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Police say extensive training helps guide deadly force decisions
A New Hampshire State police cruiser guards a crash scene, the site of a police-involved shooting in August. (Pat Grossmith/Union Leader)
Police say traffic stops are among the most unpredictable and trickiest parts of police work.
"It can be one of the most routine events in the daily life of a police officer, but so much training goes into preparing for them because things can change so quickly out there," said Mike Selicki, chief of the Kensington Police Department and president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.
Traffic stops are unpredictable because, among other factors, the officer does not know what the driver is thinking, said Selicki. Across the country last year, 17 of 116 officers killed in the line of duty were killed during traffic stops, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Courses offered through the Standards and Training Council put officers through real-life scenarios designed to sharpen their skills. Interactive video simulations portray people with and without weapons, in different locations and varying lighting, and of different gender, ethnicity and size. Officers are taught to evaluate a person's body language, general appearance, whether they appear to be attempting to avoid being noticed and how they are behaving.
The action is virtual, projected onto a white screen while officers practice loading and firing weapons that have an air tank to provide recoil but no ammunition.
The Fire Arms Training Simulator, or FATS, is a system worth between $40,000 and $65,000. Officers rotate in and out of a room, practicing responses to high-pressure situations. Another member of the department sits behind a computer, deciding how the story will unfold, depending on the officers' actions.
After each scenario, officers and their superiors review a tape, dissecting each decision and even the aiming accuracy of the firearms, which include a rifle, handgun, Taser and pepper spray.
"The last thing anyone in law enforcement wants to do is discharge their firearm," said Selicki, "unless the officer involved determines the situation warrants it."
Standard protocol in police departments throughout New Hampshire, as well as state law, restrict use of deadly force.
According to RSA 627:5, an officer is justified in using deadly force only when it is reasonable to believe that it's necessary in order to defend the officer or a third party.
The review of the Lawrence shooting "is progressing, but we are still conducting our investigation," Senior Assistant Attorney General Susan G. Morrell said last week.
"Police officers don't go 'crazy' and become trigger happy and begin to shoot whoever comes their way," said Rafael Rojas Jr., an assistant professor in the Justice Studies Department at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester and president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Justice Educators and a former New York Port Authority officer.
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