Local police cadets to train in new use-of-force tactics

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

KIRTLAND — Law enforcement training officials in San Juan County are preparing to teach cadets a new use-of-force model in light of a change in state training guidelines approved in July.

Sgt. Dale Bode of the Criminal Justice Training Authority said the new lesson plan will teach cadets the underlying legal principles that allow an officer to use force, and when the use of force is appropriate and reasonable.

At a meeting on Wednesday, the board that oversees the training authority approved holding a training session for instructors on the new "constitution-based" use-of-force model in the spring. A second training session is also expected to take place in the next fiscal year.

The change comes after the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board voted at a July 16 meeting to stop training officers in the Reactive Control Model, a linear use-of-force model that teaches officers to use a scaled response to resistance or aggression.

Director Jack Jones of the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy said at the July 16 meeting that the Reactive Control Model was falling out of favor nationally and did not reflect current case law, according to minutes from the meeting.

"The Supreme Court has come back and said basically that they're not going to judge officers on a control model, they're going to judge officers on what is constitutional law and what case law is," he said at the meeting.

Lt. Mark Pfetzer of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office attended "constitution-based" use-of-force training at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy last month.

He echoed a common criticism of the Reactive Control Model: that it is too rigid for a dynamic, heated situation and does not take into account the officer's individual characteristics and abilities.

For example, a 130-pound female officer should escalate force more quickly against a combatant individual than should a 180-pound male officer. However, under the control model, both officers would be expected to respond in a similar manner to the threat, using perhaps strikes, holds and less-than-lethal weapons to control the individual.

Pfetzer said that by using a constitution-based model, 12 separate officers could respond 12 different ways to the threat, and they could all be "objectively reasonable" responses under the law.

"The officer is the variable," Pfetzer said.

The "objective reasonableness" standard was first applied to law enforcement use of force in the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision Graham v. Connor.

The court determined in that case that a free citizen's Fourth Amendment right "to be secure in their persons ... against unreasonable seizures" protected them against excessive force by law enforcement officers.

The court came up with a three-factor test for courts to use in determining whether an instance of force was excessive: what was the severity of the crime committed, what level of resistance was posed by the subject and what threat did that individual pose to the officer and other individuals?

Pfetzer said the courts must also judge the officer based on the factors known to him or her at that time of the incident, not in hindsight. Bode said that San Juan County instructors have taught elements of constitutional law for several years, but now the training authority is fully committing to the new use-of-force model.

Bloomfield police Chief Randy Foster is a member of the board that oversees the training authority.

He said that the constitution-based model gives officers a better insight into the laws that govern use of force and will better prepare them for explaining their decisions in court.

However, the model is more difficult to grasp, particularly for younger officers.

"For the newer users, it doesn't provide as much information on what they can and can't do," he said.

Bode said that the state academy has been contemplating switching to the new use-of-force model for more than a year and that the decision was probably not influenced by the scrutiny police tactics have received in recent months, both statewide and nationally.

He said he did not expect that the new model would result in fewer instances of use of force, but it could mean less abuse of force by law enforcement officers.

Pfetzer said in his experience as a training instructor, abusive force was used by officers when they allowed their emotions to overcome sound judgment.

He said the new model will teach officers to think critically about their decision to use force and determine whether it was legally applied.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.