Blue Line


March 15, 2013  By Joel Johnston

1579 words – MR Part Two

Looking back and moving forward

by Joel A. Johnston

Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officer Joel Johnston has been Blue Line’s defensive tactics editor since 1994 and a consultant and researcher to both police and government agencies. He is recognized for his no-nonsense approach to use of force in the Canadian context. In the second of this three part series he reflects upon the evolution of use of force standards and equipment in Canadian policing.

{Keeping up with the crooks}

Police trainers, associations and unions began lobbying for semi-automatic sidearms during the early 1990s. There was considerable evidence that the criminal element was better-armed than the officers who had to deal with them. Politicians resisted the idea.

“If you give the police more bullets, they’ll shoot more people,” one commented. This kind of thinking had to be contended with at every turn.

It took the death of a fine young man and good police officer to finally turn the tide. In the early morning hours of October 7, 1993, while on general patrol, Cst. Joe MacDonald conducted a “routine” traffic stop. Two career criminals got out of the car, a fight quickly broke out, then an exchange of gunfire.

MacDonald – a former university football player and Canadian Football League draftee – was no slouch. He hit his assailants with the majority of the six rounds in his revolver. Injured, out-gunned and out of ammo, he was beaten and fatally shot in the back of the head as he lay beside his empty service revolver. The two criminals fled the area in a vehicle chased by police and were taken into custody after a foot chase and another altercation. They were both charged and convicted of first-degree murder, receiving life sentences without parole for 25 years. MacDonald was survived by his wife and two children.

Political opposition to properly arming Canadian police officers had finally ceased (though some may debate this point), but it took the death of another fine young officer to initiate the process. A career criminal and Jamaican drug dealer (under a deportation order) murdered Toronto police Cst. Todd Baylis – and attempted to kill his partner, Mike Leone – with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol on June 16, 1994.

Semi-auto pistols have been issued to police officers across Canada since the mid 1990s, yet they don’t seem to be “shooting more people” as a result of being properly prepared to address a deadly force threat. In fact Canadian police use force only in some .06% of encounters with members of the public and shoot people with considerably less frequency than that.

Between 1991 and 1994 Canadian police went from being equipped with handcuffs and .38 caliber revolvers to cuffs, expandable batons, OC spray and a semi-auto pistol with two additional magazines. Emergency response team personnel also had the ARWEN gun to fire impact rounds – greatly increasing options and their capacity to safely resolve escalating violence.

{Another alternative emerges}

In the ongoing quest for solutions to the conundrum of more-safely controlling violent, often drug-induced and/or mentally ill persons, the Victoria Police Department field tested a first-generation Taser® “conducted energy weapon” (CEW) in late 1998.

After a successful field trial period and in conjunction with considerable US research, the Taser M26 was implemented in 1999 in Western Canada. Some continue to contend it was adopted as an “alternative to lethal force” because of the number of fatal police shootings across Canada. In reality it was never intended, nor could it ever be, a “substitute” for lethal force (firearms) but was extremely effective on violent, goal-oriented, drug-induced persons and allowed officers to remain at some distance from these folks. When used appropriately at an opportune moment in a dangerous, escalating encounter, the Taser may prevent it devolving into a lethal force encounter.

Sadly an incident occurring at Vancouver’s International Airport in 2007 involving Taser use resulted in the death of a man in crisis. The video of the incident was broadcast repeatedly around the world by a media that had made up its mind about police actions and the weapon itself long before the investigation. Despite the long-term, well-documented fact that CEWs are a relatively low-risk force response option with injuries in just .3 per cent of cases where they’re used, media and special-interest groups demonized them. Considerable political fear remains to this day around their use in Canada.

Unfortunately, law enforcement has, over the years, provided sufficient “ammunition” to stir critics. Video of a police officer “tasing” a 72 year-old grandmother for failing to follow directions when there was no risk of assault or even physical resistance, for example, or a driver for failing to sign a traffic ticket. Although most of these incidents are from the US, police everywhere are impacted by these imprudent decisions and the negative images they generate.

