When two patrol officers arrived at a south Kansas City house last month, a 24-year-old woman armed with a knife already had begun slicing her wrists.
She threatened the officers with the knife and a hammer as they approached in the basement of the Wornall Road home.
Instead of weapons, the officers used words to defuse the situation and convince her to surrender.
That is the type of scene — officers showing restraint in a volatile situation — that Police Chief Darryl Forté wants to see play out more often.
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“We want to make sure that officers understand it is OK to tactically disengage,” Forté said. “We take an oath to protect life and property but we don’t want to hurt anybody unnecessarily,”
Police are trained to protect themselves against armed or dangerous individuals, especially in tight quarters, like a basement. They learn at the police academy that they only have a few seconds to react when a threatening person charges them. They train on when to shoot to make sure they go home safe.
But in the aftermath of the police shooting last summer of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., many law enforcement agencies nationwide now are teaching officers how to delay or even prevent shootings by backing away or finding cover until other officers arrive.
That used to be considered cowardice, Forté said.
But the public wants officers to save lives, not take them, recent events have shown.
In Kansas City, an average of four people a year have been killed by police over the last decade.
The new Kansas City training could help save lives and reduce potential lawsuits over officer-involved shootings, which are being captured on cellphone video by civilians ever more frequently.
Trainers are encouraging police officers to use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to avoid situations where they have to shoot someone who is threatening them.
“This is easier said than done, because oftentimes situations unfold rapidly, leaving officers seconds or less to make decisions,” Forté wrote in a recent blog post that highlighted the new training.
The blog entry impressed one professor of criminal law who specializes in police regulation.
“If there is follow through on the ideas expressed in that post, it not only represents substantial changes in the way things are commonly done, but it represents a progressive and very critical set of changes,” said Seth W. Stoughton, a former Florida police officer who teaches law at the University of South Carolina.
All Kansas City officers are required to attend the new training, which includes a segment focused on what Forté calls “tactical disengagement and redeployment.”
In other words, how to back off — the opposite of what officers previously have been trained to do.
During one recent hourlong classroom presentation and discussion, instructors discussed the importance of understanding how time and distance factor into a situation. Getting behind a car or other object can increase the amount of time an officer has to assess the need to defend himself while also providing time for backup officers to arrive.
Officers also watched dashboard video of a 2013 police shooting of an armed motorist during a traffic stop in Westerville, Ohio. After trading gunshots with the motorist, the officer retreated behind some bushes and waited for backup.
“It is not the Old West and we are on a street in Dodge City where you draw when somebody flinches to see who is quicker,” said Kansas City Sgt. Ward Smith, a firearms instructor.
In another session, officers practiced responding to various threatening situations. At one point, a cardboard cutout appeared that featured a woman holding an umbrella in the same manner as someone aiming a shotgun. The officers needed to quickly recognize that she didn’t have a gun.
At another point, instructors reminded officers to shine flashlights in a suspect’s face during an armed confrontation. That can help disorient them.
But officers can’t always back off, one participant pointed out.
“There are times when you have to use tactical retreat because it will buy you a little time to get extra officers there who can assist,” said Sgt. Terry Freed. “There are also a lot of times as an officer you don’t have the luxury of a tactical retreat; you have got to immediately take control of the situation.”
Indeed, the use of tactical restraint is not the norm in police training, said Stoughton, the criminal law professor. Officers are taught to engage combatants and not retreat from an encounter, he said.
Recent officer-involved deaths in New York, South Carolina and Baltimore have placed police under increased public scrutiny. Morale among some officers is low, and many feel embattled by a public that really doesn’t understand the job that they do, Stoughton said.
Tactical restraint likely will help police agencies improve community relations, he said.
“It sends a message to the community at large that says as a police department, there is a better way to go about policing other than giving orders and expecting immediate compliance,” Stoughton said. “For officers, they are expected to take this concept seriously as a tool just like they consider their Taser, baton or an empty hand technique.”
However, it takes time for the traditional police culture to change.
And the use of tactical redeployment represents a change in mind-set for the department, Forté said.
“I don’t want to wait until something happens and then start trying to figure out what we could have done better,” he said.
“We have to be smart about how we do things.”
To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.