Local Law Enforcement Use of Force Policies Vary, Emphasis on Training Does Not

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Amidst national discussions about the proper use of force and criticism of judgment calls made by police, local law enforcement say training from day one and on-duty experience shapes the way they act as officers and deputies.

The Athens Police Department, the Athens County Sheriff’s Office and the Ohio University Police Department are all known for working together on area investigations, but they don’t necessarily live by the same policies.

“It’s very rare for two departments to have exactly the same use of force policy,” said Capt. Ralph Harvey, a supervisor for the Athens Police Department. Harvey is also an instructor for the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy, where he trains in weapons use, civil disorder and riot control.

Different methods of training are used by all three, but they agree that use of force is an issue that is not to be taken lightly.

Officers know any use of force could risk injury to both officers and civilians, but they also know lawsuits are a possibility if their use of force is deemed unacceptable.

“(Use of force) is one of the highest liability areas in law enforcement,” said Andrew Powers, chief of the Ohio University Police Department.


Training on use of force starts at the beginning of an officer’s career at the academy and continues with yearly exercises and on-the-job experience, Powers said. Though the main force used by OUPD is typically “takedown” – the act of taking an individual into custody without the use of weapons – officers have to know how to handle any situation.

“The work that we do can be unpredictable,” Powers said. “We have to be ready at all times for whatever we may face.”

Each year, officers and sheriff’s deputies must qualify in firearms use and TASERs, along with refresher courses on policy.

“We study a lot of case law as well, because case law will always trump policy,” said Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith.

The case that all the Athens County law enforcement agencies cited as a reference point for their policies is the 1989 United States Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor.

In the North Carolina case, an officer from the Charlotte Police Department was sued by Dethorne Graham for use of excessive force during an “investigative stop,” according to court documents.

During what Graham said was a diabetic episode, he ran into and quickly out of a convenience store, as the police officer looked on.

When the officer stopped the car in which Graham was riding to investigate, he didn’t listen to pleas from the driver about Graham’s condition. Graham got out of the vehicle and ran around it before passing out on a nearby curb, according to documents on the case.

Backup was requested by the officer and Graham was rolled over on the sidewalk and handcuffed, as the driver continued to tell the officers about his medical condition.

When he regained consciousness, Graham was on the hood of the car in which he’d been riding. He attempted to show officers a diabetic decal he carried, but they continued to restrain him.

In the process of being taken into custody and put in the back of a police car, court records state Graham sustained a broken foot, cuts on his wrist, a bruised forehead and an injured shoulder.

The Supreme Court found that law enforcement had used excessive force that day, and that the Fourth Amendment – which protects against illegal search and seizure – was to be used for an “objective reasonableness” standard.

The court also said that while officers do have to make “split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary,” officers should decide on their actions “in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them,” and not based on assumptions about the situation.

Athens law enforcement is given “decision-making” training on when and why to use force, according to Harvey.

But all the training in the world doesn’t add up to on-the-job experience, and having other officers to guide them helps avoid the development of bad habits, local officials said.

Part of APD’s policy, which is also the case for OUPD and the sheriff’s office, is pairing young officers with veterans when they start at their agency.

“Some things you can train and some things you just have to learn to handle,” Harvey said.

What A ‘Reasonable Officer’ Would Do

In Powers’ department, the use of force “depends on the totality of the circumstances.”

He said there are always factors to consider when use of force is in play, including the size of the officer and how fatigued the officer is, along with the behavior and actions of the person or persons with whom the officer is interacting.

“The opinion seems to be that use of force (decisions) should be based on private citizens’ opinion, not what the (US) Supreme Court allows,” he said. “Fortunately, a private citizen hasn’t had to experience what an officer has to experience, but we need to follow the case law we are given and act based on our training.”

The reasonable officer standard is specifically discussed in the Graham v. Connor case that law enforcement go to for guidance.

“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,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist said in the court’s ruling.

OUPD, the sheriff’s office and APD all agree that decision-making in the field should be based on the “reasonable officer” standard. But the way it’s used is different between agencies, as it is around the country.

The use of force policy provided by OUPD states that an officer is expected to “control confrontations and is allowed not only to match that level of force, but proceed to the next level from that offered by the suspect.”

