Florida Keys

Training helps Keys cops make better split-second decisions about when to shoot

Monroe County Corrections Deputy Tony Lopez demonstrates the training using the discretionary shooting simulator that all sworn officers at the sheriff's office go through annually.
Monroe County Corrections Deputy Tony Lopez demonstrates the training using the discretionary shooting simulator that all sworn officers at the sheriff's office go through annually. Miami Herald Staff

One afternoon last week, Monroe County Sheriff’s Detention Dep. Tony Lopez responded to a call for service at a home where there was an ongoing domestic dispute between a brother and sister.

Lopez asked the man to show identification. The man opened a drawer next to the refrigerator, but instead of retrieving a driver license he pulled out a gun. Lopez did not hesitate. He fired his duty weapon the instant he saw the threat.

In this case, it was not a real life-or-death situation. It was a training exercise in a room above an airplane hangar in Marathon. The evolving scenario was projected onto a wall in 3D and HD through the use of the MILO Range Use-of-Force and Firearms Training System.

“Nobody here wants to take a life,” said Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Penny Phelps, who heads the training department. “But we teach that you do whatever you have to do to come home that night.”

Whether to pull the trigger is a decision every law enforcement knows he or she may have to make one day.

That day did come for Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, when he fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown in the middle of a street, following an altercation. The racially charged case that has prompted a national outcry is now in the hands of a grand jury to decide whether there is enough evidence to indict Wilson for excessive use of force.

To justifiably pull the trigger, Phelps said, “We tell our deputies you have to be able to say when all is said or done: ‘I thought I was going to die or I thought they were going to kill or seriously injure another person. That’s why I used deadly force.’”

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office trains to the federal standard established by the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court Case, Graham v. Connor.

The legality of every use-of-force decision an officer makes also stems from the findings of that landmark case, which did not involve a shooting. It dealt with the treatment of a diabetic man seeking orange juice. Dethorne Graham entered a convenience store, and when he saw a long line he ran out and got into the passenger side of a waiting car, telling his friend to drive him to another place to get the orange juice. A Charlotte, North Carolina, police officer witnessed Graham’s actions and suspected that Graham had just robbed the convenience store.

Officer Connor gave chase. When the car pulled over, Connor ordered Graham and his friend to wait while he found out what happened at the store. Graham and his friend tried to explain the medical situation. More officers arrived, and in the confusion, with at least one officer thinking Graham was drunk, Graham was injured. When it was discovered there was no robbery, officers drove Graham home.

The case required the Supreme Court to decide what constitutional standard governs a free citizen’s claim that law enforcement officials used excessive force in the course of making an arrest, investigatory stop or other seizure of his person.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in his opinion: “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with 20/20 vision of hindsight. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”

Said Phelps: “The decision really stopped the Monday morning quarterbacking of police who make life or death decisions in seconds.”

But “reasonableness” does not mean officers have no accountability. They must consider many factors, including environment. “If I don’t stop the threat now, will he get into a playground or elementary school and make the situation worse?” Phelps said.

To make good decisions on force, annual training is critical, said Sheriff Rick Ramsay. All 300 sworn officers with the county, including all involved in corrections, are mandated to go through it.

Ramsay was instrumental a few years ago in getting the department to invest about $250,000, mostly from fine and forfeiture funds, to buy the MILO Range simulator and driving simulator, as well as to build the room at the hangar to accommodate them.

“We want to give our officers the best training to be able to make decisions so they can go home, and also so they will apply the best level of force on our citizens,” he said.

Many officers around the country have watched a 1998 dashcam video, either in formal training or on their own, of the horrifying death of Georgia Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Dinkheller. It shows the 22-year-old officer making a traffic stop of a speeding pickup truck and encountering a Vietnam combat veteran who gets out, charges the officer unarmed, retreats and does a dance goading the officer to shoot him, and then goes into his truck to retrieve a semi-automatic firearm that’s popular in the military.

Dinkheller did not deal with the threat until it was too late. On the video, he screamed as he was being shot about 10 times, before dying beside his patrol car. He left behind a pregnant wife and 18-month-old child.

“We’re trained to save, to help; we’re not soldiers, trained to kill,” Phelps said.

That incident was made into a 2014 short film by UCLA students called Random Stop. When the Vietnam vet, Andrew Brannan, who now is on Death Row, was asked why he did it, he replied: “Because he let me.”

The annual simulator training in the Keys provides officers with different scenarios, many produced in familiar places. It can read the officers’ actions using pepper spray, a Taser, a pistol or rifle, all modified with lasers. Officers also are taught to try to keep a safe distance from a potentially threatening person, at least 21 feet, and seek cover when possible.

Some of this training is done after a car pursuit is conducted on the driving simulator, followed by jumping jacks and pushups to get an officer’s heart rate beating fast to simulate tense situations.

After the scenario is over, Det. Sheila Seago, the county’s lead firearms instructor, goes over the video with the officer, just like a coach would go over game footage with an athlete. They discuss together what the officer did right, and what could be done better.

The scenarios have branches, where one time the subject may charge with a knife and another he may comply with an officer’s commands.

In the past decade, there has only been one officer-involved shooting in the Keys that resulted in a death. On Oct. 25, 2013, four officers responded to a call at a waterfront luxury home in Islamorada where an intoxicated elderly man had fired two shots at his wife, who fled across the street to a neighbor’s home.

On one side of the house, an officer spotted the elderly man and shouted: “Sheriff’s Office, drop the gun.” He did not, instead firing it. From the other side of the house, Dep. Luis Gomez turned the corner and encountered the gunman.

Gomez said in his police report he also ordered the man to drop the gun. When the man turned toward him and pointed the gun, Gomez fired once with his shotgun, killing him.

“Some officers think they will get in trouble if they shoot, but thank God Gomez did,” Seago said. “He had just been in here for training.”

Experience also helps officers make good decisions not to shoot. A few years ago Det. Sgt. Donnie Catala encountered a teenager who was a possible suspect in a kidnapping on Stock Island. At his waist appeared to be a Beretta handgun.

“I was trained to look at his hands,” Catala said. “The kid motioned toward his waist, pointing to his buckle, saying: ‘It’s not a gun. It’s not a gun.’”

Catala, a 20-year member of the county’s SWAT team, said he yelled back that he didn’t care, and he would shoot if the teenager didn’t keep his hands away from it. The teenager complied. And as it turned out, there was no gun. It was a belt buckle.

“It all came back to my training under stress,” he said.

Law enforcement officers are trained to be alert during every traffic stop and every call, no matter how mundane or routine it may seem. There is no room for complacency, even in the Keys — where violent crime is minimal.

“While some people think of this place like Mayberry R.F.D., there’s still crime,” Ramsay said.