Making hard decisions in a heartbeat
Police officers face difficult choices when it comes to use of force
Chris Bittle used me as a human shield.
The tell-tale staccato crack of gunfire put us both on edge. We drew our sidearms. Emerging from the darkness at the end of the long hallway was an irate man holding a pistol. We two, a journalist and a politician with no experience as police officers, had to decide how to deal with him. That was when Bittle used me as cover. To be fair, neither of us were in our wheelhouse. After a few hours of training we were asked to make the kind of spiltsecond, possibly life-and-death decisions Niagara Regional Police officers make every day: That man had a gun. Do we fire? Where do we find cover? How can we arrest him safely?
It’s not as easy as television shows make
it seem, and while we got but a taste of police work, it was an eye-opening experience nonetheless.
Bittle, the Liberal MP for St. Catharines, joined me and a handful of local news media for a use-of-force training day hosted by the NRP Wednesday.
Police officers are guided by a use-of-force wheel, a chart that lays out a guideline for what kind of force they can use in a given situation.
Broadly speaking, it means police officers respond to threats in a reciprocal fashion. A guy yelling obscenities when stopped for speeding might be offensive, but there is no justification to touch him. On the other hand, an officer may have grounds to use physical force on someone resisting arrest. If someone is armed with a lethal weapon, the situation escalates quickly.
Police have several tools to choose from, most of which the NRP training unit gave us a crash course on Wednesday — from strikes with the feet and hands, to pepper spray, batons, handcuffs, conducted energy weapons and guns.
That’s where things get tricky. The use-of-force wheel provides guidance, but it’s a judgment call that is more complicated than shouting “Stop! Police!”
Take, for instance, the scenario Bittle and I were partnered up for, which is based on a real incident at a Niagara Falls motel.
The officer playing the motel manager tells us a tenant won’t leave. Before we hear the full story, shots ring out and at the end of the hallway stands the man with a gun.
We draw our guns — the guidelines are explicit in saying a lethal threat can be met with lethal force — and I find cover behind a wall.
Bittle initially lined up behind me (“You make good cover,” he joked afterwards). Realizing he couldn’t actually shoot through me, he ran to the opposite wall.
The suspect was armed, so, strictly speaking, we could have opened fire. But his weapon was pointed to floor. So in our spot judgment, we didn’t have to shoot.
On our orders, he dropped his gun, turned around, sank to his knees and put his hands behind his neck. Then Bittle and I made a rookie mistake.
We moved down the hall to complete the arrest but were pulled back to cover by the training officers. We had not considered who might be lurking in the dark behind closed doors or around a corner. In real life, that kind of error in judgment could be costly.
Which is what so much of policing comes down to — a splitsecond judgment call. Even after all the training, and years of experience, the pull of a trigger comes down to the perspective of an individual police officer trying to balance multiple concerns in an eyeblink.
St. Catharines Standard journalist Grant LaFleche uses a baton with Const. Amanda Sanders during the Niagara Regional Police use-of-force training session Wednesday.
Members of the media took part in the Niagara Regional Police use-of-force training session Wednesday. Grant LaFleche from The Standard is handcuffed by MP Chris Bittle.