A Matter of Life and Death

 

Fr. David R. Powell
Fr. David R. Powell
Father David Powell will head the the Santa Rosa Police Chaplaincy Program; he is a former Oakland cop.

This article appeared in my local newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat on Sunday, March 22, 2015. It adds a dimension to police officer training that isn’t often publicized. I consider this an insightful scrap of information to the help the public make informed decisions about police involved shooting. What he doesn’t say is what every law enforcement officer knows, “If a cop gets killed/shot/disabled, he won’t be able to help citizens who are in need.”

–Thonie

The training involved facing realistic filmed reproductions of actual situations in which life and death decisions were made by police officers in the past. The trainee was provided with a police sidearm from which electronically accurate laser beams could be fired at the projected simulations so one could see where the “bullets” actually hit the life-sized images on the screen. Also, the simulator “suspects” fire back at the trainees.

The volunteer chaplain candidates going through this ordeal were compassionate folk, but they regularly killed dozens of civilians during sessions in the simulator. They all failed to turn in perfect scores and, more often than not, were shot themselves.

We might examine some of the forces that influence a typical police officer who encounters a situation that compels a decision whether or not to use deadly force.

First, there is the paradox that in a peaceful community police don’t react well because they lack the experience of incidents of violence as an officer in a large city.

Second, Andy Lopez, the victim of the deputy- involved shooting near Santa Rosa on Oct. 22, 2013, was a teenager. In America today, where would you expect to encounter a teenager with an assault rifle? The rifle looked especially real because the orange plastic cap that was meant to identify it as a toy had been gone. Also, a common experience of police is that if a suspect is a teenager, he or she is more likely to shoot than an adult.

Third, what are the moral priorities among the choices open to an officer? Popular opinion is that the officer should hold his fire until the suspect fires first. This is the legacy of a century of Hollywood. In any Hollywood drama, the villain shoots first, and the hero has to hold his or her fire until he or she is shot at. But is that a morally defensible policy for real-life situations? Isn’t a police officer’s first moral concern to stay alive so he can come home to his wife and kids and return to the job the next day? His second priority is the protection of citizens. His third priority is to try to avoid deadly force in achieving the first two priorities. All three priorities must reflect obedience to the laws of the land.

The emotional burden this moral choice puts on officers is enormous. If Deputy Erick Gelhaus’ case is typical, he has only a 20 percent chance of lasting in his career more than two years. My heart goes out to Andy and his family, but I also pray that God will give this deputy some peace.

When I was a police officer in Oakland in the late 1950s and early ’60s, youth still had some respect for police officers. Today, that is less the case. Peer pressure on youth today is to defy authority. In the language of teens it’s called “attitude.”

Peer pressure heavily weighs on teens to demonstrate bravado (attitude) when encountered by police. But police fear losing control when confronted by a teen with a defiant attitude. It is a dangerous situation that has become all too common.

The Rev. David R. Powell of Sebastopol, former executive director of Sonoma County’s Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Service, has 30 years of law enforcement experience.

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