{Disturbing trends}

A trend of police officers being disarmed, sometimes with fatal consequences, began in 1990. Montreal Cst. Yves Phaneuf was shot point blank in the face in June 1991 during a violent struggle with a suspicious man. He had stopped a bicyclist behaving strangely in the wee hours of the morning to question him and was killed execution style after being disarmed. A manhunt ensued and the suspect was captured but found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental institution. Phaneuf had served with the Montreal Police for only two years.

Three months later Ingersoll (Ontario) Cst. Scott Rossiter checked a suspicious person on a bicycle not more than 50 metres behind the police station. A struggle ensued, they ended up on the ground and the cyclist managed to disarm Rossiter and shoot him in the back of the head. The murder went unsolved for a long period, but as it turned out, his murderer was himself murdered less than a year later.

Officer disarmings and attempts were an observable trend, along with two other emerging areas of concern – officers being knocked or falling to the ground in encounters with suspects and multiple assailant attacks. These issues needed to be immediately addressed in training to prepare officers to win these dangerous encounters. Some people wanted to call it “officer survival” training but it is better termed “winning.” Officers should not have to “survive” at work – they need to be prepared to win!

{A change in training}

Retired NYPD Sgt. Phil Messina ran a school on Long Island that was far ahead of its time. Modern Warrior Police Defensive Tactics trained officers to not only survive but win in deadly force encounters. Former St. Louis PD Sgt. Bruce Siddle ran Pressure Point Control Tactics (PPCT) Management Systems, which taught officers arrest & control tactics to deal with the most common types of resistance.

Both organizations were founded on research regarding what was actually occurring in the real world. There were other police training systems, including the Kansas City LVNR® System under Jim Lindell and Police Safety Systems under John Desmedt, but none had the same widespread effect. Creative trainers in Canada took the best from all the systems and combined them into comprehensive, relevant training programs that suited their community and agency mandate and requirements.

Law enforcement training priorities shifted from basic static re-qualification training with batons, neck restraint and firearms to dealing with these emerging threats. Weapon retention and disarming, dealing with multiple assailants and tactical ground defense and control became priorities. Other important training included contact & cover – emerging as a result of the tragic double murder of two San Diego police officers in that city’s early ’80s “Grape Street Park” incident.

The emergence of dynamic simulation training (now called “Reality-Based Training” or “RBT”) began in the early 1990’s in Canada. Pioneers like Darren Laur of the Victoria Police Department, Doug Ashton of Peel Regional Police, Roy Kennedy of the Halifax Police Department and the Vancouver Police Department implemented dynamic simulation training programs, including cotton-wad deadly force encounters, multiple assailants, knife defense and ground fighting training.

Technology soon began to expand the possibilities with the emergence of “Simunition®,” video simulators, improved purpose-built protective gear and training props. All allowed creative officer safety training personnel to devise and deliver relevant, realistic training to meet immediate needs based on the types of incidents officers were dealing with.

RBT continues to evolve but needs to stick close to its roots. Overly-complicated programs and over-thought scenarios and procedures can undermine the need to make the most of scarce training time and resources. Safety continues to be the number one priority with RBT but time is also important. Get down to business with short, relevant, response-eliciting scenarios that should take 30 seconds to two minutes to complete (depending upon training objectives). An effective, student-centered debriefing process must follow. This is where the lion’s share of learning takes place.

Firearms training continues to evolve from static, on-the-whistle, limited movement and unrealistic distances, threat cues and targets to a more relevant, realistic approach. This better prepares officers for real-world armed encounters and greatly enhances performance and survivability.

Some North American agencies have embraced this reality, while others cling to the old “marksmanship” style qualification and training despite the science.

It is truly past time for the “defensive tactics” and “firearms” training silos to merge. After all, along with “physical presence” and communication skills, police officers carry a variety of force response options on their belt. They need to be able to ebb and flow from one to the next seamlessly. The firearm is simply another of these options.

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