When Should Police Officers Shoot?

Thursday, April 12th 2007, 8:15 pm
By: News On 6

The man killed by Tulsa Police on Wednesday had no connection to two violent robberies earlier in the day, said officials. K-9 officers had tracked the robbery suspect to an east Tulsa apartment building. Officers say Mario Torres jumped out of a window and ran. They say he refused to stop or show his hands and the officer shot him once.

Many people wonder how something like this can happen. Experts who study these types of critical incidents say using deadly force is never an easy decision, and depends on many things in a single moment. News On 6 crime reporter Lori Fullbright talked to one of those experts, she reports it's easy for people to rush to judgment, but experts say in that split second, officers must rely on what they know at the time, worry about the safety of others and understand what the law says about when to pull the trigger.

Anytime an officer shoots someone it's a stressful time for the entire department, because the actions of one made in a fraction of second, will be judged my many over a period of weeks. Experts say in that moment, hearts are pounding, vision can tunnel and hearing can be distorted due to adrenalin.

"One of the things people say over and over is why can't you train that? Not to be scared for your life and the life of fellow officers? Those things are ingrained in us genetically. We can only train to try to be able to operate when those things are going on," said Critical Incident Expert Scott Wood.

Scott Wood is a former officer and current attorney who often represent officers after critical incidents. He says officers make decisions based on the information they have at the time, and even if some of that information turns out to be wrong, it doesn't take away the officer's probable cause.

He points to another case.

"A suspect in a mall is wearing a sweater and walking in front of a store. A security guard thinks he's casing the store to rob it. He calls local police. They approach him and tell him to get his hands up so they can pat him down; he reaches to his waistband and turns down his walkman. Even though it's a tragedy, the court ruled the officer was right to use deadly force under the constitution," said Wood.

Wood says despite legalities he realizes citizens may see things differently, and that affects morale on the department.

"Police officers walk into a store or restaurant and someone says how come you shoot people who don't have guns? They don't know the total facts behind the circumstances,” Wood said. “Like in this case where it was warranted to use deadly force, it's a down period."

Wood says deadly force training is so much better now than it used to be, and that helps officers make better decisions. He also says the care officers receive after a critical incident is better now, since departments understand the psychology of what officers go through when they take a life or have a brush with death.