BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) —
The man rocked side-to-side as he muttered incoherently with a knife in his hand. Every few minutes he looked up and grunted at the police officer in the doorway talking with him.
After the sixth time the officer told him to put down his knife, the man suddenly raised it and stepped toward the officer, who was about 12 feet away. The officer fired, killing him.
At that point in the story, Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. Keven Selverian stopped. He had questions for those listening to the real-life incident.
Was the officer justified in using deadly force under those circumstances?
Was it justified if the autopsy revealed the man had a shattered ankle and most likely would have collapsed before reaching the officer?
In either situation, the answer was yes, Selverian said.
Selverian was speaking to a group of journalists invited to the police barracks in Bethlehem for an overview of the criminal and civil standards which govern police use of force.
The presentation was a rare effort by a law enforcement agency to be more transparent on one of the most controversial topics in policing today. The high-profile police-involved killings of unarmed Black citizens have sparked a national reckoning over how force is used.
“We simply want to provide you fact, evidence, science and the law,” said Selverian, a state police use-of-force specialist. “Any police officer that says, ‘Hey look, I don’t like the fact that people outside law enforcement sit in judgment of me,’ I got a problem with that. We need an outside set of eyes to look at what we’re doing.”
Historically, law enforcement has been reluctant to share its use-of-force policies with the public. Investigations and officer discipline typically remain behind closed doors. Changes in protocols and training often are handled without outside input.
But as public pressure builds for more accountability, some police departments are opening themselves up for more public scrutiny, something criminal justice experts believe is overdue.
“What I have learned through experience, you can do your best as a law enforcement agency to keep things private and secret, but when there is deadly force, the curtain is pulled back.” said Brian Higgins, former police chief in Bergen County, New Jersey, and a recognized expert in use of force and police training.
No complete government statistics exist documenting force-related deaths or injuries for U.S. policing agencies; those agencies are not required to report the data to the public or U.S. Department of Justice.
Fewer than half of U.S. policing agencies voluntarily submitted use-of-force data to the FBI, which began collecting it for the first time last year, according to the agency. Less than 1% of Pennsylvania’s 1,553 law enforcement agencies provided data. Pennsylvania State Police were not listed.
Police officers are legally justified in using physical or less-lethal force if conditions make it necessary to bring someone under control or stop a threatening behavior, Selverian said.
Deadly force is justified if the officer believes it is the only way to prevent death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others, he added. It should be used only when someone takes a significant step toward enacting a threat and a less-lethal option would not be effective, Selverian said.
But since no national or state guidelines exist, individual law enforcement agencies are responsible for developing and updating their own use-of-force standards based on state and federal court rulings.
Since June, at least 57 of the 100 largest U.S. police departments have adopted more restrictive force policies, including chokehold bans, requiring police to issue a warning before shooting, and requiring officers to stop excessive uses of force and immediately report it, according to the Use of Force Project.
In Bucks County, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody earlier this year was the catalyst for police chiefs to create a uniform use-of-force protocol, which the county’s 42 law enforcement agencies pledged to incorporate into their policies to ensure a unified response.
Bensalem Director of Public Safety Fred Harran, who oversees Bucks County’s largest police department, believes Floyd’s death was an “ah-ha moment” for police chiefs nationwide.
“George Floyd was one incident that everyone agreed on. There was no ambiguity with George Floyd,” Harran said. “It doesn’t matter if he did 100 crimes before that day, to lean on his neck for nine minutes — I don’t get it.”
The 15-point policy released last month is a first-of-its-kind effort in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. It includes standards for duty to render aid, use of chokeholds, de-escalation, and circumstances when officers can use force.
Bucks chiefs also have agreed to review other policies to make sure they are up to standards, including suspect pursuits, vehicle stops, strip and body cavity searches and biased-based policing.
The Bucks chiefs did not consult with outside advocacy groups when creating the uniform use-of-force policy, but they researched what those groups were recommending, officials said.
The Bucks County NAACP chapter supported the use-of-force standardization and it looks forward to seeing the departments integrate the guidelines, said Kama Sherman-Knuckles, chair of the Bucks County NAACP’s new Reimagining Public Safety Subcommittee.
The subcommittee also has started reaching out to Bucks County police chiefs to establish open lines of communication and offer its members as a resource, Sherman-Knuckles said. So far, the response has been positive, she said.
