Police training on use of force continues amid push for fewer shootings

Casey Grove

As the Anchorage Police Department reviews and alters the policies that guide its officers on subduing unruly suspects, the officers' supervisors and instructors are getting training on issues related to the newer thinking on those tactics.

The idea is that the still-evolving policies will be in place by Jan. 1 and that the higher-ups in the department will be better able to teach their officers how to follow them.

In part, the coming changes are a response to what law enforcement officers across the United States have described as an increase in violence against police, the kind of interactions that can leave both the cops and the suspects injured or dead. Equipping officers with so-called "less-lethal" equipment -- including electronic control devices, such as Tasers, or guns that shoot 40 mm foam projectiles -- is not enough, Police Chief Mark Mew said. They need to know when to use those tools, how to use them and what might be the consequences, Mew said Wednesday.

"We review our policies annually, but this time we're really dismantling them and building them from the ground up," Mew said. "We were seeing trends we didn't like. We didn't like the way pursuits were ending. We didn't like the number of shootings we were having."

The plan is to have the new policies in place for 2014, Mew said. It's a process that started, publicly at least, in June when the department announced officers would no longer use lethal force when suspects used vehicles as weapons. With the help of grant funding, the department has purchased hundreds of Tasers for nearly all officers, Mew said. But the more-recent effort is a bigger-picture look at all ways that officers use force, lethal or otherwise, and the legal issues that come along with those methods, Mew said.

Enter Eric Daigle, a Connecticut-based attorney and consultant hired on a $29,500 city contract to train officers on the appropriate use of force and liability concerns related to the electronic control weapons. Daigle, an ex-cop considered an expert on such matters, has been teaching the Anchorage police supervisors and soon-to-be supervisors at the Anchorage School District. The second session wraps up this week.

On Wednesday, inside the school district's boardroom, Daigle talked about "excited delirium," an altered mental and physical state people can go into, usually when they're high, that makes arrests much more dangerous, Daigle said.

The 30 or so officers in the room wore mostly street clothes, though a few wore their uniforms. The training consisted of three days in the classroom setting and a day devoted to running through scenarios and discussing real-life experiences, Mew said.

Daigle showed a video from the 1980s in which Florida police wrestled with a shirtless suspect who was in a state of excited delirium. The officers in the class laughed when their counterpart on the screen used some profanity talking about how silly the man was being walking into slow-moving traffic. As more officers arrived to help subdue the man, he cried out in a raspy voice and continued to struggle. Eventually they forced his arms behind him, bending his legs back and tying them up.

There was a hush among the trainees watching when they saw the finally subdued man go limp and lifeless.

"He's done," Daigle said. "This is a guy who is not going to calm down by himself."

The tactics used in the video, while effective, are not generally considered safe anymore, Daigle said. Had the officers held the man's arms and legs down, then called in medics to sedate the him, he might not have died, Daigle said.

Tactics have changed as public safety officials and lawyers -- especially the ones who've filed expensive lawsuits -- recognize faults on a case-by-case basis, Daigle said earlier, before the class started.

"The thing with use of force is you're not going to make a golden egg stay golden. It's continually changing," Daigle said. "It's transparency of operations and court rulings and always making the nuances.

"Officers, they want to operate within the guidelines, and it's our job to make sure that we're providing them with what the guidelines are," he said.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4343.