As police shootings in the St. Louis area stoked emotions and headlines, a group of officers conducted a “day of immersion” into the world of law enforcement for local politicians in hopes of opening their eyes and minds to the realities behind the badge.
The special training unfolded against a backdrop of still-smoldering protests over the fatal shooting of the teenage offender in suburban Ferguson and amidst fresh activist rage about the subsequent street death in St. Louis of another young suspect who police critics claimed was brandishing “only a sandwich,” not a 9mm pistol that he fired at an officer.
“Even before Ferguson, some of us were talking about how to address the adverse relationship that seems to exist between the police department and some local officials,” Det. Joe Steiger, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Assn. told Force Science News. “We thought maybe we could put together a PowerPoint presentation for city aldermen that would educate them on what we do and how we do it.”
But when nearby Ferguson exploded, Steiger says, and “the grandstanding of some politicians fueled unrest rather than calm, we fast-tracked our intention.” In the process, the union’s conventional original plan blossomed into a much more dramatic format designed to “grab civilian hearts and minds” in a way that would not quickly be forgotten.
The POA invited about 60 elected officials to a day of training, including St. Louis aldermen, civil service commissioners, and state legislators from the city. “Some of these people have been our harshest critics,” Steiger says. Eighteen showed up.
In a classroom, they spent the morning immersed in seeing and hearing about real-world policing. Instruction ranged from a detailed explanation of the legal standards for using physical and deadly force to the screening of multiple fatal encounters caught on cameras, some in which officers were murdered, others with suspects slain.
Those vivid images gave POA members a chance to address questions and concerns that arose from the audience: Why did an officer’s five rounds fail to stop a suspect who charged him? Why was a suspect shot 10 times? Why did an officer shoot a suspect who “just had a knife” and was standing a distance away? Why didn’t an officer shoot to wound a suspect instead of killing him? Why was a suspect who seemed to be complying with orders to put his gun down shot when he reached his other hand behind him? Why did an officer not shoot when a suspect with an assault rifle persisted in threatening him, to the point that the hesitant officer was mortally gunned down?
One official wept during some of the footage; another covered her ears to block out the screaming of an officer in his death throes, Steiger recalls. At times, he says, the room fell completely silent.
“We tried to get the people to see that we’re not the bad guys out there, that everything is not a conspiracy or a cover-up,” he says. “We wanted to get communication going, if nothing else.”
During the classroom session, each attendee was given a DVD copy of the widely acclaimed documentary, Heroes Behind the Badge: Sacrifice & Survival, which features harrowing true stories of fallen officers and inspiring accounts of those who have been critically injured but survived vicious attacks on duty.
In the afternoon, the politicians strapped on pistols that fired blanks and partnered up to role-play police officers in two hands-on scenarios with POA members to see how they would perform in potentially dangerous situations.
“We didn’t want to throw them into no-win situations just to embarrass them,” explains Sgt. Brian Rossomanno, who structured the role playing. “The calls they responded to were winnable if handled properly, and we warned them of various red flags to watch for.”
In one scenario, the would-be officers were shown the basics of searching a suspect, then were sent to interrupt a sidewalk drug deal where they needed to search for a weapon before placing a subject into a patrol car for transport.
Despite searching the suspect twice, “the huge majority missed a gun concealed in the small of his back and ended up with themselves or their partner shot” when the arrestee accessed the hidden weapon in the backseat of the unit, Steiger says.
“I can’t believe I missed that gun,” a state representative told a reporter. “Even though this is pretend, it was really scary and frightening.”
The other scenario featured a prostitute soliciting johns while her pimp loitered about. As the “officers” questioned her and patted her down, typically missing a knife tucked into her waistband, the pimp conspicuously kept one hand in his hoodie pocket. After ignoring several commands to show his hand, he abruptly pulled it out and pointed something in his grip at the officers.
“Several people shot him,” Rossomanno says. He fell with a cell phone in his hand.
“This gave us a chance to talk about how cops sometimes have to react to suspicious movements and about how fast and fluid things can be,” Steiger explains. “We wanted them to feel the life-or-death pressure of split-second decision-making and to realize that an erroneous decision doesn’t necessarily mean that an officer deliberately did wrong.”
In all, the program lasted about six hours. Although Steiger is disappointed that some of the department’s most vocal critics, “who constantly criticize everything the police do,” did not accept the invitation to participate, he says he got “nothing but positive feedback” from officials who were there. And he sees benefits accruing even with those who are generally supportive of the police.
One alderman remarked, “I’ve always been on the side of the police but until now I didn’t have talking points for explaining things to neighborhood groups.” Nearly everyone commented that they knew cops have a difficult job, “but they had no idea how difficult,” Steiger says. Among the memorable take-aways, he believes, were: how fast a knife-wielding suspect can close the reactionary gap, how a suspect hit multiple times can still keep coming, and the realization that real-world police cannot perform Hollywood tricks like shooting guns out of the hands of adversaries.
He and the POA want to stage another training day, he says. When that comes, he hopes that “the ones who came this time can convince the ones who stayed away that it’s important to get this training.”
For more information, President Steiger can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org The documentary series, Heroes Behind the Badge, produced by Modern City Entertainment, is available from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund at: nleomf.org