RIDGEFIELD — Lynn Marzette felt the stress that police officers sometimes feel on the job Saturday. Participating in five police training scenarios, twice he failed to get his Taser stun gun out of its holster.
“The stupid thing will not come out,” said Marzette, chairman of the Legal Redress Committee for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Marzette said he thought he’d be better handling the device with a few days’ practice.
Officer Danielle Wass, who shadowed and instructed Marzette throughout the trainings, afterward asked Marzette to recall details, such as what an officer role-playing as a suicidal man had yelled during their encounter and what crimes appear to have been committed.
“He was close enough to the other people (actors playing distraught witnesses) to cause serious bodily injury,” Marzette told the officer. “I could have just shot him, but they were trying to help him.”
The police department planned the training for members of the Chief’s Diversity Advisory Team after two presentations in the previous months covering use of force, both lethal and nonlethal.
The scenarios in the training included an officer pulling over a vehicle with expired license plates, a response to a fight between two men at a park, the suicidal man who shouted for police to shoot him, a civil standby call where two officers accompanied a woman retrieving belongings from her husband, and a final test where a man approached participants from behind cover holding either a cellphone, a kind of shaft or stick, or a gun.
Marzette, who is a member of the police advisory team, said he appreciated the police department putting together the resources to help give the members a better understanding of what officers experience.
“They’ve worked with us a lot on getting that appreciation for the job. Still, I’m not prepared to go back to my community and use this information to educate them about” the police shootings that happened in Vancouver, he said.
The advisory team has been around since 2003 and was started under former Chief Brian Martinek. It consists of members from the Vancouver metro area, ranging from communities including Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, Slavic, Native American, Islamic, Sikh, African American, Vietnamese, Korean and Jewish, as well as other organizations and professionals like lawyers. Members are meant to provide relevant ideas, different perspectives and feedback to the chief at monthly meetings.
Following three fatal shootings by Vancouver police earlier this year, the conversations at the meetings started to shift, so the department set up the use-of-force presentations. Officer Greg Catton led the meetings, detailing the legal and local policy history of the use of force by police.
Here are several of the court cases covered during the meetings:
• Graham v. Connor, a praised and maligned U.S. Supreme Court decision issued in 1989 that held use of force by officers must be judged by an objective standard of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment;
• Tennessee v. Garner, where the court held that if an officer is chasing a fleeing suspect, officers may not use deadly force to prevent escape unless they believe the suspect probably poses a significant threat of death or serious injury to police and others; and
• Bryan v. MacPherson, which affirmed that in certain situations, the use of a Taser could be considered excessive force.
It didn’t take long for people to start raising their hands with questions about detainment versus arrest by officers, how the law defines reasonable suspicion and variables in the legal justifications for instances of force.
Catton asked the attendees to refrain from their usual frames of reference at the onset of the presentations.
“The contention about police shootings comes from a misunderstanding of policies and laws. The use of force is controversial and always has been,” Catton said.
In 2015, among the 53.5 million U.S. residents aged 16 or older who had any contact with police, 985,300 of them — 1.8 percent — experienced threats or use of force, according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of those who experienced a threat or use of force, 84 percent considered it to be excessive. In terms of the volume of citizen complaints, the Department of Justice also found there were 26,556 complaints lodged in 2002.
Criminologists and others have criticized the data as being incomplete, and in recent years, news organizations have collected it on their own. In May, USA Today made available a database of misconduct records for thousands of officers nationwide. The newspaper found 85,000 law enforcement officers have been investigated or disciplined for misconduct over the past decade; 22,924 investigations involved officers using excessive force.
Catton and another officer shot and killed a 23-year-old man in 2009 when Catton worked for the Fresno, Calif., Police Department. He was not charged with a crime, but the family of the man sued and was eventually awarded $1.5 million. When asked about the shooting, Catton said the experience adds to his value as a member of the training unit.
“Having been through the legal process, I have a deep understanding of the laws and what kinds of things are permissible and what’s not,” he said.
Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain said he expects and hopes officers eventually return to work after having to fire their weapons.
“We want them to come back, and we want them to come back whole,” McElvain said.
Jovian John, an advocate for Vancouver’s Chuukese community, said she recently joined the advisory team and only had attended the two presentations before the training on Saturday. She said this helped her approach the issue being discussed without preconceived expectations.
“It’s been very informative. There has been a lot of effort in educating the group about the use of force, and I appreciate that part of it,” John said.
But she said she hopes there is more dialogue in the future involving giving feedback rather than a “show-and-tell” format.
John made it through three of the five scenarios Saturday before calling it quits.
“My heart started racing,” she said. “I got killed in all three. I certainly sympathize with the officers and know more about what they face and the decisions they have to make,” John said.
She said she would like to see the police department use those experiences to somehow teach at-risk youth about the consequences of dangerous actions. She admitted she did not know if that was achievable.
Marzette said he hopes the police department continues its education efforts and the dialogue surrounding police shootings. He said the NAACP has requested data about how many of the shootings here involve minorities.
Law enforcement officials were more likely to threaten or use force on black people and Hispanics than white people, according to an October 2018 report by BJS, which used the data collected in 2015.
“We’d like to know if the numbers (locally) show a disproportion,” he said. “If so, then we need to look at, what’s the makeup of the department? Are officers acting out more so against minorities?”