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What Happens When Activists Get Use Of Force Training?

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In a letter to the editor that we printed in issue #273 [1/14/15], Sgt. Casey Bokavich of the Redding (CA) PD mentioned that his agency was preparing to host members of a local civil rights group for a training session on police use of force. We decided to check in recently to see how that event went.

The group, originally called Shasta County Citizens Against Racism, is now known as Shasta County Citizens Advocating Respect (SCCAR). The non-profit was formed nearly 30 years ago after a civilian shooting with racial overtones. According to its website, the founders considered its mission in large part to serve as a “watchdog” to keep “law enforcement on task” in pursuing suspected “hate crimes.”

SCCAR’s relationship with the RPD and its 98 sworn officers has not been hostile, Bokavich says. But recent months have been “really rough” in the Northern California city of 90,000, with several officer-involved shootings and extended fights. With anti-cop sentiments stoked nationally by the inflammatory incidents in Ferguson and New York City, Bokavich, a DT and force-options instructor with 24 years in law enforcement, felt that a preemptive myth-busting session with activist groups in Redding might serve to clarify common misconceptions about police use of force and help to forestall any local eruptions.

With the support of Chief Robert Paoletti, invitations were issued to several organizations. SCCAR was the only one to respond.

“We planned on meeting with its members for three hours, beginning at 7 o’clock on a Tuesday night,” Bokavich told Force Science News. “We finally had to call it at 11p.m. They were so into it they didn’t even want to take bathroom breaks. It was just awesome!”

Bokavich and two fellow instructors, chosen for their outstanding presentation skills, delivered the same, unredacted content that Redding officers receive in a training class called “Force Options”. Bokavich explains: “We wanted the people attending to understand the whole breadth of what an officer has to consider in making a force decision, with nothing watered down.” Critical elements included:

  • A thorough review of the state penal code and department policy relating to use of force. (“We had members of the audience read the passages aloud so they could be assured that the information we were providing was accurate,” Bokavich says.)
  • An analysis of fundamental case law, including the findings of Graham v. Connor and Tennessee v. Garner. (“Many surprises came out of this for the class,” Bokavich says, “including the guidelines for reasonable force and learning that even shooting a suspect in the back can be perfectly legal in certain circumstances.”)
  • The realities of human performance under the influence of adrenalin and stress. (“They were really surprised to learn that three large officers trying to arrest an out-if-control 130-pound female can sometimes be very difficult,” Bokavich says.)
  • Debriefing dash-cam videos of real-world confrontations in Redding and elsewhere, including K-9 action, Taser deployment, even the use of a squad car to run over a criminal shooter. (“Based on the statutes, case law, and department policies, we asked them to critique the do’s and don’ts of the responses,” Bokavich says. “It was powerful for them to see what can happen even in our community–and how fast.”
  • Simulator scenarios, with the audience either on the hot spot as “responding officers” or acting as witnesses to the unfolding action. (“One woman’s pulse rate jumped to 135 just from role-playing an officer in a no-shoot scenario,” Bokavich recalls.)
  • A freewheeling Q & A exchange, that covered topics ranging from what parents should tell their kids about interacting with police to why local gang officers were “harassing” a boy who had red rags tied to the handlebars of his bike.
  • “When the evening ended, I was jazzed,” Bokavich says. “We took a chance by reaching out for the first time to a civil rights advocacy group. When we started, they had a healthy skepticism of what cops do, based on what they’d received from the media, movies, and other sources. Now I’m convinced they have a much better perspective of the challenges officers face in use-of-force situations.”
  • A participant interviewed by a TV reporter who was present agreed. “To see the incredible risk [officers face] is amazing,” said Rev. Ann Corrin. The training “helped me understand the emotional maturity that’s necessary for the job and be willing to give officers the benefit of the doubt going into tough, tough situations.”
  • Another SCCAR member, Celeste Draisner, wrote Bokavich: “I found that being able to accurately determine when to use or not use deadly force was much harder than I originally thought. I came away with more compassion for how difficult the choices officers have to make on the street must be.”
  • In the future, Bokavich hopes to repeat the program with other audiences, including the NAACP and the city council. The local ACLU board already has expressed interest, he says.
  • “Some departments seem to have apprehensions about sharing this kind of training information with civilians,” he says. “But as we’ve seen here, it can work wonderfully.”

NOTE: For more examples of the positive results of introducing civilians to force encounter scenarios visit the FORCE SCIENCE INSTITUTE PAGE on Facebook.

For other agencies interested in offering a similar program, Bokavich is willing to share recommendations and guidance. He can be contacted at: cbokavich@reddingpolice.com.

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