The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York have caused many people to question how America’s police departments train their officers in the use of force. But the police department of Richmond, California — historically one of the most violent cities in the San Francisco Bay Area — has undergone a transformation under the supervision of Chief Chris Magnus. His department has found a way to reduce how often officers use lethal force.
Since he took command in 2006, crime has gone down in this city of 107,000 residents, 18.5 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level. More significant, so has the use of lethal force by police. In fact, on average, there has been less than one officer-involved shooting per year since 2008. Many attribute that success in part to progressive use-of-force training techniques championed by Magnus.
According to Magnus, “use-of-force training for police has to be more than just going to the range once a year and spending eight hours shooting at a target. I mean, good marksmanship, we get that. You need to be able to shoot a gun to be a police officer. But the bigger challenge is how to make good decisions under stressful circumstances. So to do that, it’s less about prolonged periods of training with just one tool like a firearm or a Taser but rather shorter periods of time, maybe even as little as an hour a month, in which officers are exposed to a wide range of different circumstances and asked to think through how they would react to those scenarios.”
Richmond’s officers are challenged through role-playing scenarios to exercise good judgment and effective communication in difficult situations that can unfold rapidly. The goal is to not necessarily use a gun but employ other tools on their utility belts, like a baton or stun gun, in order to take control of a potentially deadly situation.
Lt. Louie Tirona a 20-year veteran of the department, supervises the scenario training that all officers with field duty are required to take at least four times a year. He says, “It’s not as easy as people may think. It’s not Hollywood. You can’t shoot the gun out of somebody’s hand. Somebody doesn’t automatically fall down when you shoot them. Somebody doesn’t always comply.”
He says that fewer deadly encounters with suspects in turn helps build stronger relationship with the community.