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Use-of-Force Measures Usually Work, But Not Always

July 02, 2002

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Use-of-Force Measures Usually Work, But Not Always

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by Stacey Burns, The Tacoma News Tribune

Nearly every law enforcement officer has a story about a struggle with someone who's mentally unbalanced or in a drug-driven rage, someone who resisted arrest with what seemed like superhuman strength.

It may be a tale of a suspect unfazed by pepper spray or a police dog's bite, or someone who fought off officers trained in hand-to-hand combat. "These things are ugly, but that's the nature of our business," said Tacoma police Capt. Bill Meeks, who teaches police recruits statewide about violent encounters.

"It is impossible for me to describe to you how scary that is." Most of the violent clashes end in cuts and bruises at the worst. Some end with a death, as happened in Newcastle on June 22 when King County sheriff's deputy Richard Herzog was shot trying to subdue a frenzied suspect.

Herzog had responded to a report of a naked man running along Coal Creek Parkway. The two wrestled. The deputy's gun and its magazine fell to the ground. Prosecutors allege the man, high on crack cocaine, reached the gun first, loaded it and fatally shot the 46-year-old Herzog.

For many officers, the incident brought back memories of violent encounters they had faced. On average in Washington, more than 1,000 officers are assaulted each year. About 20 percent result in an injury to the officer, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Officers trained at the Basic Law Enforcement Academy and in their departments learn about use-of-force policies and how to defend themselves against an aggressive person using "reasonable and necessary force."

They also learn what "force tools" - handcuffs, nightsticks, stun guns, etc. - to use when words don't work.

"But sometimes even they don't work," said Jim Boyle, a retired Pierce County sheriff's deputy and now deputy director of the Pierce County Alliance, a drug and alcohol treatment program.

And that can mean "deadly force" - when an officer, fearing for his life or the safety of others, kills.

During their careers, most officers - 99 percent - never use deadly force, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures.

In Pierce County, for instance, deputies killed two suspects last year; there have been no fatal encounters so far this year. The last time a Tacoma police officer killed a suspect was in 1999.

The last Pierce County deputy killed was John Bananola, who died Oct. 16, 1995. Tacoma police lost William Lowry on Aug. 28, 1997. Most officers killed in the line of duty were responding to domestic violence incidents, in traffic accidents or responding to "trouble unknown" calls.

"Every day officers are put in positions where, if one thing had gone a little bit different, they would have gone to the hospital with an injury or worse," said Tacoma police spokesman Jim Mattheis.

Most of the training officers receive in subduing suspects deals with deadly force. They spend hours each year on the firing range, honing their skills. Because they rarely will fire their weapons on duty, they also are taught how to respond to the most dangerous calls, how to retain their weapons and and how to fight hand to hand.

Officers are trained to use escalating force as needed to deal with an unruly suspect. The "force continuum" begins with officers talking calmly, moves through using handcuffs or other tools and ends with deadly force.

"The gauge for the necessary force to use is the amount of resistance that must be overcome," according to the Pierce County Sheriff's Department manual. "Officers are not expected to be injured before resorting to force; they may employ force to keep themselves and others from being injured."

"Our job isn't to make it a fair fight," sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said. Officers might carry pepper spray, a baton, rubber bullets, bean-bag shots and a handgun. A police dog also can be called to help subdue someone. In addition, Tacoma police and Pierce County sheriff's deputies have access to Tasers, stun guns that use electric shocks to paralyze a person's muscles.

"It's one of the safest tools around," Meeks said.

The $350 nonlethal weapons - which resemble plastic Star Trek phasers - provide a level of force between pepper spray and a firearm. Tacoma police have 44 Tasers for nearly 400 officers, though Chief David Brame would like every officer to have one.

Sometimes officers need everything they can lay their hands on.

Last week in Tacoma, police encountered a man on the psychedelic drug PCP. He yelled death threats, choked a police dog and fought off three officers. He ignored a dose of pepper spray and two Taser jolts. A final jolt put him on the ground so officers could handcuff him.

Two weeks ago, a woman running along Pacific Highway South fought off several Lakewood deputies. She tried to rip the emergency lights off a patrol car. The deputies had to put a mesh bag over her head to subdue her. And years ago, Troyer and another deputy tried to stop a man from getting into a moving van driven by an estranged lover. They fought the man and pepper sprayed him. With a face as orange as a pumpkin, he broke free and ran after the moving truck.

"We never saw him again," Troyer said.

Meeks, a former football player, has had men half his size fight him. Some even stood up with Meeks on their backs.

"There is no human limit," he said.

Drugs often play a big role in combative behavior, officers say. Prolonged use of cocaine, PCP and methamphetamine makes users paranoid and sometimes violent.

"They think everyone and everything is out to get them," Boyle said. "Unfortunately, police officers are pretty good targets for them."

Users often feel no pain, Boyle said. He remembers a Lakewood case in which a police dog nearly bit off suspect's ear. Doctors sewed up the ear without giving the man any anesthetic. He never noticed.

"They just don't feel pain the way a normal person does," Boyle said.

Steps An Officer Can Take

Use-of-force policies differ by law enforcement agency. Tacoma police officers are taught to use a progressive application of force as needed. The steps:

* If a suspect is ignoring an officer's command, the officer can try talking, using handcuffs or calling in a police dog.

* If a suspect is moving about but not fighting back, the officer can use pepper spray, wrestle the person to the ground or draw a firearm and direct the suspect.

* If a suspect assaults an officer, the officer can use a baton, a stun gun or order a police dog to attack.

* If a suspect's actions could cause serious harm or death to a citizen or an officer, the officer can use deadly force.

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