Keeping Safe in Ferguson and Beyond: Officer Safety Training in the Age of Increased Public Distrust
In communities across the U.S. perceptions by some in the public about law enforcement have changed, and support for law enforcement has unfortunately decreased in many areas. Officer safety training has always been important to keeping safe and alive in the law enforcement field. However, recent events across America have heightened public distrust and disdain of law enforcement actions and practices, which can further endanger the lives of the men and women behind the badge. Whether one is dealing with a suspect with a violent felony warrant, a Sovereign Citizen with no recognition of a law enforcement officer’s authority, or a law-abiding citizen who decides to record an encounter with police, the threats to the safety of law enforcement today have definitely made more headlines. Now more than ever, officer safety training is important to keeping safe and making it home to your family after each shift.
The mass media as of late has been painting a picture of law enforcement that has been far from complimentary, and using a broad brush that has tainted far too many. One of the more recent examples of this was the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO. While a grand jury did not charge Officer Wilson with criminal wrongdoing, and a subsequent U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation found the same, this case has still propelled law enforcement officers in the public eye as rampant with corruption and using unreasonable force against the public. Another incident that has fueled this fire of public controversy regarding police actions is that of Eric Garner’s death in NY City, resulting in many across the U.S. to exclaim “I can’t breathe!” in protest to law enforcement use of force incidents deemed excessive.
While there is a lot of criticism these days from the public aimed at (no pun intended) police use of force situations – some with merit and others purely political – there are two incidents that are clearly poor uses of deadly force by officers that were either poorly trained or who did not properly incorporate the training they received: the 2014 shooting by SC Trooper Sean Groubert of an unarmed driver on a no seat belt traffic stop, and the more recent one by North Charleston, SC Officer Michael Slager. Regardless of one’s personal views on the incident in Ferguson, MO, these two incidents in SC were clearly illegal uses of force that violated case law from TN v Garner on the use of deadly force by law enforcement (resulting in the firing and criminal charging of Trooper Groubert and Officer Slager). Fair or not – reasonable or not – these incidents shape not only public opinion, but decisions made by some people when they encounter police. These incidents not only directly impact the lives of the victims, the officers and their families, but indirectly they affect the lives of all law enforcement officers in the future contacts they make with the public. Let’s examine the shooting death of Police Officer Philip Davis in Pelham, AL on December 4, 2009. Officer Davis’ life was lost before more recent shooting incidents involving law enforcement, but his murderer, Bart Wayne Johnson, had a disdain for law enforcement from prior contacts. Johnson worked as a pharmacist and had no prior criminal history, though he did have multiple previous traffic citations. Johnson decided to take out his disdain for law enforcement as a whole on Officer Davis when he was stopped for a speeding violation just before midnight on interstate 65. While Johnson pled not guilty by reason of mental default, a jury rejected this and he was sentenced to the death penalty in 2011.
The connection I make between the above incidents and officer safety training is twofold: 1) we as law enforcement officers must train seriously for officer safety and use of force to ensure we are competent in our application of force (to prevent more situations like those involving Trooper Groubert and Officer Slager from occurring); and 2) we as law enforcement officers must realize there are other “Bart Johnsons” in the world, and recent public outcry over police use of force incidents could bolster further attacks on law enforcement officers who serve honorably. As active law enforcement officers dedicated to our duties we should respond to this twofold: 1) individually seek out any and all officer safety training opportunities possible, and seriously absorb what the training has to offer; and 2) while working safely and backing our fellow officers up, treat everyone we encounter as a law enforcement officer with dignity and humanely (respect is earned, but dignity and humane treatment is not only morally right, but it can change negative public perceptions, and very possibly reduce incidents of attacks on law enforcement officers nationwide).
About the Author: Ryan Schwoebel has worked in various roles of law enforcement since 2004, including as a deputy sheriff, police officer, crime scene technician and federal agent. After transitioning careers to the private sector, Ryan maintains his Alabama Peace Officers Standards & Training Commission certification part-time as a training officer for the Alabama Historic Ironworks Commission Police Department. Ryan also teaches criminal justice and law enforcement courses for multiple colleges, including Troy University and UAB.