When an apparently armed suspect fails to follow the orders of police officers and instead acts in a threatening manner, the officers may have only a fraction of a second to act to protect themselves and others.
That was the situation that confronted two San Diego police officers in the early morning of May 6, when a 15-year-old Torrey Pines High School student pulled what appeared to be a black handgun out of his waistband and pointed it toward the officers.
The confrontation took place in front of the school. When the boy ignored what police said were repeated commands to drop the gun — which later turned out to be a BB air pistol — and instead pointed the gun at one of the officers while walking toward him, the officers fired at the youth, killing him.
In such situations, police rely on a “matrix of force,” which lays out the appropriate actions to take in response to escalating actions by suspects, said SDPD Capt. Mark Hanten, who until recently was the top police official at the department’s Northwestern Division office, which serves Carmel Valley and surrounding communities.
The idea of the matrix, which is taught to officers as part of their training in the use of force, is that officers will use the least amount of force necessary to achieve their goal of taking control of a suspect.
The emphasis, Hanten said, is on de-escalating a situation. “It’s a philosophy of using the minimum amount of force necessary to accomplish the goal. That’s what we’re trying to do whenever we have to use force, use the minimum amount.”
The key is that police response is matched to a “continuum” of behavior by suspects, said Hanten. For example, when a suspect responds to verbal commands, no force is needed and the subject can be brought under control. Suspect actions escalate from passive to active resistance, to assaultive behavior, to life-threatening behavior, such as pointing a gun at an officer.
“That’s how we break it down in our training,” Hanten said.
Officers do have a variety of tools to use for the lower levels of escalation, such as pepper spray, batons, electric tasers and shotguns that fire bean-bag rounds. Lethal force is used only for potentially life-threatening situations, Hanten said, and, in such cases, lesser amounts of force are not an option.
“When somebody points a gun at you, you are backed into a corner on your force options. You are at life-threatening behavior. Using lesser force levels is not really an option. To say you have to go through all levels (of force) when someone points a gun at you is a recipe for disaster.”
At the top threat level, he said, “Your life is in absolute danger and you have to respond accordingly to protect yourself and your partner and the community at large,” Hanten said.
Hanten said public expectations of how police can deal with a life-threatening situation have been shaped by movies and TV shows. Scenarios in which an officer shoots the gun out of a suspect’s hand, or disables the suspect with a shot to the knee, he said, “are extremely unrealistic.
He urged members of the public to participate in a more realistic situation, perhaps by going to a firing range and shooting a gun for themselves, or participating in a program called “Inside SDPD,” put on by the San Diego Police Foundation. In that program, he said, they may be able to use a simulator that recreates a “shoot or don’t shoot scenario.”
“Those types of training scenarios are very enlightening for most people,” he said.
Hanten, who has been transferred to the department’s Eastern Division, said he and his officers appreciated the public’s support in the aftermath of the Torrey Pines shooting, which he can’t discuss in detail because it is still under investigation.
“I’d like to reach out and thank the community for their support and for not rushing to judgment. And for recognizing that this was a tragedy for the officers as well,” Hanten said.
Lt. Paul Phillips will serve as interim commander of Northwestern Division, Hanten said. Members of the public can contact Officer Trevor Philips, community relations officer for Northwestern Division, with questions or concerns at 858-523-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.