The Alexandria Citizens’ Police Academy is a 10-week course hosted by the Alexandria Police Department (APD) to offer citizens a better understanding of how the department works. Throughout the course, participants sit in on emergency calls and ride along with police officers on patrol.
In the fifth week of the course, the Alexandria Police Department looked at the application, and limitations, of the use of force.
The use of force is one of the most controversial pieces of police work. After incidents involving use of force left Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and many others dead, police departments across the country have come under criticism. Use of force ranges from officers physically grappling with a suspect during an arrest to fatalities in a police shooting. While Alexandria has not recently been the subject of similar national controversy, the questions surrounding use of force have still had a local impact.
William Mayfield was injured on the job, and has made it his goal not to let it happen to anyone else. But this doesn’t come without restrictions.
“This is not the Old West, we can’t come out shooting,” said Mayfield.
“Things are moving rapidly, the officer has to make a decision and stand by it,” said Mayfield.
Three factors determine reasonableness of the use of force: the severity of the crime, the potential harm to the police officer and others, and whether or not the suspect was evading law enforcement. To merit the use of force, the situation must meet all three requirements.
There are also three varieties of force employed: lethal, less lethal, and non-lethal. Officers are taught to escalate or deescalate force in appropriate response to the situation, but that the officer must hold the advantage at all times. In practice, that means that if the suspect raises his or her fists, the officer needs to go one level higher to something like pepper spray. However, if a suspect puts down a weapon or lowers his or her fists, the officer needs to respond appropriately. It’s a regimented structure, but Mayfield says that in the field it can all happen within the blink of an eye.
While use of deadly force is the last resort, Mayfield still says they need to train officers to not hesitate. In an age where, as Sergeant Patricio Alvarez says, the public “trial by media” can heavily influence officers’ decisions, it’s important to keep hesitation out of the officer’s mind.
“When the FBI interviewed people who shot at police officers, all of them answered that the officer’s hesitation to escalate force was what prompted them,” said Mayfield.
Deputy Chief Chris Wemple said it’s training that pushes that hesitation aside.
“It’s like racquetball,” said Wemple. “How do you know where it’s going to be and how to hit it? Reflex built on training.”
While officers must adhere to the national and Virginia standards for police, they almost must follow Alexandria standards. Mayfield noted that situations had arisen in the past where an officer employed force that was legal under the national and Virginia codes, but was not appropriate by Alexandria’s more restrictive standard. Pursuits, for instance, are listed as a use of deadly force in Alexandria code but not national. Officers are specifically prohibited from pepper spraying inside a vehicle or shooting at a moving vehicle, two actions that could cause the car to become a directionless missile.
The car is just one example of how Wemple and Mayfield say police are accountable for the ramifications of force. Before using a taser, for instance, police are required to make sure the ground around the suspect is clear. In Fairfax, police used a taser on a suspect in a parking lot who wound up hitting his head on a concrete block. This is part of the reason Wemple says it has never been the policy of any police department in the country to aim at extremities when shooting. After a round is fired, Wemple says a police officer is responsible for anywhere that bullet goes.
Alexandria has not had a spree shooting in recent memory. The closest, some recall, was in 2005 when Mustafa Mohamed went on a slashing spree at Goodwin House Alexandria that left seven people injured. Mohamed was disarmed by a visitor before police arrived and there were no fatalities, but Alexandria Police continue to train for the worst case scenario.
Alexandria Police train in an elaborate mock-up of school and office sites where active shooter scenarios could take place. Members of the citizen’s academy watched officers enter and clear rooms with an active shooter. It happens within the span of seconds; police breach the room and then the suspect is being detained on the ground.
Before the training starts, one of the instructors reminds the academy that while they’re sitting outside, every gunshot means another student or teacher dead. In Columbine, the police stood back and waited for the special units to show up. Since then, police departments across the nation have considered that reaction unacceptable and train each police officer to be able to handle an active shooter situation.
One of the latest changes in how police active shooter situations emerged when it was found that stop-gap measures could have saved the lives of victims of gunshot wounds. Now, when the shooter is cornered, police do a risk assessment to see if certain areas are safe for firefighters to look for victims. If a zone is cleared, firefighters and medics can move in, treat, and evacuate victims of the shooting. It may seem callous, but the tactical unit passes by the injured and fleeing, heading directly towards the target.
“Every time a gun goes off,” said Alvarez, “that’s another person dead.”
Next week, the Citizens’ Police Academy gets more hands-on with a trip to the firearms range.