“When people contact police, it’s generally not to say they hope we’re having a good day,” said Corporal Jason Villotti during last Wednesday’s, Oct. 23, Citizen’s Academy presented by the Trinidad Police Department. The class, an effort to enlighten local residents and enlist individuals for volunteer patrols and other helpful services, has been well attended. Now in it’s third week of eight, officers spent the first session going over the judicial system and the second session explaining officer use of force policy, self-defense and procedures they have to follow when hands on contact is unavoidable.
According to officer Hugh Harkin, who is an FBI defensive tactics instructor and works with K-9’s at TPD, it’s often easy to see police as superhuman or robots and forget they’re humans, too, capable of making mistakes especially in situations where they have to act quickly. One interesting point made at the Oct. 23 Citizen’s Academy class was that officers are protected by objective reasonability.
“I’m sure everyone’s heard about someone pointing a gun at a cop and the cop firing only to find out later it was only a pellet gun,” said Harkin. “Can you figure out if it’s a real gun or fake gun within a half a second? So what that objective reasonability does is say this is what the officer saw and felt and knew at the time. He saw someone pointing what looked like a real gun at him. Just because he found out after that it wasn’t a real gun doesn’t mean it’s not a justified shooting now.”
Harkin went on to explain the difficulties social media causes for today’s police forces around the country and how although it may seem there are more police brutality instances, that it’s not statistically true.
“Everybody thinks that officer shootings are at an all-time high right now,” said Harkin, “but the statistics show they’re not. So why does everybody think that? Because of social media and cell phone videos. In the 80s and even the 90s it wasn’t a thing for police to be recorded in every single contact that we’re in. There weren’t video cameras everywhere that would later surface on social media.
“Now with the Internet, we’re hearing about police shootings across the entire country and it makes it seem like the police are entirely out of control when it’s really about the same amount of shootings. That doesn’t even take into account the increase in population and violent crime.”
It was interesting to learn that while many may see the heightened coverage as positive, even being acknowledged by police forces with the addition of body cams in most departments across the U.S., this has actually brought a sense of insecurity and danger to individual officers, Harkin explained.
“Because of this heightened amount of coverage of police,” said Harkin, “especially after the Ferguson shooting in 2014, some officers around the country are scared to react in a situation because they don’t want to be scrutinized on the media or news. Some have even made up their minds that they’d just take the bullet as opposed to risk being wrong in a situation.”
Harkin said this is what police have begun calling the Ferguson effect, and it comes at a price.
“Officers are afraid to use force when it’s 100 percent justified,” Harkin explained, “or when there’s a threat to their safety. It’s causing officers to loose their lives because they’re second-guessing what they’re doing. They’re afraid. They’re not as afraid of that threat as they are afraid to act on that threat and get in trouble for it.”
This is only a fraction of the difficulties officers face daily. Another interesting point was that many times officers have to fill out reports immediately following high-stress situations when they may not necessarily remember everything that happened until their body’s natural response system calms down.
Harkin as well as Corporal Jason Villotti stated that what the public may quickly conclude as an officer trying to cover up or withhold information is often times a result of that officer just simply not being able to recall all of the events that’s happened in the heat of the moment.
There are so many details of an officer’s job that we as civilians don’t think about, and more often don’t want to think about, that it’s easy to be quick to scrutinize their actions. But at the end of the day, there are enough statistics to show that we’re a lot safer as a society with them than without them, and the majority risks their lives daily because they desire to keep our communities safe.