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REPURPOSING THAT OLD SHOTGUN


October 27, 2015
By Kristen Harding

by Kristen Harding

(Photos by Jonathan Blackwood, My World Photography)

March 16, 2015: The Lethbridge Regional Police Service responds to multiple 911 calls about a man armed with a knife. He is acting erratically, attempting to force his way into homes and threatening to kill people in the usually quiet south-side neighbourhood.

The residents of this older subdivision, with its mature trees, neatly manicured lawns and a community church down the block, are terrified.

At the first house, the man, wielding a butcher knife, tells the woman who answers the door that vicious dogs are chasing him and the knife is his only protection. He is clearly agitated and fearful, but the dog pack appears to exist only in his mind. Not knowing what he’ll do next she quickly locks her door and calls police for help.

The man continues down the block. His strange behaviour attracts the attention of a couple, who approaches and asks if he needs help. His response is incoherent and alarming; he tells them someone is bleeding, points to several jackets he is carring, drops them and continues mumbling before trying to enter their home.

The husband steps in and the man runs down an alley and into a backyard. A second 911 call is recorded. A woman soon sees him standing at her back door and in a neighbourly way, opens it to ask if he needs help. He responds by telling her he has killed 39 people as ordered and wants his money. Now.

Before he can get inside, she slams the door shut, locks herself in the bathroom and places the third call to 911 as the man kicks at her door. Dispatch can hear the repeated thuds.

Police arrive. The man is armed with a metal blade and has removed the screen from the door. The officers identify themselves and quickly assess the situation. The man stops momentarily and talks to them but the things he says are random and bizarre. He is clearly delusional and possibly hallucinating. They know he is suffering from some sort of emotional crisis.

As more officers arrive, the man says he is going to kill the woman inside the house and burn it to the ground. He becomes increasingly uncooperative, aggressive toward police and will not comply with directions despite 30 minutes of negotiation. As the confrontation escalates, a less-lethal sock round is deployed. The man drops his weapon and in that second of incapacitation is taken safely into custody and ultimately to the Chinook Regional Hospital Psychiatric Ward.

This incident was one of three situations within a few weeks of each other where police were called to deal with an armed person in crisis. An Arwen was deployed in the second case, and both an Arwen and less-lethal shotgun were en route to the third but didn’t arrive in time. In that situation, firearms were drawn and trained on the subject but in the end other force options were used to take him safely into custody.

As it happened, the same patrol team was on shift during each of these calls and in the debriefs, it was clear to chief Rob Davis that things could have ended very differently. That’s why every frontline officer in Lethbridge will now have a re-purposed Remington 870 shotgun loaded with less-lethal sock rounds in their patrol car.

“When I left those debriefings, I really thought the staff sergeant had done an awesome job. He was like a quarterback reviewing the game tape with the team and dissecting what went good, what went not-so-good and what could have been done better,” said Davis, who took over as chief in January 2015.

“I’m the head coach and it’s my job to come up with the plays, people and equipment that are needed to be effective on the field. Knowing that almost every agency in the country has transitioned from shotguns to carbines and we all have old shotguns sitting somewhere in our arsenals, it just made sense to re-purpose the weapons as a less-lethal option so they’re more accessible to the frontline, which is where they need to be.”

Prior to the conversion, a less-lethal shotgun was only immediately available to the frontline if a tactical team officer was on shift. While the Arwen and another less-lethal 870 were, and continue to be, available in the tac team-operated immediate response vehicle, deployment requires a member to be present. As history has shown, sometimes there just isn’t enough time.

“The 870 shotgun and sock rounds have to be available to the first responders and they have to be available immediately,” said Davis. “It would be nice if time was always on our side but the kinds of calls where you’re likely to use a less-lethal sock round are very dynamic.”

During the initial discussion, the executive considered equipping each sergeant vehicle – there are always a minimum of two per shift – with a sock gun. That idea was quickly quashed as it would take away the sergeant’s focus and ability to actually manage a scene and ensure the appropriate allocation and deployment of resources.

“We decided that having the less-lethal shotguns only in sergeant vehicles would still be too limited,” said Davis. “We really want our sergeants to be supervisors, to be managing the troops and giving direction.”

The cost involved to re-purpose the shotguns was minimal but an investment well-worth making to potentially save lives. Shoulder slings and lights were added and the barrels were painted bright yellow so they are easily discernable and cannot be mistaken for anything else.

In order to ensure no mix-ups with munitions, a comprehensive sweep of the armoury, station and every police vehicle, duty bag and locker was conducted. All the old shotgun rounds were collected and destroyed.

Each shotgun is stored in a soft case that fits into the locked trunk of a patrol vehicle – a solution that alleviated the need to replace the single gun racks currently installed in all LRPS vehicles to hold carbines.

“We already had the shotguns and they were in good shape so it was a relatively easy and fiscally viable transition to sock rounds,” said Davis.

LRPS strives to be a leader in the implementation and use of less-lethal force options. More than a decade ago it became the first Alberta police serivce to add less-lethal capability to its tactical team with the Arwen. Since then officers have continued to explore new opportunities and identify best practices.

Two LRPS members received specialized training from the Memphis Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team in 2012, which included the use of impact projectile weapons as a less-lethal force option, particularly when dealing with individuals in an emotional crisis.

“Something I’ve noticed in policing over the past decade – and it’s the same everywhere in the country – is we’ve become the first responders to mental health issues and quite often there’s a component where there’s a weapon or some aspect of violence involved,” said Davis.

