San Francisco police demonstrate training methods as department develops new use of force policy

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) — San Francisco police Tuesday demonstrated some of the training methods being used to teach officers how to de-escalate conflicts and respond to armed suspects as the department works through a major revision in its use of force policies.

Police officers are required to go through state-mandated professional training every 18 to 24 months as well as firearm training every six months. That training typically involves sessions with a computerized simulator that presents various scenarios involving armed or threatening suspects.

In the past, those sessions tended to emphasize the use of firearms. But in an effort to encourage officers to seek time and distance in encounters with suspects and make use of non-lethal options and resources, the department has changed the program, officials said Tuesday.

Officers now train on the Force Options Training Simulator in pairs and groups, as well as individually. The changes make scenarios more realistic and encourage trainees to work with other officers and call in additional resources such as backup, crisis intervention trained officers or less-lethal options like beanbag weapons, according to Officer Phil Helmer.

“It helps to ultimately de-escalate situations and hopefully bring things to a resolution peacefully,” Helmer said.

“It’s a team sport,” Helmer added. “Imagine if you’re playing football, but you only practice as an individual player, it wouldn’t make any sense.”

Officers training on the simulator are confronted with scenarios ranging from a school shooting with multiple victims and a hostage to a suicidal woman who appears to have attacked her boss in a bar with a knife.

Trainees can interact and negotiate verbally with the suspects, call for backup, take cover and even take down and handcuff a dummy suspect, while trainers can alter the scenarios in response to their actions. The sessions are fast paced and jarring, leaving little time for deliberation.

Perhaps most important, however, is the debriefing afterward, when officers are asked to talk through what they saw and did and why. Officers are asked to justify their decisions and the level of force they used in the incident based on the level of potential threat and resistance they faced.

Ultimately, to justify the use of deadly force, “they have to fear that their life or someone else’s life is in danger,” Helmer said.

The Police Commission approved a new use of force policy last week, the department’s first such revision since the mid-1990s, that uses language encouraging de-escalation and the use of the minimal amount of
necessary force, among other changes.

However, the policy still needs to go through a “meet and confer” negotiation process with the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

The police union has said it objects to changes that would prohibit the use of the carotid artery restraint, which cuts off blood flow to the brain, and firing at suspects in moving vehicles in most cases.

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