FEATURED IN TRAINING
Editor's note: Below is an in-depth analysis of the Lakewood shootings. It's advised that you read Brian McKenna's Officer Down: Legacy of Lakewood before you continue.
Reluctance to Use Deadly Force
We don’t know why Officer Owens decided to engage Clemmons with a non-lethal technique instead of shooting him when he noticed that the gun was jammed, but there are two possibilities, either or both of which could similarly impact the decisions of other officers in similar situations. The first of these was the fact that Officer Owens was a very strong, athletic officer with a very high level of proficiency in control tactics. Officers tend to be either gun oriented or hands-on oriented when it comes to use of force, and it appears that Officer Owens was solidly in the hands-on group. Since we all tend to gravitate to what we know best in a crisis, it would only be natural for a hands-on officer like Officer Owens to attempt a disarming or other physical control technique.
This dangerous problem can be alleviated by drilling regularly in lethal ECQ techniques so that they become conditioned responses when needed. Mental imagery exercises that include countermeasures against armed ECQ attacks are another option. Although mental imagery is best used in conjunction with regular training, it can be used in lieu of training if necessary. Finally, by working lethal ECQ techniques into interactive defensive tactics training like Redman exercises, officers can learn to more quickly and effectively make the transition from the non-lethal to lethal force when needed.
The other possible reason why an officer might chose not to use deadly force in a situation like Officer Owens’ is uncertainty about when deadly force is legally justified. In this case, Clemmons’ gun jammed after his second shot, which made it appear that he no longer posed an immediate lethal threat. Despite the fact that the gun could be brought back into action very quickly with a simple tap & rack, it was temporarily out of action, albeit for only a second or two. Many officers in a situation like this may hesitate to use lethal force and/or decide on a non-lethal option instead because of reluctance to use deadly force against an “unarmed” suspect.
This is not surprising when we consider the way many officers are trained in the use of deadly force. There is often an overemphasis on liability issues, and seldom are officers told that there are times when deadly force can and should be used against an assailant who is rapidly readying himself to use deadly force but is not yet immediately able to do so. In this case, for example, Clemmons’ gun may have been jammed, but he still presented a deadly threat, thereby justifying a lethal response. Similarly, consider the example of an officer engaged in a gunfight with a suspect who is running to cover. Would he be obliged to withhold fire until his assailant reached cover, got into position, and pointed his gun at him again?
Obviously, we have a legal and moral obligation to be reasonable in our use of force, but there is no legal requirement to unnecessarily put ourselves into deadly peril in order to make it a fair fight. In fact, the courts recognize that police officers must make snap decisions in high stress situations, and require only that the officer’s action be reasonable under the totality of the circumstances. Nevertheless, for many officers this is not as clear as it ought to be, which can lead to confusion and poor decision-making in difficult situations.
To combat this serious problem, it is imperative that officers be thoroughly trained in the legal issues related to the use of deadly force. This training must include a clear explanation of when deadly force is justified and when it is not, but it shouldn’t stop there. It is also important to require the trainees to analyze actual court decisions in which the legality of the involved officers’ action were brought into question, and then discuss the courts’ conclusions in the classroom. Such exercises are vital, because they work the brain in a way that enables the learner to think more clearly, become more mentally flexible, and make better decisions when faced with tough real-world choices. Ideally, officers should also be tested on this information to ensure that they understand it and can apply it on the street.
Moreover, the knowledge gained in the classroom should be enhanced and reinforced with computer firearms simulations and/or reality based training. This last point is especially important, because classroom knowledge may prove inadequate under the incredible stress of a real-life lethal encounter. Officers need a working knowledge that will hold up on the street, where—with their lives on the line and only milliseconds to spare—they must decide whether or not to pull the trigger.