2004-04-23 / Community

The Citizen’s Police Academy Report

The Citizen’s Police Academy Report


This would have been a life-altering week if I were a police officer. I failed to use my handgun in two situations where I could have to protect human life, and I decided to shoot three other times in violation of the police department’s firearms policy.

"You’re fired! You’re suspended!" shouted Sergeant John Donnelly each time participants in the New York City Police Department Citizen’s Police Academy broke department policy – reminding us of some of the consequences that officers can face when they decide to use their guns.

We were given a 14-question quiz after an hour-long lecture on the use of firearms. I got five wrong. What’s even worse is that I had about 10 minutes to complete the quiz and Donnelly purposely left the NYPD’s guidelines up on the overhead projector.

I know the idea behind the quiz exercise is for us to make mistakes – and realize that police have to make split-second decisions with people’s lives in the balance – but I got five wrong! I am not a straight-A student crying over a bad grade here. I expected to get one, maybe two wrong.

Take a few minutes to consider these examples from the quiz. Remember the question is whether or not you may use deadly physical force in each situation, not if you actually would. All answers are final – there’s no taking back a bullet, and this is not a game show hosted by Regis Philbin.

Q1) You see a man walking towards a parking lot with two lit sticks of dynamite in his hand. He begins to motion like he is about to throw the dynamite into an abandoned vehicle, which is inside the lot. May you shoot him?

Q2) While standing in front of the United Nations building in Manhattan, you see a diplomat remove what appears to be a silver firearm from inside his suit jacket. He points the firearm at a group of protesters. The diplomat has his back to you and he is about 30 yards away from you. You are not sure if the firearm is real, and you know that he has diplomatic immunity in the United States. May you shoot him?

Q3) While walking through Central Park on the afternoon of July 26 you see a raccoon running towards a woman lying on the grass. May you shoot the raccoon?

Q4) You respond to a 10-52 radio call (dispute) and you see a wife has been severely beaten and bruised. You then see the husband, who is a hulking 6 feet 9 inches tall and about 250 pounds. He raises his arms, closes his fists, and in a combat stance begins walking towards you. May you shoot him?

The NYPD’s "Use of Firearms" policy, described in the Police Student’s Guide and in the Citizen’s Academy reading lists 11 guidelines on the use of deadly force. Here are the answers to the quiz with the relevant guidelines cited and/or an explanation from Donnelly provided.

A1) No. Deadly physical force shall not be used in defense of property.

A2) Yes. Deadly physical force shall not be used against another person unless officers have probable cause to believe that they must protect themselves or another person present from imminent death or serious physical injury.

A3) Yes. The use of deadly physical force, such as the discharge of a firearm, against any animal may only be done as a last resort, when such animal either appears to be too dangerous to control or poses an immediate threat of physical injury to a human being. Donnelly said shooting to stop the raccoon would be justified because the animal’s behavior indicates that it is infected with rabies, which could kill a bite victim.

A4) No. In all cases, only the minimum amount of force necessary will be used, consistent with the accomplishment of a lawful mission. Firearms are to be used as a last resort, and then only to protect life. Donnelly said the officer would have to take the hulking husband on or make a tactical retreat.

So, I bet most of you got at least one wrong. Keep in mind that this is just a sample of the questions, and that I eliminated the two trick questions that many of us in the Citizen’s Academy got wrong.

Frankly, I found some of the answers surprising. Consider question two, where the officer isn’t sure that the diplomat has a gun. Donnelly told us candidly that if police had to be 100 percent sure he’d hand in his badge.

Even though I got that question wrong, I sat there imagining the headlines the next day. It’s one of those situations where an officer is either a hero or the biggest screw-up the city ever saw – and it would all depend on a determination that the officer made from far away, without a clear line of sight. Was it a gun, was the gun real or was it something innocuous? By the time that question could be answered in real life the officer is either right or wrong. Even knowing that I could shoot, I wonder, selfishly, if I would, or if I’d wait for the diplomat to shoot first.

The lecture on the use of force was the second part of Donnelly’s lecture on law. In the last Citizen’s Police Academy Report I wrote about the department’s ability to stop and question people on the street. I described the levels of proof: founded suspicion, reasonable suspicion and probable cause. Now let’s talk about the frisk – the last part of the "Stop, Question and Frisk" policy that allows a police officer to pat down the clothes of an individual if he/she has reasonable suspicion that they might be in danger of physical injury.

The Police Student’s Guide says, "The frisk cannot be used as an excuse to obtain evidence or for harassment of the suspect, but under emergency conditions or in immediate danger, you do not have to question the suspect first…" Recruits are told that if the officer finds let’s say narcotics, instead of a gun, the narcotics will be excluded as evidence in court. But if an officer feels something that he/she suspects is a weapon and pulls out a plastic container with narcotics inside that would be admissible.

There is a whole page of "things to consider" regarding justified frisks, along with several practice situations to familiarize recruits. If there’s one thing you should know it’s that there are gray areas – and there’s a very logical progression for an officer’s ability to stop, question and frisk, which includes too many variables to adequately discuss here.

Obviously, the average person does not enjoy being searched, regardless of whether or not they have something to hide, and seemingly unwarranted searches are a source of friction between police officers and the public at large. What’s encouraging is that Donnelly is teaching recruits to take an extra step that I consider good customer service.

Imagine a situation where an officer gets a radio description of an armed robbery suspect and then sees someone matching that description. The officer stops the suspect.

"Police! Don’t Move!," the officer says and then instructs the suspect to put their hands against the wall. The officer immediately begins to pat for weapon.

Now if the person is not the suspect, they’re wondering what the heck is going on, and they’re annoyed that, out of nowhere, they’re being treated like a criminal.

Imagine the officer finds nothing and then questions the suspect briefly, determines that they are not the suspect and then jumps back in the patrol car still in pursuit of the actual suspect.

All of this is justified, and legal, but Donnelly tells recruits to go further – to explain their actions. If they have to do it quickly, so be it, he says. This way, maybe, the individual will be satisfied that, while the incident was uncomfortable, it was for the greater good and safety of their community.

Perhaps Donnelly, who has become the Civilian Academy’s favorite instructor, said it best.

"We’re not out to get you. We’re your police department," he said.

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