Sherman-Knuckles next would like to see Bucks County police adopt uniform guidelines for vehicle stops to reduce so-called “nuisance stops” that research shows disproportionately impact racial minorities.
“Trust is essential to good policing,” Sherman-Knuckles added. “When you have transparency everyone knows what to expect. It’s one thing to be safe in a community and another thing to feel safe.
“When you feel safe, you have that trust. I can trust I will be treated right.”
Building community trust has inspired some police agencies to invite outside organizations such as the NAACP, Latino Leadership Alliance and ACLU to consult on developing police training and operations, said Higgins, the former police chief and a professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York City.
“That goes a long way to show you’re transparent,” he added.
But trust is a two-way street.
In his experience, the main reason law enforcement is reluctant to open itself to outside scrutiny is the fear it will be used against them before they’ve had an opportunity to identify and fix the problems, Higgins said.
Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. Kevin Selverian, a use-of-force specialist, speaks to members of the media during a use of force presentation at the Troop M Barracks in Bethlehem on Thursday, November 12, 2020.
Hindsight vs. reality
Pennsylvania State Police use-of-force investigations have nearly doubled in recent years, jumping from 54 to 105 between 2017 and last year, according to its Bureau of Integrity and Professional Standards. Force investigations can be triggered by citizen complaints or departmental regulations.
The biggest increase was in physical use-of-force investigations, which jumped to 62 last year compared with 21 and 11 in the previous two years, respectively, according to state police data.
Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski confirmed there have been no regulation changes that would explain the increase. But he pointed out that state police contacts with citizens also increased 16%, from 1.69 million to 1.96 million, during the same time period.
While police use of deadly force often attracts media attention, recent research shows they account for fewer than 1% of police contacts with citizens; when force is used, deaths and serious injuries are even rarer, Selverian said.
He cited a 2018 Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center study of three mid-size police departments in different states that identified 893 use-of-force incidents out of more than 1 million police calls reviewed.
Public opinion whether a police-involved death or injury was justified is often formed based on hindsight and assumptions that don’t account for critical-decision factors. That includes what information was available to the officer at the time, a full accounting of what transpired and, most importantly, how officers on the scene perceived the threat based on their experience and training, Selverian said.
“More often than not, law enforcement officers in some circles are expected to make reasoned, deliberate, thorough, or as thorough as they can be, decisions in circumstances that are tenuous, rapidly unfolding, extremely stressful,” he added.
Science shows under high-stress conditions the body experiences physical changes that impact human performance such as reduced decision-making ability and finger dexterity, Selverian said.
In situations where there is little time for conscious thought, police typically rely on their training, which can mitigate some of the body’s response but can never fully overcome it, Selverian said.
“Anytime we talk about police performance, we cannot forget police officers are human beings, and they are subject to the same realities and same limitations as anybody else,” he added.
Research shows a person can reach distances of six feet, or draw and fire a gun, turn 180 degrees and start running, in under one second, which puts officers at a disadvantage when reacting to a threat, Selverian said.
One study found it takes most people one-third of a second — the time it takes to blink your eyes — to travel five feet while initiating a slashing motion with an object.
Police use of force on unarmed citizens is a frequent target of criticism, but individuals without a weapon can still pose serious danger, Selverian said.
“An ‘unarmed person’ in many ways, and in many circumstances, has the ability to cause you death or serious bodily injury,” he added. “It’s not always what meets the eye, it’s what is going on during the course of the encounter.”
Police training emphasizes the use of less-lethal force to bring someone under control, but sometimes those methods are not appropriate, Selverian said.
Electrified weapons, such as Tasers, are most effective when deployed nine to 15 feet from a suspect because the electrified probes will embed far enough apart to incapacitate, Selverian said.
While police are often criticized for not aiming for arms or legs when shooting at a suspect, it is far more difficult to hit a moving target, in general, and extremely difficult to hit a moving body part, Selverian said.
He added that shooting someone in the arms and legs is also not necessarily less lethal, since both contain major arteries.
Another popular misconception is that police officers are eager to use force to end a situation quickly, Selverian said. The opposite is true in his experience.
Most of the hundreds of police-involved shootings investigations that he has participated in, in his opinion, met the legal requirements for justified use of deadly force sooner than when the officers involved used it.
“They wait and wait and try to avoid it,” Selverian said.