N E W Y O R K, Sept. 28, 2000 -- In late August, a police officer shot and killed a man after he mistook the man’s cigarette lighter for a gun. That same week in Detroit, a deaf and mute man wielding a garden rake was shot and killed by an officer.
A Detroit police officer was charged with manslaughter Wednesday in that city’s slaying, and an investigation is under way in the other.
The shootings in two very different communities have heightened questions about whether police officers, in small towns and larger cities, are properly trained about when to — and not to — use deadly force.
In Boise, Idaho, a spate of recent deadly shootings in an otherwise tranquil Western city brings the issue to a public debate.
“Officers can begin to see everybody they deal with as being a threat,” said Pierce Murphy, a community ombudsman in Boise. “Not a potential threat but a real threat.”
Shootings on Rise in Small Towns
While high-profile shootings, like the 1998 slaying of Amadou Diallo, who was killed by four New York City officers who mistook his wallet for a gun, have brought the issue of police shootings to the national forefront, there is an indication that such shootings are happening more often in small-town America.
The U.S. Department of Justice does not require police departments to report deadly shootings statistics. Some FBI statistics indicate the number of people fatally shot by police each year has changed little in the past five years, with about 360 dying at the hands of police in one recent year.
But researchers who study trends in crime suspect an important shift may be under way: Police-related fatalities and instances of abuse, which have traditionally been associated with large urban areas, are occurring in smaller cities and towns.
In the Colorado case, Eric Vantslot, 30, was shot and killed by sheriffs’ deputies in the town of Lyons after the man aimed what appeared to be a gun at them. After the shooting, investigators discovered the object was a cigarette lighter that resembled a semiautomatic handgun.
The officers are on paid administrative leave while the case is investigated.
More Force, Little Training
Peter Kraska, a professor of police studies at Eastern Kentucky University, says he believes the number of shootings in smaller towns may be on the rise because officers are being pushed to deal with more violent criminals as drugs flow into the nation’s smaller communities.
He says a Defense Department program has also put more military gear — automatic rifles, armored personnel carriers and night vision goggles — in the hands of local police who are often poorly equipped to use the equipment.
“I think it’s an extremely risky way to do policing and it puts police officers and citizens unnecessarily in harm’s way,” Kraska said.
Many argue that police officers, particularly in small municipalities, do not get the proper training in firearms use and tactics that could prevent deadly shootings.
Ron Kilman, chief of the LeRoy Police Department, outside Bloomington, Ill., said although his department has not had to deal with a deadly shooting incident, he sees the need for additional training. Kilman says he seeks out free training for his officers.
“Unfortunately, most small towns do not have the funds or the resources to be able to provide the same caliber of training that large municipalities are able to afford,” Kilman said.
But Kilman says it is also difficult to predict how an officer will react when placed in a threatening situation. Across the nation, from small towns to large cities like New York and Los Angeles, police forces agree that deadly force should be used when an officer feels his life is being threatened.
When Is it Justified? But the question is always raised when police are involved in a shooting: When is it justified to kill someone? In New York, despite widespread public outcry, a jury decided the four officers were justified in killing the unarmed Diallo — largely because they believed the officers’ testimony that they feared for their lives.
“Almost any officer when he pins his badge on has been trained extensively in what the law mandates when it comes to use of deadly force,” Kilman said. “However, the bottom line is you get an officer out there who gets into a situation that turns violent quickly and you scare that officer bad enough than he goes either into a fight-or-flight mentality.”
Police officers, said John Bowman, an associate professor at the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois, are trained to fight, not run from a situation.
“There are people out there who need to be shot by the police,” said Bowman, who is an experienced firearms and tactics trainer, who says the problem, actually, might be that police don’t use force often enough. He argues that officers need to do what it takes to protect themselves from harm or death. “The reality is that every day in this country people unlawfully place others in great bodily harm. The problem we have is getting officers to shoot when it is justified.”
‘An Act of Self-Defense’
In the small town of Carnegie, Okla., the community is still debating the fatal shooting in March of an American Indian woman who raised a shovel above her head in a confrontation with a rookie police officer.
The officer, Russell Williams, had had the required nine-week training at Oklahoma’s Council on Law Enforcement and Training (CLEET) program, a course required by the state for all police officers, said police chief, Randall Hileman. The training includes lessons on when to use deadly force, he said. The officer was not charged in that case.
Hileman said he believes Williams, who has since resigned, was justified in using his weapon. The officer, he said, had tried talking to the victim and using pepper spray before firing.
“It was an act of self-defense, ” Hileman said. “It was to the point that either this officer was going to get seriously injured or killed. Even above training, you have to protect yourself and your life.”