Discretion Better Part of Valor

Jan 19 2006; BROCKTON, MA, USA; J. KIELY JR./THE ENTERPRISE -- BPD RANGE TRAINING -- Brockton Police Officer Steve Johnson takes aim from his cruiser with a H+K rifle while training with firearms at the Brockton Police Department shooting range Thursday afternoon. The Brockton Police have added a number of new technologies to their range in recent years in order to train officers on situational awareness and proper reactions to dangerous and fluid situations. -- WITH BOYLE STORY (J. KIELY JR./THE ENTERPRISE)

By Maureen Boyle,


BROCKTON As narcotics detectives burst into the Calmar Street apartment, the drug dealing suspect stood with a .357 revolver aimed at the first officer through the door.

"We very well could have shot him," Sgt. Kevin O'Connell, head of the narcotics unit, said.

But they didn't.

One detective kept his gun trained on the suspect, ordering the man to drop the weapon, as the others took cover and then moved in.

No shots were fired. No one was injured.

Training that night took over, O'Connell said.

It was one of countless situations in Brockton where police officers say they faced gunmen or suspects who they initially believed could have had guns and didn't fire.

Smaller, suburban communities are grappling with cases where suspects have been wounded or killed by police such as in Plymouth where police shot and killed a 16-year-old boy earlier this month.

But in Brockton, few police officers fire weapons in a city where gunshots are reported weekly.

"Training has something to do with it," Brockton Police Chief William Conlon said. "Luck has to play a part, too."

Many police officers in the area are certified just once a year in the use of their firearms. Brockton officers go to the department's range for certification twice a year and are encouraged to go even more often.

And the training doesn't end with shooting at targets.

-Officers hit the ground to simulate real-life situations on the streets, from car stops to gunmen ducking behind innocent bystanders.

- The training takes place during the day and at night, when two-thirds of the officers work.

- The department sets up a firing range complete with cars so officers can sharpen skills on approaching stopped vehicles. They use paint ball guns to mirror street situations.

- The firing range was modified to include a moving "man" ducking behind targets representing bystanders to help officers handle "shoot-don't shoot" situations.

The training is paying off, they say.

Since 2003, Brockton police officers or animal control officers fired their guns a dozen times. In 11 of those cases, they shot animals. In 2004, an officer shot and wounded a suspect who was driving a car at him.

That comes as police field dozens of reports of gunfire in the city and seize at one gun a week from suspects. Between Jan. 1 and 23, there were 19 calls to police of gunshots in the city and 14 other calls for a person with a gun.

"The officers are emotionally prepared to expect a gun call," Detective Lt. John Crowley said. "Guys coming into work are prepared to deal with at least one gun call. Maybe that's the difference. ... If you haven't had a gun call in a year, there is the potential for tunnel vision."

Brockton, in many ways, mirrors the experience of cities across the country. National studies found police across the country rarely fired firearms during arrests.

One study of 7,512 arrests found police used a gun in 0.2 percent of the cases, according to the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Training is key when seconds count and officers don't have time to analyze a situation or second- guess themselves.

"Your training takes over," Sgt. Brian Leary, one of the five Brockton firearms instructors.

Sgt. William Barry, another instructor, likened the training to knowing how to drive you know when to brake quickly, you know when to instantly swerve.

"Physically, your mind doesn't know the difference between training and real-life situations," he said. "All your mind remembers is the response to a reaction. Your mind is already calculating what to do. It is almost like an auto pilot."

When officers simulate car stops using paint ball guns, the results can be eye-opening.

"For the simulation, we will have the guys in the car who are the suspects and the officers approach. Sometimes the suspects will have a gun. Sometimes they will pull a cell phone out of their pocket," Leary said. "They are shooting paint balls but, all of a sudden, they realize, if this was real life something bad just happened."

Officer Steven Johnson, who worked nights for years, said the training is important. "It keeps you on your toes," he said. "Anything can happen on the street."

Sgt. Kenneth Lofstrom agreed. "The situations are similar to what you may face on the street."

Johnson said he has trained on computerized training simulators a type of video game depicting realistic situations but it isn't the same. "It's more like a video game," Johnson said. "You don't get the same effect."

Thomas J. Aveni, co-founder of the Police Policy Studies Council, said the more officers train in "shoot-don't shoot" situations, the better.

"What you are trying to do is make the training environment as much akin to what the working environment would be," Aveni said.

But doing that can be costly for a department, he said. "When you start doing scenario-based training, it is slow, it is tedious, it eats up a lot of man-hours."

However, it can save a community money in the long run by preventing lawsuits and providing a strong defense if a civil case is filed in a shooting.

"It becomes a risk management issue," Aveni said. "If you believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, certainly training is a good way to inoculate yourself."