In two cases occurring within a short timeframe, young offenders in Winnipeg, Manitoba, died in edged-weapon confrontations with police — in the public hullabaloo that followed each encounter the same shopworn questions reverberated in the media and among armchair critics:
Wasn’t the use of force excessive?
Couldn’t the cops just have shot the knife out of his hand?
Aggravated trainers in the Officer Safety Unit at the Winnipeg Police Service training academy decided it was time to do more than just bitch about naïve civilians’ Hollywood-based misperceptions. “We wanted to be proactive in some way that would produce more informed analysis and assessment of police actions in high-stress, dynamic situations,” said Cst. Barney Bergen, a Winnipeg use-of-force instructor.
The upshot: a carefully-crafted crash course in force realities for representatives of the city’s media, with simple but critical ground rules.
They had to lay aside their cameras, tape recorders, and (at least until the end of the day) their conflict-seeking questions. They had to stay for the whole six-hour presentation; no snatching just bits and pieces on the fly. And they had to listen with an open mind. In exchange, they’d learn “the realistic expectations people should have of officers’ performance under acute stress in use-of-force encounters.”
More than a year after that “leap of faith” experiment, Bergen said, the department is still reaping benefits. “I was one of the skeptics in the beginning. In the past, some of our officers have had very negative, even traumatic, experiences with the media. But since the program, we’ve seen more balanced coverage and better interaction between news outlets and our Media Liaison Office. It has helped prevent wild spin-doctoring and out-of-context reporting.”
As a result of such improvements, he believes, the public has an opportunity to gain a more grounded grasp of the how city’s nearly 1,400 police “go about enforcing the law” and a better comprehension that “when possible we always try to resolve encounters without having to use force.”
To sustain the progress, Winnipeg is considering a refresher repeat of Media Training Day. Bergen and other planners would welcome hearing ideas that have worked for other departments in taming the news beast — you can e-mail Bergen at email@example.com but also consider sharing your thoughts in the comments area at the end of this article so others can benefit as well. Meanwhile, for those interested in replicating Winnipeg’s approach, here are key elements.
About a dozen news personnel from TV, radio, and print outlets accepted the department’s invitation, some frankly surprised that the agency was eager to jump into the use-of-force shark tank with them. Of one reporter who opted to pursue other activities that day, colleagues said later: “He’ll be sorry he missed this.” Those present readily conceded to the ground rules. “We wanted to be in control so it wasn’t just a media scrum,” Bergen said.
With the enthusiastic support of police executives, the training cadre had put together a fast-paced presentation consisting of PowerPoint lecture and live demonstrations. It was made clear that the speakers — Sgt. Jeff Quail, P/Sgt. Ron Bilton, Cst. Adam Cheadle, and Bergen — would not answer questions about or draw examples from any currently “unresolved investigations.” The guests could take notes, but no recording or photography was permitted.
“Our intent,” Bergen said, “was to show that officers are highly trained and have a lot of tools available for dealing with what they encounter on the job, including various force options, but at the end of the day they are human beings. We wanted this to be the big take-away.”
First, to put the subject in perspective, the team pointed out the statistically minute portion of police calls for service that result in use of force: barely more than one-half of one percent in Winnipeg, where more than 150,000 calls are logged per year. The perception may be that “officers are out there applying force to everybody, but the reality is they’re not,” Cheadle explained. This in itself made big headlines when some reporters wrote about the training day afterward.
The department’s use-of-force policy was explained, so the audience understood when and how officers officially can resort to force. Canadian law was reviewed, including the fact that a reasonable perception of impending “grievous bodily harm” — not only the fear of imminent death — is legal justification for defensively employing lethal measures
“A real eye-opener to some,” Bergen said of the reaction to that information. The “totality of circumstances” concept was explored and illustrated, and the control options in Winnipeg’s version of the force continuum were described, from command presence through deadly force, along with their relative intensities. Popular misconceptions like shooting to wound and shooting a weapon out of a suspect’s hand, were debunked.
Particular attention was given to officers’ training in verbal direction, “to show that ‘tactical communication’ is a defined skill set, more than just buzz words,” Bergen said. “We discussed the basic philosophy of trying to defuse volatile situations with words, what kind of persuasive appeals and techniques officers use.
“We wanted to reinforce that officers are not just jumping to go hands-on unless it’s absolutely necessary. They don’t want to go home to their families bruised and banged up, with more scars on their bodies.”
