Editorial: Questions for police on when force is used

Action by St. Paul and Woodbury police resulting in a questionable kicking and the shooting of a hostage in two unrelated incidents have raised questions on when and what force police should use in threatening situations.

Don Heinzman

Don Heinzman

Police officers must make split-second decisions when lives are in danger. Officers are trained to enforce the law while at the same time to protect people whose lives are in danger.

Use of force depends on each situation and police will tell you that each situation is different. That use of force can range from giving a verbal command to shooting someone “to stop the threat.”

In the widely publicized case in St. Paul, someone took a video of an officer shown kicking Eric Hightower, who was suspected of making terroristic threats. The video also shows two officers slamming Hightower against the hood of a police car.

At the time, the officer, Jesse Zilge, said Hightower threatened his ex-girlfriend. Later Hightower was charged with stalking, making terroristic threats and criminal damaging of property. He was jailed and later released after posting bail.

In the Woodbury case, three officers have been suspended after a hostage, trying to escape from a motel where he and others were being held, was shot and killed by police.

These two cases raise serious questions. How are officers trained to confront these difficult situations?

One suburban police department spokesperson in charge of training says officers are trained to use a continuum of force, using the next highest level of restraint. For example, if they are wrestling with someone, they use a neck restraint, then a sleeper hold, maybe use a baton, a night stick, a taser, or a chemical irritant.

Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott says his deputies are trained to use a continuum of force depending on the degree of aggression to include: defensive resistance that requires empty hand control hard; active aggression that could require taser, mace, ASP and baton and aggravated active aggression that could require lethal force. Kicking someone on the ground is not in the continuum of force.

When is a pistol used? When the officer or someone else is in serious danger from someone who has a gun? Officers are trained to stop the threat, not just to wound, says one officer.

State laws govern the authorized use of deadly force by peace officers.

Both of the cases in St. Paul and Woodbury are being investigated and the officers are on paid administrative leave.

A representative of the St. Paul Police Federation cautions not to judge the officers until all the facts are known, saying police are dealing with dangerous people in dangerous situations.

Such incidents are rare, because most police officers act responsibly, according to their training.

The public, however, deserves to know the results of these necessary investigations and needs to be assured that their police officers have the best training possible when it comes to using force, particularly with their pistols.

Editor’s note: Don Heinzman is an editorial writer and columnist for ECM Publishers, Inc.

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