November 27, 2006
Say you’re a police officer walking by a house with an open door and you see someone, arm raised, about to stab another with a knife.
What do you do?Chip Seamans, an Aspen Police officer, dressed in protective gear and armed with a copy of a 9 mm handgun that shoots paint balls – called simmunition – immediately pulls his gun. He’s attending a quarterly training session for the Roaring Fork region, organized and attended by officers from Snowmass Village, Basalt, Aspen and Pitkin County. “Drop the knife!” He yells. But the person starts stabbing, and Seamans pulls the trigger a few times in rapid succession. Multiple red dots appear on the back of the stabber and he falls to the ground. The whole thing takes about three seconds. “We give them a scenario, tell them so much stuff, and then they have to act on it,” said Aspen Police Detective Chris Womack, a certified trainer.All of the people present are officers and after each exercise, they discuss the decision, inside and out. “Why did you just shoot a guy?” asked Walter Chi, an Aspen Police trainer, after the stabbing scenario. “Why didn’t you identify yourself as an officer?”
Aspen Police caught flack in the last year after former Aspen Police Officer Melinda Calvano used an electronic shock gun on a 63-year-old homeless woman and, more recently, after a Fourth Amendment case in which the city of Aspen paid a $10,000 settlement involving a questionable police search.
In both situations, critics have blamed training – or lack thereof – for the perceived mistakes. Indeed, lack of training was part of the Fourth Amendment suit. Training, however, does not seem to be lacking in Roaring Fork Valley law enforcement. And though recent public scrutiny has focused on the Aspen police, those officers receive the same training as the other upper-valley agencies.Whenever an officer draws a gun or a Taser, the department always analyzes the action after the fact, and often the public does the same.”There’s all sorts of factors and the biggest one is people’s humanness,” said Police Chief Loren Ryerson, talking about the moment when a cop decides to use force. “Do you go 25 miles per hour or 30? A lot of it is relying on each other and having the courage to say, ‘hold on, 25 is enough.'”In training, police get to pick apart their decisions over and over, without the risk of dire results or public controversy. The view from behind the badge is that the law is a constantly changing thing and every situation is different.”We have to keep pace with all the court decisions that are constantly reshaping our world,” Ryerson said. “We have to be able to make a split-second decision that will stand up over months and lawyers and all sorts of stuff.”
With a budget of some $600 per officer, Aspen, Basalt, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village officers train together as part of what is known as Roaring Fork Regional training (RFR).Aspen newspapers have published numerous stories recently about an apparent philosophical gulf between the Aspen Police Department and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. But at a recent training, officers from both departments said they work together well and often. Part of the reason is that they meet every three months to practice firing weapons, perform situational drills and review recent court cases. Not all officers make it to each quarterly training, but all attend at least two per year.In just one quarter, certified trainers from various departments work with officers on vehicle defense drills, team movement with firearms, use of force and pressure-point control tactics.”It’s not just putting holes on paper targets,” said Sheriff Bob Braudis. “It’s all of the statutory laws surrounding use of force and all of the case law regarding use of force. We adjust our training to recent case-law decisions.”On Nov. 15, about two dozen officers showed up at the Aspen Village fire barn, for both classroom lectures and to practice various skills using floor mats. The officers practiced arresting each other, putting on cuffs and stopping an uncooperative suspect with a pressure-point maneuver. For a moment, each officer looked like they were just arrested, face on the mat, then the cuffs were removed.
Departments in the valley are working better together due to RFR. Started in the late 1980s by a Sheriff’s deputy named Lance Weber, who worked for Sheriff Dick Kienast and later for Braudis, RFR fosters an unusually good partnership between the four departments.
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“There was no teamwork with other departments [before RFR] in terms of tactics and use of force, or I should say, very little,” said John Sobieralski, a Pitkin County deputy of 18 years who helped start RFR and now works for the city of Aspen. It’s common for the departments to have just two or three officers on duty, so a car accident or tense situation can easily call out everyone. Officers of each department said they respond to calls in other jurisdictions on a nearly daily basis. Nowadays they know each other because they’ve trained together, gone to the firing range together and been freezing side by side during shooting practice on winter nights.”We spend more time training,” said Seamans, comparing his time in the Los Angeles Police Department with his current Aspen Police post. “LAPD in-service training for this sort of thing is far less.”Until recently, the Carbondale Police Department was also part of RFR, but dropped out of the program. Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling said the decision wasn’t based on the quality of the training but because the department works more often with Garfield County and Glenwood Springs than the upvalley agencies. Since the late ’80s, the upvalley agencies have used a training area near the Pitkin County Landfill that includes shacks for loading weapons and lectures, a tower for rifle practice, a 100-yard rifle range, a live-fire house with berms on four sides, and a handgun range.”It’s kind of funky but everything you need has been built into that range,” Sobieralski said. “The officers here now have a lot of high-level training and a good understanding of use of force.”
It’s late on the night of Nov. 15 and two dozen officers from all four departments are at the range near the landfill. Three police cars are lined up, lights flashing, behind eight officers. Twenty years ago, officers of the various departments shot once a year to maintain handgun certification. Now, firearm training takes place four times a year, often under adverse conditions – nighttime, with snow falling or lights flashing.
“Even though most officers will work their whole career without using their weapons, when they do, I want them to be well-trained,” says Sheriff Bob Braudis. “When that split-second decision-making ultimatum arrives in your brain, you will almost have muscle memory of what to do.”With only rotating blue and red lights to illuminate the paper targets, the officers practice drawing their weapons, shooting, reloading and shooting again. “Back to 10 yards,” says Snowmass Policeman Todd Haller, director of the firearms program. “We’re going to fire two shots, then drop to one knee, reload and fire two more shots in six seconds.” Standing at ready are various officers with different weapons. Basalt and Pitkin County officers buy their own, so some have six-shooters, some have a .40-caliber or .45-caliber weapon. Aspen and Snowmass Village cops are issued 9 mm handguns. The range is “hot,” with loaded weapons at all times, as opposed to a cold-gun range where weapons are unloaded to leave and enter. It works that way because officers should be used to having a loaded weapon, or so the thinking goes. Safety precautions on the range should be similar to safety on an everyday basis.
At the sound of the whistle, officers yell, “stop, police,” and the muzzles flash with the distinctive pop of pistols as metallic smoke drifts off. Earlier in the evening, everyone stood around in one of the shacks and loaded practice clips with ammo. Many officers grabbed handfuls of bullets for what would be about 200 rounds fired that night.”You don’t have a lot of time to pause when you’re staring down the barrel of an adversary’s gun or you are in a situation that requires use of force,” Braudis explains. “That’s why we spend many hours and many dollars on training. Education is the most valuable tool we have for peace officers. Some people might prefer dumb cops; I prefer smart cops.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org