React fast, react smart: police officers hold lives in their hands

Big Read: In the moment, do you make the decision to shoot— or not?

This is the second of three related stories by Victoria News multimedia journalist Nicole Crescenzi. She participated in a version of the Reality Based Training (RBT) engaged in by Victoria Police Department officers, and writes about the stress and potential danger members face on an almost daily basis dealing with calls involving violence or threats.

I felt the weight of a police officer’s heavy utility belt for the first time recently.

Armed with pepper spray, a baton and a gun loaded with coloured pellets, we ran through stressful, reality based situations involving actors wielding weapons of various kinds.

In the first scenario, I was led into a dark room by control tactics co-ordinator, Const. Kris Greffard.

“Eyes left, eyes left, eyes left,” she said, leading me in, my gun drawn.

She looked at me reassuringly.

“Deep breath in, deep breath out,” she said, her teal eyes gazing at me, calming me. “When you turn around I want you to address the subject in front of you, do you understand?”

“Yes,” I replied.

I turned around, feeling like I’d rolled into a slow motion scene from a movie. I saw a man dressed head to toe in black with a mask. He reached to his side, pulled out a gun and shot me. I shot him back, but I was already hit.

The Victoria Police Department conducted a series of reality-based training exercises, including de-escalation scenarios. (Arnold Lim/Black Press)

In a second situation, the same man was facing a wall. I ordered him to turn around, I asked his name and told him to put his hands up, because I noticed him holding something. My gun was drawn, but I saw he was holding a mug. I put my gun down.

In another scenario, the man had something in his pocket. He dropped it – it was a phone – but he dove to grab it and I told him to get up slowly, with his hands up. He reached for something else and I shot him.

“You saw it was a phone, why did you still shoot him?” Greffard asked.

I didn’t know he wasn’t armed with something else – everyone has a phone, I said. Still, I felt sick and so guilty. Should I have shot him? Did I kill an innocent man?

Of course he was an actor, one of VicPD’s own participating in the training. What if he had been a real person?

Action is faster than reaction, we were told. Do they have the ability, the intention and the means to cause grievous bodily harm or death?

ALSO READ: What it’s like to hit a cop: reality-based training with the Victoria Police

We ran through more drills in teams, searching hallways as men brandished bats made more deadly with contorted nails. A neighbor appears, checking to see what’s going on. Is she safe? Are my fellow officers safe? Am I safe? Is he going to lunge at me with the bat? The man is drunk and slurring and he’s very, very angry. The neighbours are also angry, they’re yelling. The suspect lunges towards us, and he gets shot.

“I got that all on film! Police brutality!” an actress yelled.

A great deal of focus in RBT is on de-escalating a situation.

“We carry weapons with us, but our greatest tool is communication,” Greffard said.

Read the person, read their body language. Talk to them, ask open-ended questions. By applying these techniques we were able to calm down and arrest a man wielding a crowbar.

Most of the time, Greffard said, police tactics are not violent.

“Of all the reports I reviewed, specifically in 2017 because those are the ones that I’m going off that are most current, approximately one per cent of police interactions with the public resulted in force above compliant handcuffing,” she said.”Which, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty low.”

Many police officers no longer choose to wear a baton on their belt, and while all carry OC spray – commonly known as pepper spray – it was used only 13 times by VicPD officers in 2017.

Still, police need to prepare for the worst.

In a sad nod to today’s trends, another scenario dealt with an active shooter in a busy building.

“Police officers’ main tactics are defense,” said Const. Dylan Bruce. “But in situations like this, the main goal is to stop the killing.”

He listed four possible outcomes: the suspect committing suicide was by far the most likely, at 40 per cent. Given the goal of preventing more deaths, it’s considered a positive outcome, Bruce said. Another outcome is the suspect going after the police, which is also seen as positive as it achieves the goal of diverting attention away from the public. Others include the suspect giving up or trying to flee the scene.

It’s important, we heard, to gather as much information as possible about a situation and report to your team. “Sometimes police get into trouble because from an optical view, we’re just standing around doing nothing,” Bruce said. “But we’re actually getting information and setting up our team.”

Other times, officers go in blind.

Nicole Crescenzi (centre)with media personnel Brishti Basu (left) and Katie DeRosa (right) participate in a police training exercises where media were taught how to use a gun, and put into controlled scenarios with actors mimicking potential police calls. (Arnold Lim/Black Press)

Despite the violence of the scenarios, it was still imperative that we assessed the situation and try to remove the emotion.

“That’s not easy if you’re walking over the bodies of children,” Greffard said, painting a grisly picture. “Or, if the shooter is a child themselves.”

We walked into a situation in the same hallway as before, were told an active shooter was inside, but not given any other information.

An actor played a dead police officer, while another was at his side screaming in fear and anger, “There’s a shooter in here!”

The hallway was dark, there were many doors and the rattle of firing bullets played off of a speaker. My heart was pumping and my team moved forward, checking doors, finding people hiding in rooms.

Third room in, we found the shooter, who fired at us and we fired back.

“Kings scene!” Greffard yelled, indicating the end of the scenario.

Guns were holstered and the lights came on. I let out a breath with relief, and a new-found understanding that officers must be prepared to face these type of situations every shift.

In a split second, police must take in the many moving parts of a scene: who is in trouble? Who is a threat and how much? Should I draw my weapon; which weapon should I use? Should I kill this person? Will this person kill me? Will they kill anyone else?

I found it nearly impossible to resist shooting a person I felt was threatening me or the team. Of course, I had a fake gun with a fake enemy and the consequences were far less devastating.

Police officers can be forced to make these calculations every day, and they often face criticism over their actions – whether they saved a life, took one away or both.

The weight of the surrounding world rests heavily on their badged shoulders.

For me, the weight of responsibility left as soon as I removed the utility belt from my waist, with nothing left but a slight bruise on my hip.

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com

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