The team was careful not to reveal “any tactical information related to force that might compromise officers on the street,” Bergen stresses. “Things like the formula used to determine when deadly force is justified might give a suspect the edge in manipulating a confrontation, so we avoided that kind of information.”
Although conducted energy weapons have been a source of considerable controversy in Canada (one of Winnipeg’s knife-offender deaths occurred after a TASER deployment), the reporters seemed generally to share a common up-close unfamiliarity with the devices. So a myth-busting walk-through of the X26 model that local officers carry was given (yes, 50,000 volts, but no, not the equivalent of a near-electrocution).
After explaining the type of resistance for which a CEW is appropriate, a TASER was fired at an inert target. “We made clear that this is not a device that officers use flippantly,” Bergen said. Research documenting the comparative safety of the weapon for officers and suspects alike (relative to baton strikes and fights, for example) was also emphasized.
Perhaps the most humanizing aspect of the lecture portion, Bergen suggests, was a layman’s-level analysis of how high stress impacts an officer’s performance during uncertain, rapidly evolving, life-threatening situations.
In “not too academic terms,” Quail described the neuro-anatomy of the brain and explained how stress affects vision, cognitive perception, decision-making, motor performance, and memory. For this, he drew heavily on scientific research conducted and/or reported by Dr. Bill Lewinski’s Force Science Research Center (both Quail and Bergen are certified in Force Science Analysis).
“This knowledge is vitally important in any post-analysis of a major force event,” Bergen said. “An involved officer’s judgment, perceptions, behavior, recollections, and articulation of what happened are very real concerns, and if it’s not understood how these all are affected by a sudden stress load, his or her actions and responses may not get a fair, impartial, and accurate evaluation.
“An incident that seems to have one explanation may in fact have been shaped by very different influences. We wanted to impress on the media that to judge any force encounter without analyzing all the factors potentially involved is a travesty.”
Revealing Role Play
To sample a taste of on-the-line stress and the vagaries of human reaction, the media group donned protective gear and shifted from the classroom to the academy gym to experience a training scenario first-hand. All signed liability waivers.
One reporter volunteer was armed with a Simunitions training gun and led to a corner of the gym, where he was told he would experience a confrontation and should react as if he were an officer coming upon the scene. The other media reps were positioned at different distances and angles as “witnesses.” A video camera was set up to tape the event.
Without warning, two role-playing trainers burst from a side room. One wielding a knife and screaming, “I’m gonna kill you!” chased the other and brought him to the floor. After “stabbing” the victim, the assailant rose, turned toward the officer with knife raised, and snarled verbal threats. The startled “officer” fired at the suspect to stop the attack.
Instructed not to discuss the incident, the shooter and the others were immediately hustled into another room and given questionnaires to fill out regarding their observations: How far away was the attacker from the subject? — a question that’s “always raised when knife offenders are shot,” Bergen explains. Were any weapons present, and if so, what were they? What, if anything, did the victim say? Were any shots fired, and if so, how many? And so on.
The shooter had additional questions to answer: If you shot, did you hit the assailant, and if so, where and how many times? What was the assailant wearing? If he had a weapon, where was it? And so on...
“These are the kind of questions officers are asked after a shooting,” the group was told when they’d finished. “Not having accurate answers can seriously impact your credibility.
“Everybody was absolutely amazed at how inconsistent the answers were among them — and how different they were from what they saw when we played the videotape. When we asked the ‘officer’ to explain what was going through his mind during the incident, he was stunned at the limited amount of information he could recall. And he hadn’t even been directly threatened!”
The day ended, Bergen said, with a “good discussion” of the scenario and how the reporters’ responses tied in with the stress dynamics Quail had outlined earlier.
Bergen thinks the media training day “absolutely” was worth the effort. Kelly Dehn, a police reporter for CTV-Winnipeg, enthusiastically agrees. The day “put you in an officer’s shoes,” he recently told PoliceOne. “You got a real sense of what an officer has to decide in a split-second, a whole new perspective on what an officer goes through. I had a much better understanding the next time I went out on a police story. What good reporter wouldn’t appreciate that?”
Relations between the police and the media are likely always to be a bit dicey. “There are bound to be mistakes on both sides,” Bergen said, “and maybe we’ll end up getting burned somewhere downrange. But at least this shows we’re trying for more transparency, trying to lower the walls a bit.”