This method is often called the “+1” method on the “force continuum,” officials from multiple agencies said.

The OUPD policy also states that circumstances “may necessitate an officer entering our response to resistance and aggression continuum at any level, including deadly force.”

However, deadly force is only to be used “when the officer reasonably believes that the action is in defense of human life, including the officer’s own life or…in defense of any person in immediate danger of serious physical injury,” according to the department’s policy.

The policy also states that “every other reasonable means” should be used before resorting to firearms use and deadly force “shall never be used on mere suspicion alone.”

Powers said the decision on what kind of force is used “is not like a staircase,” where one action automatically leads to another.

“Say someone is using their fists, that would mean we could go to the (baton),” Powers said. “If someone is acting passive toward an officer, the use of pepper spray could be considered.”

While officers never want to hurt civilians, he said, the officer has to think of what can keep them safe as well.

“When somebody produces a knife, for example, bulletproof vests are not designed to protect against knives,” Powers said. “All of these steps are in place because officers want to make sure they get home safely as well as any civilian.”

In the case of an officers’ use of a gun or a TASER to subdue a suspect, the officers’ experience and training is most important and that means an officer might make a different decision than a civilian might make, Powers said.

“Even when there is no gun involved, to say that it is not justified for (police) to shoot, that’s not necessarily true,” Powers said.

The idea of “+1” is to give officers a method of protecting themselves in an unpredictable situation, according to Powers.

But not all agencies in Athens believe in the “+1” methodology. Athens Police Department officers are taught that force continuums are not the end-all-be-all for police decisions.

“There’s not an easy solution,” Harvey said. “But just because someone presents a knife doesn’t automatically mean you reach for a TASER or a firearm.”

The force continuum is a “mechanical means” of dealing with “something very fluid and constantly changing based on the facts (officers) have at the time,” according to Harvey.

Observing the level of aggression can help an officer decide whether the situation needs to be neutralized or if there’s more to the situation than the officer knows, Harvey said.

“At the very least, buy yourself some time, because with time comes more information,” he said.

The officers need to know the consequences of their use of force, because no matter what agency they work for, they will have to explain their decisions later.

“A lot of it falls right squarely on the officer,” Harvey said. “You may be legally able to do something, but are you ethically? And can you live with yourself in doing that?”

Reporting Use of Force

Use of force reviews in Athens County are generally similar. Internal investigations are taken up for “minor” cases of use of force, such as hand-to-hand force or use of pepper spray. Outside review happens when the legality of the officer’s or deputy’s actions come into question.

“Any use of force past hand control requires a use of force report, which is reviewed by (the officer’s) supervisor, the captain and the chief,” Powers said.

APD’s standard is to review any use of force in-house, with a shift-supervisor, a captain, a lieutenant and the chief. The same standard is used by the ACSO.

“If there is a weapon fired, we call in (the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation) and there is mandatory three-day paid leave for the officer,” Smith said.

Evidence is collected and the officer discusses his actions with supervisors and investigators.

Despite the number of events and incidents in which Athens law enforcement agencies work together, only the policies of the department on the officers’ badge applies, even when it may not match that of the officer standing next to them.

“An officer always has to answer to their own department,” Harvey said. “They conduct themselves accordingly.”

The After Effects

In conducting themselves accordingly, the officers must keep their own well-being in mind, especially in a stressful occupation, the officials said.

Officers learn about crisis intervention to use in the field, but they also have access to help themselves when dealing with traumatic incidents.

“We make sure they know that it’s a good thing to seek professional help if you feel like you need it,” Smith said.

The sheriff said it’s an important part of the job when he brings in officers after force is used or a tragic event happens in the line of duty.

“We debrief and we always are very open-minded and make sure they know…if something bothers you, we need to talk about it, we need to find you a counselor,” he said.

Part of being in Athens County law enforcement is gaining trust within the community, in the way they act while responding to a scene and other times when they are around community members.

Through existing programs like Coffee with a Cop and the Joint Police Advisory Council annual barbecue, Powers said the OUPD hopes to educate the community about the roles of officers.

In working with the other agencies and participating in community events, law enforcement learns to know their neighborhoods and open up the lines of communication.

“The more we work together, the better we’ll do,” Smith said.