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I imagined the headline: “Officer Unloads Deadly Barrage of Bullets At Fleeing Suspect.”

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And the lead one of my colleagues might write: “Body cam footage shows Officer Stewart Yerton fired multiple shots at a fleeing Peeping Tom suspect and continued to fire even after the suspect was on the ground and dying, rather than stopping to call for help.”

That’s pretty much what I did during a simulation conducted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives at Honolulu’s Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Federal Building last week.

The simulation was part of a six-hour media briefing on the legal issues surrounding police shootings.

A reporter-anchor from Hawaii News Now and I were the only media participants, so the two of us had plenty of time to ask questions. How, for example, could police officers have been justified in shooting 10 shots through the back window of 16-year-old Iremamber Sykap‘s car that had been stopped after a high speed chase? And why don’t officers simply shoot people in the leg?

“What we did was explain what the legal rules are, and also what some of the practical realities of the use of force look like,” Paul Massock, deputy chief of the bureau’s special operations division, said in an interview summarizing the session. “Overarchingly our goal was to be able to talk to the community through the media about what the Supreme Court has told us about what the rules are when we use force.”

Civil Beat reporter Stewart Yerton confronts a man rushing at him with a knife in an ATF simulated police training. Reporters were put through the training to give them insight into how police might react under stress. Hawaii News Now/2022

That Massock and three other bureau officials flew to Hawaii for the briefing shows how much federal officials want to get their message to media. The program began as something for national media in Washington, D.C., said April Landwell, chief of the bureau’s public affairs division, who was part of the entourage in Honolulu. It’s grown into an ongoing series presented across the country, she said.

To address when police can legally use deadly force, the bureau outlined two Supreme Court cases establishing the framework officers must follow, then applied these laws to the real world. Finally, reporters applied the laws during simulated violent encounters with virtual suspects.

That’s how I came to unload a barrage of ersatz bullets toward a suspect in an interactive video. A point of the training was to show how officers have to make split-second decisions in ambiguous situations. Another was to explore whether a police officer would have had a right to do what I did under the principles laid out by the Supreme Court. The short answer: “it depends.”

One guiding case, Tennessee v. Garner, says a police officer can’t use deadly force to prevent a suspect from escaping “unless the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

The other case, Graham v. Connor, established that the “‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

That court added, “The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.

What’s reasonable to a particular officer can be complicated. James Balthazar, a senior special agent and public information office program manager, said what might be reasonable to an average person might alarm a trained officer. For instance, a suspect who reaches into his pockets or a car could be reaching for a weapon, he said. Body language belying what the person is saying can also be a cause for alarm.

There’s no mechanical analysis to determine what’s reasonable, the court has said. And Massock stressed during the briefing the law doesn’t give an officer a free pass to use deadly force simply because the officer thinks it’s OK. The key term is the “totality of the circumstances.” It all requires a fact-intensive analysis.

ATF special operations deputy chief Paul Massock did his best to explain some of the issues in officer-involved shootings to a Civil Beat reporter and a Hawaii News Now reporter-anchor. Hawaii News Now/2022

Massock acknowledged that after a police shooting there’s often a vacuum of information, and that allows narratives to form in the public and media that put police in a bad light. He also acknowledged law enforcement can be partly to blame for the vacuum.

“We in law enforcement are working through this now,” he said, describing the need to balance “the integrity of the investigation versus the public’s desire for transparency.”

But Massock said it’s also important for reporters to realize the reason a person is shot by police often has little to do with why the person was stopped by police.

“Don’t confuse the reason for the contact for the reason why force was used,” he said.

As for shooting a suspect in the leg, Massock said such a strategy doesn’t make sense. Not only is it technically difficult, he said, but, legally, it’s not appropriate for officers to shoot people if all they want to do is stop them.

“The use of deadly force as a less than lethal deterrent is inappropriate,” he said.

When an incident merits the police using deadly force and they feel the need to use it, the force is usually deadly.

A case like Sykap’s requires looking at the totality of the circumstances from the point of view of a reasonable officer, which is what Hawaii District Court Judge William Domingo appeared to do when he dismissed the case, saying he took into consideration the fact that officers engaged in a chase with fleeing suspects.

“Based on my reading of the evidence, the situation, how quickly everything happened, the responses, the unreasonableness of the prosecutions’ argument that they should take some time to see whether or not there was actually a gun or not – there is no luxury in those kinds of situations,” Domingo said in finding no probable cause for trying three officers engaged in the incident.

Four Shots In 1.5 Seconds

Here’s what happened to me.

Called to investigate a suspicious person, my police officer alter ego found a man in a wooded area, near a parked truck with the door open, peering over a wall into a back yard in a residential area. I identified myself as a police officer and asked the man what he was doing.

The suspect said something friendly, like, “Hey man, how’s it going?” but also moved toward me, weaving like a fighter looking for an opening. Then he darted into his truck, came out with a handgun, fired a shot at me and started running.

I shot four times: the first missed, the second hit him in the groin, the third and fourth missed because he was falling to the ground when I fired. The bureau officials later said it had taken only about 1.5 seconds for me to fire four shots. Under the totality of the circumstances, I probably was justified in using deadly force.

But there was another scenario the bureau’s agents could have used. In that one, instead of emerging from the truck with a gun and shooting, the man comes out with his auto registration and moves toward the officer. And if I had shot him in that scenario?

I am glad it didn’t happen.

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