trained in it.

Green: And that depends on each jurisdiction?

Frigulti: Exactly. I’ll mention the Ferguson thing. There they had the Taser but not every officer was required to use it. And I think by the officer’s own admission, he didn’t like it because it was bulky. If I were the chief I wouldn’t make it voluntary.

Green: What about the use of the chokehold?

Frigulti: We don’t like to call it a chokehold because we are trying to restrict the carotid so we call it a carotid restraint, (which is more similar to a sleeper hold).

We would categorize Tasering and control holds with the chokehold technique, but I think it’s more dangerous because the application has to be a lot more correct. When we taught it in the bureau, you had to drag the subject down below your shoulder level to get your arm in deep enough otherwise you run the risk of hitting that dog-gone windpipe. It’s so hard to put on correctly.

And then beyond that is the baton. The good thing with the baton is you don’t have to make direct contact but you are going to inflict pain … but it would be better … than carotid restraining and he dies.

Green: It sounds to me that because of the step system that is implemented, it tells officers they should try to restrain a person in any way before using a gun. So is the gun always the last option?

Frigulti: Absolutely. For sure, it’s lethal force. And then you have chemical agents you can use but the problem with chemical agents is often times it makes the guy fight more.

So the ladder might look like physical presence, verbalization, control holds, Tasers, batons, chemical agents and then lethal force. But that middle ground depends on department policy of whether they put a Taser before or after the baton or chemical agents and then the last one, use of deadly force which is the officer’s weapon.

Green: How are officers taught to go into a specific situation and determine the best technique to use to apprehend this subject?

Frigulti: It depends on the situation; as soon as the subject proves to be non-compliant then the ball is in [the officer’s] court.

If he says ‘I’m not going to go’ and takes a fighting stance, then I might say I’m not going to use verbalization, I’m not even going to use a control hold, I’m going to Taser him right now. We always tell the officer you want to operate on one step above the subject … you want to operate with one step above him because your life has been threatened with personal injury.

It depends on the preference of the officer. If you’ve been out there for 14 years and had a lot of arrests you might use a baton (when) another officer would use a gun. But it depends on how the officer perceives the threat. And it depends on the training. If there’s one thing lacking, officers do not get enough defensive tactics training.

The average officer may get firearms training 2 or 3 times a year and he’s lucky to get defensive tactics training once every 5 years.

Green: Is there such thing as both a safe and effective technique for arrest?

Frigulti: Despite the few instances where they say (the Taser) caused death, typically in instances where the person has a heart issue, I’d say the Taser is the best weapon. I think the Taser is both the safest for the subject and the officer.

Even that doesn’t guarantee you that the subject is going to be immediately compliant even though it’s pretty dog gone good, let me tell you.

Green: If a Taser had been used in Ferguson and New York to subdue the suspects instead of the gun or a chokehold, do you think the outcome would have been different?

Frigulti: I don’t know if they had a Taser [In New York]. I’m not criticizing them because if an officer is not issued a Taser and not trained in one then you can’t blame him. You can blame the department for not adopting one, or not having the money to do it. So if the good president wants to do something for law enforcement, give them money and say you will buy Tasers.

Green: There are many groups out there against the use of Tasers by police. Do you think that has affected the number of law enforcement offices that use Tasers?

Frigulti: Well sure. Because everyone is worried about the public image. It’s like the move not to not give police military-type equipment. The chief of police is in a political position. He has to keep everyone happy—that has a lot to do with it.

If you research it, very few deaths occur from [Tasers]. But public image, unfortunately that has a lot to do with the tools an officer has to work with.

Green: Why are there more hours and mandatory training when it comes to firearms and not to defensive tactics when defensive tactics are promoted to be used first and foremost over firearms?

Frigulti: They worry about firearms because they want the officer to be able to protect his life and the life of others. And the other thing about defensive tactics, it takes more time, it requires more equipment and between you and I, a lot of officers don’t like defensive tactics. They don’t like that kind of training.

They would rather pull a trigger and fire a gun than go out there and practice these control holds and get thumped on. It is time consuming and does require equipment and is not greatly received by the officer.

If I was a chief of police, I would definitely deploy more defensive tactics training and I would sure get more Tasers aboard along with chemical agents and batons, because the more tools you give the officer, short of his firearm, the more effective he can be out there.

Green: Many of the arrests making headlines involve a white officer or officers arresting a black man and it’s been argued that racial issues were involved. Are officers subjected to any type of ethics training?

Frigulti: Yes, ethics is required at most if not all Law Enforcement Academie. Ethics has been stressed in light of the incidents dating back to the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles.

Ethics training usually takes the form of readings and discussions, the use of videotapes depicting acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and interactive scenarios requiring the officers to participate.  Officers usually take a sworn oath of ethics.  Officers who demonstrate bad judgment or discrimination can be counseled, required to attend additional training, given days off without pay, or dismissed from employment.  A record of citizen complaints and praises are kept on the officer along with observations made by supervisory personnel.

But, the best guard against officers overreacting to situations is in the hiring of individuals. While classes can be, and are given, regarding proper officer conduct, the physical make-up and personality of the officer is most important. The background check and oral interview of possible candidates is critical in the selection process. 

Green: Going forward, how do you think that the discrepancies between an officer’s version of an arrest and witness versions can be fixed?

Frigulti: The use of body cameras on the officer can be a tremendous deterrent against possible officer mistreatment and public false testimony. Departments have reported that they have reduced the number of police complaints. 

[Related: Police use of body cameras raises hope for change...and privacy concerns]

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