RCPD evaluates use of force in wake of Mo. riots

By Tim Weideman

When it comes to law enforcement, use of force is a possible course of action not to be taken lightly.

In Ferguson, Mo., local and state authorities are seeing the results of one police officer’s decision to use force. Whether Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, last Saturday hasn’t been determined. But the incident and its repercussions have played out in the public spotlight.

Brown’s death remains under investigation, but people have gathered in Ferguson to demand justice for the teen. Peaceful protests during the day have, in some cases, turned to violent riots at night.

In Manhattan, Riley County Police Department administrators are well aware of what’s happening about 360 miles to the east.

RCPD Director Brad Schoen was one of several department leaders who sat down with The Mercury on Friday to discuss whether similar events could ever occur in Manhattan.

“Could a cop shoot somebody here? Yes,” Schoen said. “But the real key to those questions is under what circumstances, because force decisions are each almost one-off decisions.”

Use of force, whether that’s an officer using pepper spray or a firearm, is “something we train on all the time,” Schoen said.

Lt. Greg Steere, the department’s training coordinator, added that RCPD officers have training opportunities several times each year that put them in realistic scenarios where use of force may be required. The reality-based training has been used at the RCPD since 2006.

“They (officers) demonstrate the ability to understand what the force options are, what our policy is,” Steere said.

The RCPD’s use of force model contains three “prongs,” said Sgt. Pat Tiede, who works in the department’s training office.

Tiede explained that in encounters with people who are unlikely to cause harm to themselves, others or the officers, the RCPD trains its officers that, if force is necessary, they are to respond only with force that’s also not likely to cause injury.

If someone shows they could cause minor injury, then the officer is allowed to respond in a way that may cause minor injury.

“If the suspect is demonstrating the ability to cause great bodily harm to themselves or others, well, then the officer is able to respond with force likely to cause great bodily harm or a potential death,” Tiede said.

For those officers, the key to determining how to use force is knowing their options. Riley County patrol officers can respond with “hands-on” force, pepper spray, Tasers and firearms.

In the last two years, RCPD officers have had to carefully consider their use of force options in two high-profile incidents.

The first of those incidents occurred on April 7, 2013, when Matthew Wilson shot and killed one man and injured three others in a shooting at University Garden apartments, 900 Garden Way.

Schoen said that when police arrived, Wilson emerged carrying multiple guns. Officers deployed a Taser instead of discharging their firearms.

“I truly believe that if we shot that guy, it would have been entirely justified,” Schoen said. “But we had force options, so we didn’t have to. That’s the extent to which these guys train on.”

The second incident took place at the Quality Inn and Suites in Manhattan, 150 E. Poyntz Ave., on Dec. 10, 2013.

At about 6 a.m. that morning, Riley County police and other law enforcement agencies responded to the hotel, where they found Dustin Monroe firing a shotgun into the air and at the building.

Monroe didn’t comply with officers’ orders to stop shooting. Police also received calls from hotel guests saying rounds were being fired at the building. Some shots were reportedly fired in the officers’ direction, too.

Police returned fire, striking Monroe multiple times and wounding him.

“Those were two shining examples of how we train and how the efforts these guys (Steere and Tiede) put into training our officers have paid off,” Schoen said.

However, as Tiede said, using a firearm is “a last resort.”

Also on the table are safer options, including communication.

“Just showing up in uniform, having a presence, is a show of force, really,” Tiede said.

The presence tactic was carried out in Ferguson during protests and riots, only in a more strong-arm manner. St. Louis County and Ferguson police have been criticized for their militarized appearance during the events.

In an Associated Press photo from Ferguson, police dressed in camouflage combat fatigues, bulletproof vests and helmets are seen standing next to two armored vehicles with mounted machine guns.

That picture has stuck with Schoen as an example of when the over-militarization of a police force can be unnecessary.

“I don’t know that you ever need something like that, especially in a crowd control situation,” Schoen said. “What are you going to do? Is there ever a circumstance you can imagine where it would be better to stand and machine-gun down civilians who are protesting, even if they’re looting and burning a building, than to just leave?”

However, Schoen is quick to point out that some police militarization is necessary.

“I agree that there is an over-militarization going on to the extent that there are still organizations that take these aggressive approaches, use more aggressive tactics,” Schoen said. “That’s not necessary anymore. There’s a better way to handle it.”

As for the RCPD, its patrol officers are quickly finding their shotguns replaced with AR-15 rifles.

“The general public needs to understand that there’s a need for some of that equipment,” Schoen said.

That need comes from being prepared for certain situations in which police could be faced with individuals armed with similar weapons.

“You’ve got to have some ability to deal with those sorts of things,” Schoen said, adding that police at the RCPD and other departments have adopted more defensive attitudes to go along with the new equipment.

The entire comparison between Manhattan authorities and those in Ferguson is really a bit of a reach because of one clear difference, RCPD Assistant Director John Doehling said.

“In Ferguson, there’s a distinct lack of trust between the community and the police,” Doehling said. “There must be some history there. Something else has happened that wasn’t effectively developed.”

Many of the events following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson have been fueled by that apparent mistrust.

Following all use-of-force incidents, the RCPD conducts a review. Ferguson, state and national authorities are likely doing the same, but Doehling said the community is already coming to conclusions.

“For whatever reason, they don’t trust that review’s going to be done properly,” Doehling said. “That’s where I think we differ between us and Ferguson. We think that we have a trust relationship with the community that, if such a thing happened, we would be allowed the opportunity to investigate.”

So, as the events in Missouri unfold and more details are released, officers said the RCPD will continue to train its officers to try and maintain a respectful, trusting relationship with the citizens it serves.

“We may need that relationship to help us,” Steere said.

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