By Patrick Yost
As part of on-going training of local law enforcement officers, several members of the Madison Police Department and Morgan County Sheriff’s Office attended a four-hour “use of force” training session last week.
The session, held at the Morgan County Public Safety Center, was continuing education for officers to both learn effective methods of de-escalating confrontational situations and how to protect both themselves and the public. Justin Gregory, a former deputy chief with the Athens/Clarke County Police Department with SWAT team experience, led the course.
Gregory said law enforcement had been evolving over time to change with society “but have not reached a place we thought we had.”
He also told the more than 15 officers in session that public funding for officers should match the level of training that, in part, the public believes trained professional police officers receive.
“The profession is actually open to being better,” he said. However, he said, “there are basic things the public thinks we have that we don’t.”
Gregory said departments and the community need to embrace the concept of training officers in the “expectation of perfect decision making.” He also said perceptions of a violent law enforcement tradition are not held to standard based on statistics. Nationally, he said, in 2015 there were 940 deadly encounters from approximately 800,000 officers nationwide, approximately one-one thousand of a percent. He also said nationally statistics show that approximately 1 to 2 percent off all police encounters “end in significant use of force.”
“There are times when we are required to use force and there are times when it’s justified,” he said.
He said public perceptions of officer’s actions, especially in deadly use of force situations often are formed after the fact of a fast-changing situation. “We must resist the temptation to judge an officer’s action with the 20-20 vision of hindsight.”
Use of force situations are “rapidly evolving and split-second.”
“Use of force events are measured in milli-seconds,” Gregory said.
“These are end-of-story horrible situations. They are horrible for the person who is going and horrible for the person person who had to do it.”
Gregory reinforced the value of officer training as it relates to use of force situations “so somewhere in there we’ve experienced it. It helps us make a decision.”
He also said he was an advocate of a “community policing” policy and teaching officers to “build a skill set to reduce the use of force.” Gregory said when officers are adequately trained in defensive tactics and community policing models “more than 75 percent of use of force encounters go away through the use of a different skill set.” He said an officers ability to communicate with subjects was the “number one tactical piece of gear.”
“We do suffer from an ‘us versus them’ syndrome,” he said.
Madison Police Chief Bill Ashburn said Gregory’s information would continue to reinforce his department’s continual training on how officers perceive citizens and the people they serve. “We need to look at law enforcement as a whole and acknowledge that there is a bias,” he said. “We’ve got to improve on those areas.”
Ashburn said he reviews all use of force encounters in his department and works with the officers to determine if force was necessary or if there was another way. “I have stressed to my officers… I’m going to critique the entire incident. It’s not scolding or a reprimand, it’s coaching. It’s how we can get better.”
Morgan County Sherif’s Office Chief Deputy Keith Howard said the concept of de-escalation and community policing is nothing new in law enforcement. Howard, a former director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, said the center started implementing the initiative two years prior to the rest of the nation.
This initiative, he said, included the purchase of 16 Judgmental Shooting Simulators positioned at various public safety center academies around the state. The Morgan County Sheriff’s Office has one of the simulators,” he said.
“The issue is the perception of peace officer use of force. The combination of the three instructional areas help.”