Police Options On Force Changing

Brian Chasnoff
San Antonio Express-News Staff Writer

Web Posted: 04/14/2007 10:30 PM CDT

When a suspect aims a deadly weapon at a police officer, chances are that officer will open fire, police said.

It might be an intuitive conclusion. But many police departments are starting to worry that those unschooled in the volatile realities of police work might not understand the cause-and-effect relationship.

So agencies across the nation have begun discarding so-called "ascending scales" of force training tools that display escalating use-of-force options for officers. With three officer-involved shootings here two of them fatal in three weeks, it's an issue that again has gained relevance.

The San Antonio Police Department still holds to the old model a chart with escalating options in its general manual. But Assistant Chief David Head said in an interview last week that it could be misleading

"I can tell you, in the law enforcement community there's a lot of concern about displaying it this way because it suggests to someone else that there's a scale that we should proceed through. And that's not what this is," Head said.

"Deadly force will be met with deadly force, almost in every case."

The Police Department's general manual lists six potential "officer responses" to perceived suspect actions. In ascending order of seriousness, they are: officer's presence, verbal communications, open/empty hands control, physical force, intermediate weapon and deadly force.

The manual, however, stresses that officers are not required to satisfy any response level rather than resort to "a reasonable method that resolves the situation in the safest and most expedient fashion."

Safety, Head said, means that of the public and the officers themselves.

Deadly weapons

Thomas Aveni, co-founder of the Police Policy Studies Council, said departments are abandoning ascending scales "en masse" because they can distract from harsh realities such as suspects aiming deadly weapons at officers.

"It's basically been misused by plaintiff's attorneys," said Aveni, who researches use-of-force issues. "It's always introduced more contentious nonsense into external discussions about whether or not police acted appropriately."

In the three incidents for San Antonio this year, police say officers fired at suspects who pointed "deadly weapons" at them scenarios in which police, fearing for their lives, are legally justified to use deadly force immediately, authorities said.

Christopher Donnan, 34, already had robbed an IBC bank Tuesday when he pointed a handgun at an officer during a struggle, police said.

Two officers opened fire, killing him.

His widow, Kelly Donnan, has said she understands why police fired her husband, mentally unstable and on drugs, might have sought that end but she questioned why the officers shot him three times in the side.

A police source, who asked not to be identified because the information was not public, said the officers fired until the suspect dropped the gun and the threat was stopped.

On April 7, the "deadly weapon" aimed at officers was a vehicle.

Officers were looking for a suspect listed as "dangerous and with an active felony warrant" who reportedly pointed a gun at a witness, a police report said. Police found him on a roadway and tried to pull him over, but the suspect led them on a chase.

He eventually crashed.

As an officer ran toward the vehicle, the suspect backed it toward him "at a high rate of speed," the report said. The officer leaped out of the way, yelled at the suspect to stop and struck the passenger side window with his baton, but the window didn't break.

The suspect backed up again in an attempt to hit the officer, the report said. In the process, he aimed his vehicle at another officer who was standing between the suspect's vehicle and a police car.

Fearing he would be pinned between both cars, the officer fired three rounds into the driver-side door while dodging the suspect's vehicle as it sped off, the report said.

The suspect, Gabriel Moreno, 24, was hit once in the upper thigh.

He then crashed into three parked cars; police pulled him out of the driver-side window and arrested him.

Moreno remained in Bexar County Jail on Saturday without bond. His charges include two counts of aggravated assault on a public servant, evading arrest and assault on a family member.

When to fire

Firing at moving vehicles is prohibited here "except as the ultimate measure of self-defense or defense of another," according to the Police Department's general manual.

Head, the assistant chief, said the April 7 incident was an example of officers reacting reasonably to a "totality of circumstances" that included a suspect known to be dangerous who already had used deadly force against an officer, an assessment Aveni echoed.

Yet firing at moving vehicles is controversial, and it's more limited in other cities. For example, police officers in Los Angeles are prohibited from firing at a moving vehicle unless a person inside it threatens the officer with deadly force by means other than the vehicle itself, such as with a gun.

In San Antonio's third incident, on March 23 Deon Johnson had just robbed a Blockbuster Video store and was fleeing when he turned and pointed a gun at two officers, who opened fire on him, police said.

Johnson, 23, was killed.

T.C. Calvert, president of the Neighborhoods First Alliance and sometimes-critic of the Police Department, said he hasn't registered much outrage over the three recent shootings.

"There are elements out there in the community who have no regard for the law," Calvert said, speaking generally, "and when they run into the law, they're going to suffer the consequences."

Aveni said the key in scrutinizing officers' reactions is to consider whether the amount of force they use is "objectively reasonable given the totality of circumstances." When those circumstances include staring down the barrel of a gun, he said, the law says it's reasonable to fight fire with fire.

"Police must make decisions under circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving," Aveni said. "It's the reason the ascending scale use-of-force continuums are being flushed down the toilet."