ATF hopes media training will give context to law enforcement’s use of force policies

ATF media training gives context to use of force policies
Published: Jun. 10, 2022 at 5:43 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 10, 2022 at 6:05 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Officers often face the court of public opinion when they’re accused of using excessive force.

But law enforcement professionals say the Supreme Court sets the legal standards they abide by when it comes to using force.

“Law enforcement welcomes the questioning and scrutiny as to how [much force is used] and whether or not that’s appropriate in all circumstances,” said Paul Massock, ATF deputy chief of Special Operations.

“But understanding the rules that had been laid out by the courts, for officers to follow is an important part of the discussion.”

To help give context to debates about use of force, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are holding media trainings across the country.

HNN attended one in Honolulu.

During the course, agents explained the constitutional law that’s the basis for nationwide use of force policies. Simply put, deadly force may be used if an officer has a reasonable belief that a suspect poses imminent threat of serious physical injury.

Whether the amount of force was reasonable is decided from the perspective of another officer in the same position.

“Society needs them to have the ability to overcome the resistance that suspects present in order for the officers to appropriately fill their role of enforcing the law and ensuring public safety,” said Massock, who conducts the trainings with senior special agent Jim Balthazar.

Both have decades of law enforcement experience.

But when would that force be considered excessive? Agents say how much force an officer uses depends on what they know at the time, such as the suspect’s demeanor and compliance to orders.

“Officers are in a position of having to analyze people’s behavior, not necessarily the emotional reasons behind their behavior,” he said.

Agents say officers have to make split-second decisions when confronting violent suspects ― situations most people never experience and may not understand.

To see how I would react, I used a firearms simulator, an interactive training tool for law enforcement officers. I was armed with a laser gun and given a virtual scenario ― respond to a domestic violence call.

I assessed the situation and tried to deescalate it, hoping not to have to use my firearm. But when the suspect pulled out a gun and shot at me, I reacted quickly and saw how fast a situation can turn deadly.

I fired a single shot, but while my one shot took down the suspect in the simulation, agents explained that in reality, one is often not enough.

“Officers firing rounds happens very, very quickly. A quarter of a second or even less between shots is very realistic for officers. So firing multiple rounds very quickly is understandable from a law enforcement perspective, based on the human performance factors involved,” Massock said.

The Justice Department updated its use of force policy for the first time in 18 years ― now requiring federal agents to step in if they see other officers using excessive force. The policy takes effect next month.

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