Enhanced training to help police better respond to situations involving individuals in crisis or suffering from mental illness is critical, but even the ability to rapidly assess a situation and recognize the signs isn’t always enough. Situations are dynamic and it’s critical for officers to have every available option.

“In all three of our incidents, the subjects had mental health issues… (they) lived and ended up getting the proper medical care they needed,” said Davis.

Davis is quick to point out the use of sock round shotguns are not intended to replace firearms, nor do they change the traditional force paradigm, but in situations where time and distance permits they can significantly reduce the potential for death or serious injury to all parties involved.

“There’s always going to be circumstances that call for lethal force,” he said. “The ideal would be to resolve issues without force but we know that’s just not realistic. When force is necessary and it’s available and appropriate to use less-lethal force that results in the public being safe, our officers being safe and the subject safely taken into custody, that’s a successful outcome.”

A training course – including both classroom and hard skills components – was developed and all frontline ranks were to completed the program by the end of October. As of January 1, 2016 every frontline officer will have a less-lethal shotgun in their patrol vehicle.

LRPS officers are instructed that less-lethal options can be used to de-escalate dangerous or potentially deadly situations, control, detain or arrest a subject and protect officers or other persons from harm – including subjects from self-inflicted injury.

Less-lethal projectiles should be targeted at the lower abdomen, legs and lower arms to reduce the potential for serious injury or death.

The accessibility of less-lethal shotguns gives the frontline more options, and options drive strategies in reasonable officer response.

“In my view there’s a gap in options between CEWs and lethal force available to frontline officers and this addresses that gap,” said Davis.

With officer-involved shootings dominating the news over the past year, particularly south of the border, police agencies throughout North America are facing public scrutiny over a perceived “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality. The fact that a number of these incidents are on video has raised public concerns and questions, which continues to fuel that perception. A number of US shootings have involved white officers and black subjects, which only compounded the issues and ignited a national conversation around race, policing and use of force.

“It’s fair to say that in some of these cases the officers’ actions have been called into question and as a result public confidence in the police in those communities has been shaken,” said Davis. “I do not believe this has occurred to the same extent in Canada, but it’s something that should be on the forefront of every police leader’s mind.”

Davis has served with a number of Ontario police agencies – both municipal and First Nations – during his 25-year policing career. While subtle nuances from service to service are to be expected, he says the emphasis the LRPS Training Unit has placed on de-escalation techniques and the benefit of time is refreshing.

“Staff recognized many years ago the trends that were emerging in the US and were very proactive in revamping our model,” he said.

The traditional use of force model was enhanced to emphasize the importance and role of communication and de-escalation, allowing time for more options to become available as a viable course of action. In-house simulator training was also developed, where communication coupled with de-escalation are necessary for a successful outcome. The scenarios were rolled out in 2012 and de-escalation has been a constant part of the LRPS training model ever since.

“It’s a very progressive approach that has led to a very unique culture throughout the organization,” said Davis. “It still fascinates me coming from Ontario how the training has impacted the general culture of the organization, which translates to how officers handle situations on the street. Recognizing the culture of the organization and training philosophy, the 870 conversion to sock rounds was a natural fit.”

Davis has observed a noticeable creep in the adoption of U.S. training philosophy in Canada over the past few decades, including more aggressive, militaristic tactics. While there are definitely some situations where these tactics are appropriate, their use in others could be jeopardizing public support for Canadian police officers.

Traditional Canadian cultural constructs around firearms and deadly force are vastly different than in the US. Police training and culture must reflect Canadian ideals if the erosion of public trust and confidence brewing south of the border is to be avoided, or at least reduced.

“Officer safety has to remain paramount,” said Davis. “It isn’t about changing tactical priorities. It’s about giving officers as many options as possible to do the difficult job we have all sworn an oath to do.”

A certain level of critical assessment and selected application of some tactics from US training, coupled with a review of Canadian use of force models, greater emphasis on de-escalation techniques, tactical communications, enhanced training on responding to people in emotional crisis – and the addition of less-lethal tools – will help agencies reaffirm their commitment to a “made in Canada” approach to public safety.

Davis strongly believes that police leaders have a responsibility to their communities and officers to keep a critical eye on operations and truly understand the dynamics and changing demands of frontline policing. This will help them better meet the needs of the people they serve and ensure organizations are well-positioned to adapt.

“There is a great need for incident debriefs, that dissection of events and actions, but there’s no point in having them if police executives aren’t there to hear it,” he said. “There is just too much potential for lessons and messages to get lost in translation when police leaders remove themselves from this function or delegate it away.”

SIDEBAR

A comprehensive study commissioned by the US Department of Justice in 2004 looked at incidents where impact munitions were deployed. It was concluded that less-lethal 37mm and 12-gauge munitions have a track record of success when used correctly by properly trained officers.

In nearly 90 per cent of the 373 reported cases, lethal force would have been justified but police had to ultimately resort to deadly force in only 26 cases. In the two reported situations where officers mistakenly loaded and fired lethal rounds, both involved 12-gauge breaching rounds that were mistaken for less-lethal munitions. This illustrates the importance of good training, differentiating less-lethal options clearly and removing the possibility of mixing ammunition, exactly as LRPS has done.

In my own tests of less-lethal options for the 12-gauge shotgun, the new “sock” rounds have proven to be even more accurate and consistent than the previous “bean-bag” rounds. The fin-stabilized 12-gauge rubber rounds failed to meet accuracy standards – Dave Brown.