In the video, a man is seen standing in the driveway next to the open door of a truck, legs planted wide in a shooting stance. He faces the police cars closing in on him, pointing what looks from afar like a gun at one officer in particular.
A voice cuts through the chaos. “Drop the gun!” it yells. “Drop the gun!”
It is ostensibly at this point, halfway through the 33-second video, that the Grand Prairie Police Department asks its rhetorical question.
“What kind of decisions do we as police officers make?” the department posted to Twitter on Monday, along with the clip above. “This video will show one of them. What would you have done? #Awareness”
The dash cam footage showed the end of a rare police chase on Jan. 20 in Grand Prairie, a Texas city in between Dallas and Fort Worth, police said.
Jeff Payne, the officer seen in the video, described to NBC 5 News the tense moments that “seemed like forever” as he decided whether to fire his weapon.
“[The suspect] got out, put his hands out like he had a gun and started yelling, ‘I’m gonna shoot you, I’m gonna shoot you,’ ” Payne told the news station. “My first thought was, ‘Crap, I’m about to get shot.’ ”
Payne told the news station that time seemed to slow down as he took a closer look at the suspect’s hands — and realized the man was not holding a gun after all.
It was then that Payne unleashed Jurek, his canine partner, who sprinted over to the suspect and bit his hands until he dropped his weapon, Grand Prairie police spokesman Lyle Gensler told The Washington Post.
What had appeared to be a gun was actually a flashlight and a pocket knife, Gensler said.
“Honestly, I think that I probably almost killed that guy, and if it hadn’t been for that split second, I probably would have,” Payne told NBC 5 News afterward.
Gensler said the situation was unique for the department, which has seen an average of one officer-involved shooting per year over the last five years. On top of that, police chases that end with a standoff are unusual in Grand Prairie, he added. (“I can’t remember where this has happened before,” Gensler said.)
After reviewing the footage — even though the suspect was taken into custody “without incident” — the department decided to upload the video to social media as an example of a lesser-seen side of policing: situations in which officers must make split-second life-or-death decisions, and ultimately de-escalate.
“In this case, Officer Payne at first used the appropriate use of force by drawing his weapon on something he perceived to be a threat to him,” Gensler said. Once he saw that it was not a gun, he had to adjust quickly. “It was still a threat, but now he’s got to de-escalate that level of force … as fast as he possibly can, and he did.”
There is no single, universally agreed-upon definition of “use of force,” and every situation — as well as responding officer — is different, according to the National Institute of Justice, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice that researches criminal justice issues. Because of that, “situational awareness is essential,” the agency says on its website.
“An officer’s goal is to regain control as soon as possible while protecting the community,” the agency says. “Use of force is an officer’s last option — a necessary course of action to restore safety in a community when other practices are ineffective.”
While the group does not maintain a national database of incidents in which police use excessive force, it notes a Bureau of Justice Statistics report that found the complaint rate for police use of force in “large” departments was 6.6 complaints per 100 sworn officers.
In 2016, police shot and killed 963 people, roughly the same number as the year before, according to a Washington Post database tracking such deaths. A handful of those cases have prompted intense demonstrations. In most fatal shootings, officers say they were confronted by people with guns, and in about half of the cases, these people fired at the officers.
Those high-profile shootings have been scrutinized as the number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen. According to a preliminary report from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 135 officers died in the line of duty in 2016, the highest level in five years. Of those deaths, 64 were firearms-related, a significant increase from 2015 figures. The nonprofit group’s midyear report noted a troubling increase in some of those deaths occurring in “ambush” attacks.
Gensler said the Grand Prairie department, which has about 270 officers, has trained in de-escalation techniques “from day one.” He said they hoped law enforcement from across the nation would watch and learn from the video.
“In our profession, we are, unfortunately, sometimes required to use lethal force with the factual data confirming the vast majority of these types of uses of force are justified,” Grand Prairie Police Chief Steve Dye said in a statement. “However, many times police officers do not use lethal force when they are justified to do so. While the lethal uses of force consistently garner much attention, I believe it is equally important for the public to see when our well-trained officers are expertly utilizing a lower level of force than would have been justified.”
Mark Berman contributed to this article.