Train police officers when not to shoot, too

Good training techniques and body-worn cameras are tools that can help reduce excessive use of force by police officers.
Good training techniques and body-worn cameras are tools that can help reduce excessive use of force by police officers. The Associated Press

Law enforcement officials draw and fire weapons at civilians every day in this region and beyond. Too often, it’s under questionable circumstances that lead to accusations the police are using excessive force.

Examples include a teenager sent to the hospital after police used a stun gun on him last week in Independence, a teenager killed by a police officer last month in Ferguson, Mo., and an off-duty Kansas City firefighter killed by an off-duty Kansas City cop last December.

Legal procedures are available to victims of these kinds of incidents or their survivors, and police actions can have financial consequences for governments. Prairie Village reportedly paid more than $500,000 to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf of a mentally disturbed woman police killed there in 2010.

Clearly, the costs of excessive force are high in terms of dollars and public trust. Police departments must do better at preventing it.

Police and civilian groups agree that training for officers on when and how to use their weapons is extremely important in avoiding problems.

The training often starts at police academies. For example, the Missouri Department of Public Safety’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) program includes mandatory requirements regarding use of force as well as continuing education training. The Kansas City Police Academy’s curriculum includes additional instruction on this important issue.

Officers need to be taught how irreversible their decisions can be after they pull out their weapons. Training also stresses other ways for officers to try to avoid the use of force in many situations. That often includes taking the time to understand the situation and evaluate the actual levels of threat to the officer or the public.

Officers get training on the street, too. Good patrol officers find ways to defuse volatile situations. Hot-headed or poorly trained officers make decisions that often antagonize citizens and make matters worse.

It’s true, as advocates for police note, that officers may have only split seconds to make a life and death decision.

Still, communities need to know whether training procedures are followed and whether common sense is used when shots are fired. If officers are found to have overreacted, that’s a good time for police chiefs and community leaders to make changes in training that can lead to safer behavior by officers on behalf of the people they serve.

Guidance to promote professional policing is available from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, which held its national convention last week in Kansas City.

Finally, the benefits of body-worn cameras for police are becoming more obvious as use-of-force incidents make their way into news reports.

When weapons are discharged and people are injured or killed by police officers, communities need to know whether the use of force was justified. Body cameras can help answer that vital question.