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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Police firearms training focuses on split-second decision-making

Ruck
Can an effective firearms training program prevent police officers from shooting innocent civilians?

The Fairfax County Police Department does the best it can, but 2nd  Lt. Brian Ruck, an instructor at the Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy, acknowledged at a May 6 meeting of the Mason Police District’s Citizen Advisory Committee that “police officers are human beings.”

Ruck, an instructor at the Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy, said law enforcement officers get 80 hours of firearms training which is a lot more than other police forces around the country. He focuses on teaching “decision-making under extreme stress” when confronted with the need to respond to a violent situation.

“Our decisions are never made in a vacuum,” he said. “Split-second decisions are made in response to the circumstances we’re faced with.” And those situations tend to involve “a lot of gray areas.”

Ruck said he teaches officers “how to shoot with the sole purpose of stopping a deadly force.” According to state law, officers are only supposed to deploy “deadly force” when faced with “serious bodily injury to one’s self or someone else.”

Ruck had started his career in FCPD in 1998 as a patrol officer the midnight shift in the Mason Police District and later served on the SWAT team. When working as a sniper, Ruck said he never pulled the trigger, although he did come close once.

During a 10-week heart-rate test involving 1,000 officers, 110 innocent people were “shot” during a simulated exercise. Officers with higher heart rates were more likely to make bad decisions, he said. The officers who tend to be the most calm under stress are veterans who have had combat experience overseas, he said.

To avoid bad decisions, Ruck teaches officers to “observe, orient, decide,” which means look around to determine whether “there is a deadly threat to me,” determine where you are in relation to everyone else, then decide how to respond. All that happens in seconds.

And when someone is given incomplete information – say if an officer gets a repeated message from a dispatcher about a suspect in a parking lot with a gun – “the brain takes the path of least resistance” and fills in the missing facts. In that case, there might not have been a gun at all.

While Fairfax County hasn’t had the kind of shocking, racially charged police incidents – like the recent killing of an unarmed Freddie Gray that led to riots in Baltimore – FCPD officers have shot unarmed civilians. The most recent case, in August 2013, involved the killing of John Geer, who was standing in the doorway of his Springfield home when officer Adam Torres shot him in the chest.

According to Ruck, FCPD  hasn’t made any changes to its training procedures following the Geer incident. At this point, the department is waiting for a report from the ad hoc commission formed by Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova in February to review police policies and practices.

Fairfax County officials still have not determined whether to charge Torres with a crime in the Geer case. Capt. David Smith, commander of the Mason Police District, said that decision has been delayed because the administrative investigation had to be completed before the criminal investigation is conducted, which is a reversal of the usual order.

In this case, the Geer family filed a civil wrongful death suit before the criminal investigation. Last month, Fairfax County settled with the family for $2.95 million.

Also at the CAC meeting the Bailey’s Crossroads Rotary Club presented $1,000 to Explorer Post 1472, an organization for youths interested in law enforcement careers, and $500 to the CAC.

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