The man wore a maroon bath robe and sunglasses. He stumbled about in the middle of an intersection, hunched over, yelling something I couldn’t understand. I’m a reporter who writes about D.C. police, but at this moment I was playing the part of a police officer, and I was responding to a call.
I approached the man and got too close, as I quickly figured out, before I saw he was holding a knife to the right side of his face. He used the blade to give a military-style salute, then started acting as if he were cutting his wrists and head as I backed away and put my hand on my holstered sidearm.
In police parlance, he was a “consumer” of the District’s mental-health system. It was my job to get him out of the way of traffic, get him help and keep myself and some agitated bystanders safe. I had all the tools I needed — a plastic baton, “pepper spray” (actually water) and a fake gun.
But the key, I and other media representatives learned during the exercise, was “voluntary compliance.” We were role-playing inside a cavernous warehouse at the D.C. police department’s Tactical Village in Southwest Washington, a training ground with a true-to-scale urban streetscape.
A man to my left started to record on his phone while urging I shoot. A stuck motorist pestered to be allowed through the intersection. Another tried to coax the disturbed man to the sidewalk. They all talked at once. I saw them, urged them to back up and dismissed them as threats. But I failed to process what they were doing or saying.
I didn’t “shoot” the man — didn’t even draw my gun. Though I did “pepper-spray” the disturbed subject — played by Officer Carlton Wicker Sr. — into submission.
I got a passing grade and some kudos from the police officer actors, though my missteps were many.
I got too close to Wicker before I realized he had a knife, and put myself in danger. I didn’t realize one of the bystanders shouting was the man’s relative, and had I asked, he would’ve told me the man’s name, allowing me to establish a rapport and calm the situation sooner. I fumbled for my radio and asked for help way too late, and then didn’t know how to direct the officer who responded. I was distracted and didn’t engage the man in a meaningful way. After using the pepper spray, I couldn’t return the bottle to my belt, hindering my ability to handcuff the man, who had dropped his knife. I forgot to call an ambulance once I had him under control.
Still, Wicker told me, police recruits going through the same scenario have shot him. “More times than he can count,” he said, as he took off his costume.
Reporters from The Washington Post and local television stations got a crash course this week in police use-of-force training, in part to help us understand the complexities and dangers as we write about real-life deadly encounters police face. It comes amid heightened scrutiny of shootings by police, including one last month of a man killed by U.S. Park Police officers after a pursuit in Northern Virginia.
We play-acted in front of a screen — I was quickly “killed” when I confronted a suicidal man holding a gun and failed to take cover (or even draw my weapon). But it was in the Tactical Village where the exercise felt the most real.
Lt. Jessie Porter and Sgt. Raymond Chambers, both instructors, told me I would have been justified in pulling my gun on Wicker — though I also had violated a whole bunch of protocols and basic safety measures. I had wrongly put myself in a perilous position that might have forced me to shoot.
Justified, perhaps. Avoidable, absolutely.
And that goes to the crux of why the D.C. police department has updated its rules for using deadly force, and its mission statement, for the first time incorporating the phrase “sanctity of life” into the verbiage. The idea is to train officers to avoid putting themselves in tight spots where their firearm is the only option.
“We want officers not to do things just because they can,” said Cmdr. Ralph Ennis, who runs the training academy that now teaches “voluntary compliance” as the ideal goal for subduing people. “We want them to do things because they have to.” He said the department wants its officers to “bring situations under control using the least amount of force necessary.”
In the 1990s, the D.C. police department came under scrutiny for its use of deadly force. At the time, the department had the highest rate of fatal shootings by police among large cities in the nation. The Washington Post wrote a series on the issue that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service and was one of the factors that put the agency under review by the Justice Department.
The oversight ended nearly a decade ago but District police have kept many of the reforms in place, and fatal shooting by officers are now roughly between three and eight a year. Of the 30 fatal shootings by police since 2009, only two were directed at someone who was unarmed. And one of those, the shooting of motorcyclist Terrence Sterling in 2016, has resulted in administrative charges filed against the officer and a recommendation that he be fired. A public hearing could be held at the end of the year to make a final decision on sanctions. The officer was not charged criminally.
Police academies used to train officers to escalate the use of force when confronting potentially dangerous people, starting at talking and then going to verbal commands, then to a series of tools that end in shooting a gun. It was depicted as a staircase — the most benign at the bottom step and deadly force at the top.
D.C. police have abandoned that training, and instead now list a range of tools at an officer’s disposal in a circle. Authorities said they want officers to choose the tool they feel they need to immediately de-escalate a situation. Most often that means talking. Sometimes it might mean a gun.
Police have a variety of options — batons, pepper spray and stun guns (issued only to sergeants) and a gun that shoots a large projectile long distances and can knock someone to the ground without inflicting fatal injuries. Each tool has its own limitations and advantages.
Ennis said officers are justified in using force “based on the totality of the circumstances in which an officer reasonably believes exists at the time of the confrontation.” The wording is precise for a reason. Ennis noted that “sometimes what they believe is occurring and what is actually happening are two different things.”
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said that confronting dangerous people “is more difficult than you can imagine.” Noting reporters who said they tensed up during the exercise, Newsham said it doesn’t compare to real life. “One of the things that’s missing from the training is the fear that goes into a human being’s mind when they are faced with life and death situations.”
One reporter said, “I didn’t want to draw my weapon.”
Newsham said officers don’t either, especially now as scrutiny increases for police. “They are under a microscope,” the chief said. “They don’t want to make the wrong decision.”
In the end, Wicker shook my hand and thanked me for not “shooting.”