An encounter between an unarmed person and two law enforcement officers should not result in the death of the unarmed person as happened in Joplin recently.
The voters of the city are being asked to approve a sales tax to fully fund the city’s pension system for public safety officers. One of the purposes of a pension is to assure the retention of properly trained officers in the department. Before residents are asked to vote for the sales tax, they are entitled to receive some assurances from the head of that department that our officers are being properly trained. The incident raises serious doubts about the quality of that training.
Encountering and controlling agitated and potentially violent individuals is a frequent task of all law enforcement officers. There are prescribed procedures for dealing with those situations, which should be fully ingrained in all law enforcement officers through their training.
There is a process called “the use of force continuum,” which officers are supposed to follow in dealing with these situations. The initial steps include efforts to calm the person and to try to get him to voluntarily submit to the commands of the officer. If the initial steps do not work, officers are to follow a routine involving progressively greater uses of force. Near the extreme of that continuum is the use of Tasers or other nonlethal force to subdue the individual.
A properly deployed Taser will temporarily incapacitate an individual regardless of his or her state of mind or the amount of drugs he or she has consumed. This is because the Taser causes an involuntary reaction referred to as neuromuscular incapacitation. Because the process is involuntary, the individual is incapacitated for a short period of time regardless of the state of their mind. In order to work, however, both probes of the Taser must penetrate the skin of the individual, and more than one application may be required.
The fact that one of the officers herself was struck by the Taser (as reported in public information disclosures) and that the individual was not incapacitated causes one to wonder whether or not the Tasers were properly deployed.
A decade ago, the use of force continuum provided that officers could go immediately from the use of nonlethal force to the use of deadly force. Refinements in that continuum have changed the process. There are steps between the use of nonlethal force and lethal force that can be used to distract or control the violent individual. SWAT teams are trained to use these diversions and do so effectively.
Of course, another step in the process of encountering a violent individual is to disengage and wait for backup to arrive. The use of lethal force by an officer is only justified if the officer reasonably believes that he or she is in danger of serious or permanent disfigurement, serious impairment of health or loss or protracted impairment of the function of any bodily organ or limb and that the threat creates a reasonable risk of death. Sometimes the prudent thing to do is to simply back off the encounter and wait for backup support to arrive.
The purpose of my correspondence is not to condemn the individual officers involved. It appears the incident is being reviewed and appropriate actions will be taken. Rather, my purpose is to call attention to the fact that there appear to be significant shortcomings in the training that our city police officers are receiving. That responsibility falls squarely on the backs of the command staff in our police department.
If the residents of the city of Joplin are being asked to vote for a tax increase to fund the pension system, then the command owes it to the residents to assure us that proper training to deal with hostile encounters is being given to our officers so that we do not have to deal with another tragedy like the recent death of a young man whose biggest crime was to be severely mentally ill.
William Fleischaker is a Joplin attorney.