Staring down Salt Lake City police officers playing the role of suspects wielding dummy guns and knives, media members, who were playing the role of cops, hesitated. And in that split-second, the media members had been shot or stabbed.
“You never know who you are going to get and what you are going to deal with,” Sgt. Michael Burbank told the trigger-shy media crowd trying to better understand the line on lethal force.
The scenarios took place Tuesday morning at the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Pioneer Precinct. Six officers from the department’s training division went through policies and drills on use of force with a handful of TV and newspaper reporters. It was an opportunity for the department to put its use-of-force tactics on display and explain why officers respond the way they do in various situations.
“We are still presented with situations that are unwinnable,” said Salt Lake City police Detective Greg Wilking. “Or our use of force looks bad. But it’s what was necessary to maintain the safety for the community, safety for the subjects and safety for the officers.”
Officer Jason Miller started the morning by explaining case law that governs how United States law enforcement interacts with noncompliant suspects. Miller said that, in general, officers have to look at the severity of the alleged crime, if the suspect is an immediate threat and if they are resisting or attempting to flee. Officers need to ensure their reactions are reasonable and necessary given the circumstances, Miller said.
As the social climate around police use of force is going through a sea change, officers are under heavy scrutiny, Miller said. When a use-of-force situation somewhere else gains national attention, Salt Lake City officers hear about it from the public for months, and it reflects poorly on them, Miller said. Good cops are bothered by bad uses of force as much as anyone, he said.
Miller said Salt Lake City officers recently went to Las Vegas to see how its police department was training officers. He said that department was effectively weeding lethal force out of its training. Miller disagreed with the change, saying that without lethal force you would have many more cops dying on the job.
But that doesn’t mean local officers aren’t constantly trying to reassess situations as they escalate. Officer Ryan McBride said that with each strike to a suspect, or grab and twist of an arm, officers need to ask themselves if they have gained control of the situation and if they could ease off physically.
After going through the policy and training side of things, officers and media members simulated real-life situations, such as trying to handcuff an uncooperative suspect.
As the officers were playing aggressive suspects, they often used cliches familiar to anyone who has watched “COPS” or seen videos on the internet of arrests, such as “You’re hurting me!” or “Stop twisting my arm, I didn’t do anything.”
In one drill, McBride lay on his stomach with his hands tucked underneath him. Two media members were tasked with wrestling his arms free so they could handcuff him. However, as they did so McBride rolled to his side and pulled a fake gun he had been hiding, pointing it in the face of the would-be cop.
“Hands will kill you,” Burbank said. “We always need to control and see hands.”
Next, officers demonstrated the 21-foot rule, a doctrine developed by former Salt Lake City Lt. John Tueller but used nationally, which says that if an officer is within 21 feet of a suspect who has a knife or a blunt object, the suspect could advance toward the officer and kill them before the officer is able to pull a gun and fire off an accurate shot.
Officers also simulated a standoff in which the suspect — played by an officer — refused to put down a gun, but also wasn’t pointing it at the cop. In the scenarios, the suspect was always able to quickly raise the gun and fire off a round before the media member could react.
“Understand the dangers and distances,” Burbank said.
The entire event was light-hearted and peppered with jokes and laughs. But WIlking said the idea was to allow the media, and by extension the public, to see situations from an officer’s point of view rather than a YouTube video.
“I think there are people sometimes that misunderstand us, and look at any use of force as unreasonable,” Wilking said. “That’s not a reasonable expectation to have of a police force.”
Salt Lake City police officers have shot and killed three people in 2017. All three shootings have been ruled justified.
— Michael Bruce Peterson, 39, was shot on Sept. 28 at a Salt Lake City Maverick station while assaulting a police officer with his own baton.
— Patrick Harmon, 50, was shot Aug. 13 at 1002 S. State Street, after he allegedly pulled a weapon on officers who were trying to arrest him on an outstanding felony warrant.
— Roman Jade Carrillo, 18, was fatally wounded during an exchange of gunfire with two Salt Lake City police officers who had chased him into Tooele County on May 30, following an unrelated shooting in downtown Salt Lake.