Force Science Gradudate Briefs Grand Jury On Action/Reaction Realities

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Part of an ongoing series on real-world successes

At the talking stage, the plan to bust a crew of Florida home invaders worked perfectly.

An undercover detective from the Broward County SO who had infiltrated the group would call the five suspects to a warehouse to map out their next job, the robbery and possible murder of a drug dealer. After they agreed on strategy, he’d lead them into the confines of a small office on the guise of treating them to pizza to celebrate. Then SWAT operators would burst in and quickly make the arrests, using speed and surprise to forestall violence. No fuss, no muss.

In reality, of course, fate took a different course.

The suspects weren’t interested in pizza, so the takedown was attempted in the rangy open space of the warehouse proper. Four of the crew meekly surrendered. But a fifth, armed with a pistol stuck in his waistband, rabbited, with two operators in close pursuit. Near a stack of tires deep in the warehouse, the suspect’s hand started moving toward his waist–and the cops instantly opened fire. Hit by multiple rounds, the suspect fell to the floor, gasping for air.

When medics arrived and cut open his clothes to assess his injuries and try vainly to save his life, his pistol fell out from inside his pants leg. He’d never drawn it.

By protocol in that judicial jurisdiction, the fatal shooting automatically would be reviewed by a grand jury, and the officers knew how naive civilians can sometimes regard police deadly force. Might not the jurors end up blaming the two operators for prematurely killing a man who didn’t actually have a gun in his hand and therefore wasn’t presenting an immediate threat?

To address that concern, the state attorney conducting the hearing earlier this year called as a witness someone trained to explain the action/reaction realities of threatening encounters: Sgt. Sean Visners of the Sunrise (FL) PD, a graduate of the Force Science Certification Course

A 17-year law enforcement veteran now with his department’s Criminal Investigations Division, Visners supervises homicide, violent crime, and OIS investigations. He himself was involved in a deadly shooting during an eight-year stint he served with his agency’s SWAT team. During an early morning breach-entry warrant service at the home of an alleged narcotics offender, he confronted the suspect, who popped out of a bedroom closet with a pistol in hand. Before the adversary could fire, Visners brought him down with eight rounds delivered to “multiple fatal locations.”

The impact of that experience, which included a grand jury review and an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by the dead man’s survivors, “gave me a passion to learn everything I could about police shootings, so I could better investigate them and properly discuss them in a criminal or civil forum,” Visners told Force Science News. As a critical part of that education, he attended the five-day Force Science training three years ago in Toronto.

“Since then,” he says, “I’ve been recognized in our judicial circuit as an expert use-of-force witness for cases reviewed by civilian grand juries to determine whether the deadly force that was deployed was justified.”

Cases in which he has rendered an opinion have included incidents, among others, in which a SWAT team shot a cop killer multiple times in the back and a corrections deputy was accused of battery, jeopardizing her job, after she “proactively deployed force against a belligerent inmate on crutches to avoid being attacked.”

In the eight cases in which he has participated, officers all have been exonerated.

As to the warehouse incident, that shooting “is easily justified to the average lawman” on the basis of the suspect reaching toward his waistband, Visners notes. “But a civilian grand juror might have questions with regards to where the suspect’s gun was when SWAT fired the fatal rounds.

“Because the gun fell out of his pants leg, it apparently wasn’t in his hand, so the jury could wonder ‘Did the suspect have to be shot and killed at the point that he was? Or did the operators shoot prematurely?’ ”

Visners framed his testimony with that question in mind.

When the two operators chased after the bolting suspect, they knew he was armed, he explained. The SWAT team had watched on hidden cameras while the undercover detective and the home invasion crew plotted their intended crime, and during that time the suspect in question repeatedly practiced drawing his pistol from his waistband “to ensure his proficiency” in using the gun.

When the suspect moved his hand toward his waist during the pursuit, the operators could reasonably have believed he was intending to draw and use the weapon on them, Visners told the jurors. Then, referencing Force Science research that’s studied during the certification course, he explained in detail the action/reaction dynamics of an armed encounter.

Once the average suspect grips a gun in his waistband, Visners explained, he can pull it clear and fire a shot at a pursuing officer in less time than most people can blink their eyes…and in less time than the officer can process what’s happening and react to defend himself.

Citing Force Science time-and-motion studies, he explained that if the SWAT operators had waited until they actually saw a pistol drawn from the suspect’s waistband and pointed at them, “they could at a minimum have been shot at more than once and very possibly been wounded or killed, especially considering the close quarters of the engagement.”

In his expert opinion, he concluded, the operators had acted in an “exemplary” manner.

In the end, the jurors voted a no true bill in the case. Visners feels the information he shared was a vital influence on that decision.

“Society expects police officers to be robotically proficient, able to react instantaneously to any suspect action,” he says. “Many expectations, influenced by Hollywood misrepresentations, are simply not humanly possible.

“An armed suspect with a handgun in the waistband places a law enforcement officer in grave danger. It is vital to get it right when a decision is made to pull the trigger. But it is also vital for force reviewers to get it right so far as understanding the human capabilities and dynamics of such an incident.

“The knowledge I received from attending the Force Science Certification Course is simply priceless and has been used each and every time I have testified in legal proceedings. The law enforcement community owes the Force Science Institute a big thank you for scientifically proving just how real and deadly the dangers are that we face in timeframes measured in the blink of an eye.”

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