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ATF agents provide use of force training to reporters

Published: Jun. 9, 2022 at 7:03 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Police officers often make headlines when they’re accused of using excessive force, but law enforcement professionals say the public typically only gets to see one side of the story. That’s why ATF agents hosted a media training course at the Alaska Law Enforcement Museum on Tuesday, June 7, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., hoping to educate both reporters and the public.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) conducted the course, which covered issues including case law that lead to Supreme Court decisions and set the framework for use of force policies, sympathetic nervous system activation and a hands-on application of the coursework in the museum’s firearms simulator.

Paul Massock, ATF deputy chief of the Special Operations Division in Washington, D.C., and James “Jim” Balthazar, senior special agent based in Tampa, Florida, hosted the half-day course in Anchorage. Both men emphasized the need for officers to respond to ever-changing conditions and having to react to them at a moment’s notice.

“It’s judgment. It’s experience,” Massock says. “All of those things combined together allow them to make good decisions and fast decisions because these are split-second decisions that these officers have to make.”

Massock says those split-second decisions also have to meet strict legal standards of “reasonableness” which were defined in 1989 by the U.S. Supreme Court case after hearing the Graham vs. Connor case. In that case, the court determined, “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

In an era where cellphone cameras are regularly aimed at police activity and allegations of excessive use of force make news headlines, agents warn that disturbing video doesn’t always prove an officer broke the law.

“It is one piece of information that should be considered when making those decisions,” Massock says.

Alaska’s News Source found out what it was like to confront a violent suspect first-hand. Our reporter was given a firearm loaded with a laser cartridge and was placed in an interactive virtual scenario. The reporter was told to give the suspect commands and if the suspect didn’t comply then to act according to what the reporter had learned during the course. The reporter, acting as the officer, approached a suspect standing outside of a truck with a broken window. The suspect appeared to be agitated and was holding a hammer. The reporter demanded the man put the hammer down.

“This is my truck, man. I broke the windows because I wanted to get some stuff from inside,” the suspect said.

“Well, I need you to put the hammer down first. Just put the hammer down first and let’s talk,” the reporter replied.

The suspect then turned towards his truck and quickly pulled out a gun, firing it at the reporter. At that point, the virtual scenario indicated the reporter was dead.

“Officers are authorized to use more force than the resistance they encounter with a suspect, and that is necessary in order for the officers to fulfill their role in society and enforce the law,” says Massock, adding how, sometimes, officers need to use deadly force as well.

Massock and Balthazar showed reporters dashcam videos of real-life encounters that resulted in officers’ death. They hope by educating the media, their reports may be more sensitive to the conditions officers face when confronting violent suspects.

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