After the police shooting last summer of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., many law-enforcement agencies nationwide now are teaching officers how to delay or even prevent shootings by backing away or finding cover until other officers arrive.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When two patrol officers arrived at a south Kansas City house last month, a 24-year-old woman armed with a knife already had begun slicing her wrists.
She threatened the officers with the knife and a hammer as they approached in the basement of the house.
The officers used words instead of weapons to defuse the situation and persuade her to surrender.
That is the type of scene — officers showing restraint in a volatile situation — that Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forte wants to see play out more often.
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“We want to make sure that officers understand it is OK to tactically disengage,” Forte said. “We take an oath to protect life and property, but we don’t want to hurt anybody unnecessarily,”
Police are trained to protect themselves against armed or otherwise dangerous people, especially in tight quarters, like a basement. They learn at police academies that they only have a few seconds to react when a threatening person charges them. They learn when to shoot to make sure they go home safe.
But after the police shooting last summer of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., many law-enforcement agencies nationwide now are teaching officers how to delay or even prevent shootings by backing away or finding cover until other officers arrive.
That used to be considered cowardice, Forte said.
But the public wants officers to save lives, not take them, recent events have shown.
The new training could help save lives and reduce potential lawsuits over officer-involved shootings, which are being captured on cellphone video ever more frequently.
Trainers are encouraging police officers to use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to avoid situations where they have to shoot someone who is threatening them.
In Kansas City, officers are required to attend the new training, which includes a segment focused on what Forte calls “tactical disengagement and redeployment.”
In other words, how to back off — the opposite of what officers previously have been trained to do.
“It is not the Old West and we are on a street in Dodge City where you draw when somebody flinches to see who is quicker,” said Kansas City Sgt. Ward Smith, a firearms instructor.
At another point, instructors reminded officers to shine flashlights in a suspect’s face during an armed confrontation. That can help disorient them.
But officers can’t always back off, one participant pointed out.
“There are times when you have to use tactical retreat because it will buy you a little time to get extra officers there who can assist,” said Sgt. Terry Freed. “There are also a lot of times as an officer you don’t have the luxury of a tactical retreat; you have got to immediately take control of the situation.”
It takes time for the traditional police culture to change.
And the use of tactical redeployment represents a change in mindset for the department, Forte said.
“We have to be smart about how we do things.”