How use of force is taught in Pennsylvania’s police training academies

“Good communication at the beginning of an encounter can lead to reduced use of force.”

Police use smoke to disperse demonstrators along Baum Blvd. following the "Emergency Meeting: Let's United To Stop President Trump."

Police use smoke to disperse demonstrators along Baum Blvd. following the "Emergency Meeting: Let's United To Stop President Trump."

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

Police officers have fatally shot 19 people in Pennsylvania this year, according to a Washington Post database.

That list includes Antwon Rose II, the unarmed 17-year-old who was shot three times in the back by an East Pittsburgh officer in June.

Rose’s death sparked a public outcry against Officer Michael Rosfeld, who has been charged with criminal homicide, and raised questions about oversight and training of law enforcement at hundreds of small, municipal police departments statewide. The latter was specifically on the mind of one Incline reader, who answered our call for questions on policing with the query:

“How is the use of lethal force taught in police academies and training seminars? Should training change so officers use lethal force less?”

First, some background. The vast majority of Pennsylvanians are served by local or regional police departments: 74 percent of the population, or 858 municipalities. More than 1,200 municipalities, accounting for 20 percent of Pennsylvania’s population, depend solely on the Pennsylvania State Police, and another 415 do so on a part-time basis.

Before any municipal police officer in Pennsylvania can enforce the criminal code or carry a weapon, they are required to attend one of the state’s certified training academies. The basic curriculum is set by the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission (MPOETC), which was created in 1974 and is administered by State Police. Training takes place over more than 900 hours inside and outside the classroom. That includes 119 hours devoted to “Laws and Criminal Procedures,” eight of which are focused on “Use of Force in Law Enforcement.” During that time, cadets are taught about the legal requirements needed to use deadly force.

Under Pennsylvania law, an officer may do so if “he believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to himself or such other person,” or to prevent a suspect who committed a forcible felony, is armed, or who “otherwise indicates that he will endanger human life or inflict serious bodily injury” from escaping arrest. Cadets also study case law including the landmark Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner, which found officers can’t use deadly force on unarmed fleeing suspects.

More than 100 hours of the training are devoted to firearms. New in 2018 is a requirement that cadets “pass a series of scenario-based reality trainings” with role-players, said Lieutenant Matthew E. Lackner, director of the Pittsburgh Police Training Academy.

Lackner said Pittsburgh, whose training academy is open only to department recruits, successfully pushed to include role-playing scenarios in MPOTEC’s curriculum.

“It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and listen to an instructor” about when to theoretically use different levels of force, Lackner said. “It’s a completely different ballgame when you encounter someone playing a role.”

Role-players are given a set of instructions, but can also change the scenario based on the cadets’ behaviors, Lackner said.

“If the police recruit is not using good verbal skills, a role-player may react and use more resistance,” he explained. “Then we watch how the recruit reacts and make corrections along the way.”

Pittsburgh’s academy will soon have a video-based firearms simulator that features 500 different scenarios and requires just one instructor. Not only is this an efficient way to train officers, Lackner said, but it’s a cheaper way to teach marksmanship before going to an actual range.

Cadets go into role-playing scenarios after “they’ve already received training in all their different options,” Lackner said. That includes learning about use-of-force continuums, which guide how officers should respond to an individual’s level of resistance.

The ‘right’ amount of force

Most law enforcement agencies employ a use-of-force continuum that begins with an officer’s arrival and escalates to deadly force.

There are five levels on Pittsburgh’s “continuum of control,” which “illustrates the variety of ‘control’ options that may be available to an officer when presented with a given level of subject resistance.” According to a department order, an officer is generally allowed to use “a control option one level higher than the resistance demonstrated by a subject.”

The deadly force “level includes force which under the circumstances/manner in which it is used, is readily capable of causing death or serious bodily injury such as a firearm.”

Lackner said the scenario training covers all levels of force and should reveal if “officers are capable and willing to use deadly force to protect themselves or someone else.”

“There is a misconception because of media and entertainment that we shoot guns out of people’s hands,” he added. “That is inaccurate.”

Fatal shootings by police in Allegheny County are uncommon. In February, a Pittsburgh police officer fatally shot 39-year-old Mark Daniels during a routine patrol, which the Allegheny County district attorney ruled justified. Daniels’ family rejected officials’ assertion that he shot at officers first and filed a lawsuit against the city this summer. The city and police department are also being sued by Brenda Richmond, whose husband Christopher M. Thompkins was fatally shot by Pittsburgh police as he fired at a home intruder last year.

Use of force in general trended down between 2010 and 2015, according to a report spearheaded by former Chief Cameron McLay, but black men and women were disproportionately affected.

Over the past several years, Pittsburgh’s department has made efforts to ensure “lethal force is only used when it’s necessary,” said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the city’s independent Citizen Police Review Board. “When it’s the last resort.”

Lackner said Pittsburgh uses two primary tools in regards to less lethal force: Tasers and bean bag rounds. He added that officers are “continuously improving our communication skills.”

“Good communication at the beginning of an encounter can lead to reduced use of force,” he said.

It’s unclear how many smaller departments in Allegheny County have official policies regarding use of force. The East Pittsburgh Police Department did not when Rosfeld fatally shot Rose, according to District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

“In response to questions by major crime investigators when they first came on the scene in East Pittsburgh, they said, ‘How do you handle these situations? What are your policies?’ And they said, ‘We don’t have policies.’ That’s a very dangerous situation,” Zappala told reporters in June.

A ‘tactical and sympathetic’ approach

Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s police academy, located about an hour east of Pittsburgh, already has a simulation room where cadets must decide whether or not to use lethal force, Director Dennis Marsili said.

Like Pittsburgh’s academy, IUP’s — which accepts applicants from across the state — puts an emphasis on non-lethal options and avoiding higher levels of force altogether. That includes MPOETC’s procedural justice training, which involves “understanding how to approach individuals in a more tactical and sympathetic way,” Marsili said. He added that when an officer uses a “neutral tone of voice,” they “get more compliance.”

The procedural justice training used statewide is based on ones developed in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Lackner said there are a handful of components to that the training, including an implicit bias program. Cadets also explore how the department’s tactics increase or decrease the community’s view that an officer’s authority and actions are legitimate.

In addition to mandatory courses, IUP offers training on a de-escalation technique called “verbal judo,” which emphasizes professionalism and conversation in order to elicit voluntary compliance.

“It’s critical for our cadets these days to verbalize instead of jump into a physical situation,” said Marsilli, who was a New Kensington officer for more than 20 years. “I used it quite extensively. I can’t measure how many times it avoided a use of force situation.”

Beyond the minimum

Following Rose’s death, Zappala expressed concern about the level of training some municipal officers receive.

“Most of the guys that are in these small towns, they train to minimum standards,” he said in June.

Taser certification is not mandatory for cadets at IUP, Marsili said, but is offered as it gives future officers a non-lethal tactic and makes them more marketable to departments.

After their initial certification, municipal police officers are required by state law to take 12 hours of continuing education courses each year, including a mandatory legal update. Taser training is offered as an optional course, but some departments like Pittsburgh’s take the extra step to make it mandatory each year. Per the bureau’s “Use of Force” policy, officers must be re-certified in Taser use yearly and in other non-lethal practices like pepper spray deployment every other year.

“We don’t believe in the minimums,” Lackner said. “We believe in the best program possible.”

Pittinger noted that there’s “nothing that precludes a municipal police department from exceeding the standards” set by MPOETC. She put the onus on elected officials in these areas to hold their departments to a higher standard.

“If you want to be treated as professionals,” she said of law enforcement, “then conduct yourselves that way.”