‘It’s a two-way street’: Police leaders speak about protocols of lethal force | TheUnion.com

‘It’s a two-way street’: Police leaders speak about protocols of lethal force

Daunte Wright. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. These are just a few in a list of names of Americans whose deaths during incidents involving police sparked outcry, protests, and even riots in 2020.

Such cases have led to national debates as to the standards governing when and how officers should be able to use lethal force.

Even a close-knit community such as Nevada County, which enjoys a relatively low rate of violent crime, has not been without its own cases of controversial officer-involved shootings.

Gabriel Strickland was killed during a January 2020 incident involving police. While a county review of the incident determined that the officers had not acted wrongly, his family argued that lethal force should not have been used given Strickland’s mental illness.

Just over a year later, the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office faced scrutiny after sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Sage Crawford, a 33-year-old woman who, like Strickland, was suffering from chronic mental health issues, according to Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh.

In Nevada County, standards concerning the use of force vary by department, although they share most of the same basic principles.

One might think that police receive a comprehensive rule book on when to employ lethal force. The reality is far more complicated — officers generally do not have a hard and fast rule to dictate the use of force in a given situation, and the few standards that do exist are constantly evolving in alignment with ever changing local, state, and federal laws.

“Ultimately, what everyone wants is to go home safe. The last thing anyone wants is to use force when you don’t need to. There’s not a hard and fast set rule for these situations. It’s really driven by policy, state law, and federal law,” said sheriff’s Lt. Sean Scales.

In Nevada County, standards for using force have changed in recent years due to changes in California’s Peace Officers and Standards Training (POST). POST is a voluntary curriculum for police departments created in 1959, and provides guidance on various aspects of police training.

This curriculum has changed the ways in which sheriff’s deputies handle confrontations, as it teaches officers deescalation tactics, especially for situations where police deal with individuals who may be intoxicated or suffering from a mental illness, Scales said.

In a majority of situations, whether or not an officer uses lethal force has a lot to do with the muscle memory of the deputy handling the situation, Scales said. As a result, deputies receive an extensive amount of scenario-based training, where they are asked to address a variety of situations where there may be little time to decide what to do.

For instance, Scales said that a deputy might be tested with a situation where it isn’t clear whether the suspect is holding out a cell phone or a gun. The goal of such simulations is to ingrain the best instincts possible in deputies, Scales said.

Like the Sheriff’s Office, Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard said his agency uses situational training, regularly testing officers on their decision making in confrontational scenarios. Police are also taught effective ways of communication that help calm down people who may be hostile, Gammelgard said.

Grass Valley officers have even recently been trained using virtual reality headsets, where an officer will be in a real-world simulated environment and have to respond to a suspect’s behavior, Gammelgard said.


In addition to deescalation training, Grass Valley police are encouraged to use resources at their disposal that don’t involve force. Such resources include being able to contact the department’s mobile crisis response unit, CALVIP (California Violence Intervention and prevention Program).

CALVIP is a full-time crisis response team professionally trained to deescalate confrontations and improve police relations with community members.

When police respond to a call involving a person who may be hostile, mentally unwell, or impaired, the CALVIP team can make a difference in turning a potentially violent situation into a situation where no one is harmed and the individual receives the help that they need, Gammelgard said.

“With our proactive outreach team, you have a non-police officer responding with a police officer, and we really try and utilize this team whenever possible,” he said.

The use of force an officer uses in detaining someone doesn’t always involve a gun, Gammelgard and Scales said. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies are trained in some level of hand-to-hand grappling, and this might even be the right way to address a situation, particularly in a situation where an officer feels like they can neutralize a threatening suspect without using a firearm, Scales said.

In some cases, there are blanket restrictions on the use of physical force that can be used in detaining individuals. For instance, all law enforcement agencies in Nevada County prohibit their officers from using choke holds and carotid holds, restraints that have historically been used in detaining suspects but inhibit breathing.

Such restraints have been criticized by human rights groups, and have been blamed in incidents such as the 2014 death of Eric Garner in New York City, and the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

While such reforms, along with scenario training and the availability of outside resources can all help diffuse potential conflicts, Gammelgard emphasized that an aggressive suspect can leave officers with no option but to use lethal force.

“We don’t want to use force in any situation, but we have to be ready and prepared whenever the situation arrives,” he said. “If we can employ deescalation methods, we want to, but the officers don’t dictate initially what it is they’re responding to. Our level of force is only in response to what the situation is when we arrive at the scene.”

In the shooting death of Strickland last year, the responding police officers did not call for assistance from any mental health crisis team. Gammelgard maintained that the situation had been handled correctly, given that Strickland had brandished a gun towards the officers.

“Based on the information known to the officers at the time and the actions taken by Mr. Strickland, the use of force by the officers on scene does seem to be reasonable under the law based on the circumstances,” Gammelgard said.

He did not comment as to why Grass Valley police did not summon any mental health professionals before Strickland was shot. Instead, Gammelgard asserted that it would be “purely speculative” to suggest that a crisis team would have made a difference in what was a dangerous and difficult situation for all involved.

The Sheriff’s Office declined to make any comment as to why a crisis team was not called during the events leading up to Crawford’s death earlier this year, and the office also declined to comment on any other aspects of the shooting.

Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Walsh said that much criticism of law enforcement misses the mark, because it focuses solely on the actions of the officer, and not on the actions of the suspect that may have raised the stakes of a situation.

“One of the most important things that people forget in these situations is that you have to have two people involved in dialogue for deescalation to work. It’s a two-way street. If that other person isn’t receptive to verbal suggestions, if they’re not going to be a part of it, you can’t deescalate,” Walsh said.

Scales emphasized that the approach taken Nevada County law enforcement is to go into situations seeking to avoid casualties at all cost.

“There was a time in law enforcement where you would go in and storm the castle, and that might often lead to a shooting. These days the thought process is to slow down, stop whatever you’re doing, and if there’s no immediate threat to officers or public or anyone else, we can figure it out.”

Police are aware of the consequences that can result from a mistake in judgment, and officers have extra reason to be careful in a context where their agencies are facing increased scrutiny nationwide, Scales added.

“Every officer is constantly looking at these things because they can make or break careers, and more importantly, they can save lives,” he said.

Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at swyer@theunion.com

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