Officers involved in even routine traffic stops should “always assume that the violator and all the occupants in the vehicle are armed.”
“Most suspects are mentally prepared to react violently.”
And “you could die today, tomorrow, or next Friday.”
Those are among the dire warnings contained in the state Law Enforcement Academy’s newly proposed training curriculum. The draft comes as the academy, which sets the tone for police recruit training statewide, has already instituted a program that puts less restraint on officers in deciding when to use deadly force, despite a series of officer-involved shootings in New Mexico. The academy’s board is expected to vote on the curriculum at its next meeting, which has not been scheduled.
Law enforcement experts contacted by The New Mexican had mixed reactions to the draft lesson plans. Some called the lessons standard fare for police training academies. But several raised concerns over the rhetoric used in the curriculum, saying it has the potential to make officers fearful of the public, resulting in more use of deadly force.
“I would be very careful to have anything in my curriculum called ‘Officer Survival,’ ” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer with the New York City Police Department, referring to a section of the draft with that title.
O’Donnell, now a criminal justice professor at John Jay College in New York, said academies across the country should be emphasizing “the sanctity of human life, using firearms as a last resort and emphasis on taking cover” instead of getting into confrontation.
O’Donnel said “heated language” in the Officer Survival section can instill fear among officers, giving an impression that the officer’s life is always in great danger, and that’s not helpful. The section includes passages like “What is a warrior mindset?” and contains a supposed Q&A with an inmate who has killed an officer.
Question: “How did you feel the moment you shot the officer?”
Answer: “I didn’t have any feelings at all.”
Jack Jones, the academy’s director, declined to comment and referred questions to the Department of Public Safety’s spokesman, Tony Lynn, who did not return a call.
The New Mexican received a lightly redacted copy of the curriculum under the Inspection of Public Records Act.
Michael Levine, a former federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent and current police trainer, said some officers get scared too easily and resort to using force. Levine, who now serves as an expert witness in use-of-force court cases, said, “This lesson [on officer survival] to a fearful person is like shortening his fuse.”
Tim Dees, a former police trainer for the Oregon Department of Public Safety, reviewed the use-of-force, firearms and officer survival training plans. He said most of the statistics on deadly encounters in the lesson plans do not cite sources, which can be a problem if they would ever need to be presented in court.
“Listing ‘facts’ like these without providing a source for each one is a very risky proposition if you might some day have to defend your lesson plan in court,” Dees said in an email. “Overall, I can’t say I’m impressed with the set of documents, other than to note that most are poorly prepared.”
The use-of-force lesson plan refers to federal court cases such as Graham v. Conner and Tennessee v. Garner, but doesn’t explain how they should be applied. In the 1985 Tennessee v. Garner, the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer can use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect if the officer has probable cause to believe the suspect might do serious physical injury or kill an officer or another person. And in the 1989 case, Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court ruled that an officer can use a reasonable amount of force in arresting a suspect.
“I always try to include the context to explain how the case law should be applied to real-world situations,” Dees said. “It’s not necessarily wrong not to do this, but without the context, the cases are just names to most cops.”
O’Donnell agreed that if cases are going to be used in cadet training, they need to be taught in relation to real-life scenarios.
The lesson plan states, “When an officer is involved in a use of force incident, the time for training stops and the officer must act. It’s at that time when the officer will rely on his/her training to bring the violence to an end to survive the fight. When all is calm again, we can review the officer’s actions and learn from the incident.”
Thomas Grover, a former sergeant with the Albuquerque Police Department who independently reviewed the lesson plans, noted that the Officer Survival course has been expanded, but what’s lacking in the new curriculum is an emphasis on working with the community.
“When you have someone who is just coming in and is 21 years old … they’re very impressionable, and sure it creates that us-versus-them [mentality], we’re warriors [mentality],” he said.
“My recommendation would be you’ve got to balance that out,” said Grover, who recently graduated from The University of New Mexico’s law school.
He added that the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy curriculum doesn’t achieve that balance and doesn’t include the “overarching purpose … which is to serve citizens.”
John A. Eterno, a former police captain for the New York Police Department, approved of many of the the new training materials, especially the update on state law and how to protect basic rights of the public.
But he said there were some issues he believes the academy should address, such as emphasizing that officers should be using the minimum amount of force in dealing with suspects. Eterno said even though the lesson plans cite case law on the use of force, they seem to lack specific and detailed rules.
The New York Police Department’s use-of-force policy, for example, clearly states that officers are not allowed to discharge their firearms at or from a moving vehicle unless deadly physical force — besides the vehicle involved — is being used against the officer or another person. Such rules need to be emphasized in training, and it’s something that is lacking in New Mexico’s training material, he said.
Eterno, now a professor of criminal justice at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, N.Y., also said, “This warrior thing is a bit overplayed.”
However, he said, the public needs to put itself in the shoes of an officer who might be facing an armed suspect who has just committed a crime.
Between 2003 and 2012, more than 500 police officers across the country, including five in New Mexico, were killed in felonious assaults in the line of duty, according to the latest FBI statistics.
New Mexico made national headlines when a state police officer shot at a van full of children near Taos after the driver fled during a traffic stop in October. In November, a different state police officer shot and killed a Santa Fe woman after a chase, firing into her vehicle 16 times as she tried to flee. The second shooting was one of three fatal shootings involving state police in the course of a month.
The Albuquerque Police Department, meanwhile, is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice to determine if officers use unreasonable deadly force in encounters with suspects. Albuquerque officers fatally shot 22 people from 2010 through 2013, and wounded another 13.
The New Mexican revealed last month that, despite these incidents, the academy has altered its training to give officers more leeway to use force when pursuing a suspect than previous training under an older model.
When The New Mexican first filed a public records request for a copy of the academy’s training material in February, Jones said, “I’ll burn them before you get them.” But State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said March 5 that the Department of Public safety, which oversees the academy, had intended to release the training materials.
Jones, a former state police officer and retired Army colonel, has taken increasing control over training at the academy since joining it as deputy director in January 2013. He was named director last June, and in September, the academy’s eight-member board voted unanimously to give him control over the curriculum, which in the past had required a period of public input.
Jones wanted the code changed in time for the latest cadet class, which started Jan. 20. Among other changes, he shortened the training from 22 weeks to 16 and instituted a physical-fitness entrance exam that is the same for men and women and applicants of all ages.
Grover said his main concern with the curriculum is that training was reduced by six weeks. Considering that the Albuquerque Police Department is being investigated by the federal government, he said, the last thing the academy should do is cut back on training.
The academy is still using previous lesson plans, although the plans are continually updated, Kassetas said, because, “We want to teach the most current methods.”
Contact Uriel J. Garcia at 986-3062 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.