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Role Play Helps Determine Use of Force

Recruits role play responding to a call where a man has been injured.
Alison St John
Recruits role play responding to a call where a man has been injured.

The Academy that trains all San Diego’s police officers and sheriff's deputies has added more role playing to the schedule. Role play sessions let trainees explore levels of force that might be appropriate in real life situations. This is important, especially since many recruits come from a military background.

On a recent morning at the Academy, two recruits in crisp blue uniforms approach a closed door, guns drawn. They’re responding in role play to a report of suspicious activity at a business. Getting no response to their knock, they move into a darkened warehouse, back to back, guns at the ready, and call into the emptiness.

“Police department, is there anybody in here? If there is, speak up right now.”


The trainees move, crouching cautiously, through dark rooms, finding nothing. But after they declare the all-clear, a suspect steps out from a hiding place and the recruits are embarrassed to admit they failed their assignment. Next time, when it’s real life, they won’t give up so easily.

While the class reviews what happened, another call comes in, “8014, are you available? Stand by 8055.”

The radio squawks, “RP reports she could hear loud screaming and victim saying, 'stop hitting me' and now silence.”

Two more recruits set off to tackle the assignment, this time at a private home. They knock loudly and announce their presence. Someone from inside tells them to come in.

This time the recruits go in without guns drawn, and in the debrief afterwards a trainer says that was a mistake,


“Don’t every forget this please,” he says, “if you’re going into an unknown area and you are searching for someone or, based on these circumstances, there was screaming, then it was silent - there’s a bit of an unknown, and you are entering someone’s residence - always have your gun out because you don’t know what to expect what’s behind that door, right?”

The Academy’s Chief Trainer, Sergeant Mark Saunders, says they've added 12 hours of role play to give recruits a taste of the pressure they’ll be under when making decisions about how to react in real life situations.

“It’s invaluable,” he says. “We added it to the last academy, and it’s really made a huge difference to their performance out in the field right now. We’ve had a lot less problems just being able to assess the situation, make the right decisions.”

It’s not always obvious what level of force is warranted when you have to decide in split seconds, and training is the key to making the right decision.

In one well publicized situation last month, a sheriff’s deputy used pepper spray on the guests at a political fundraiser when responding to a noise complaint. The incident resulted in an investigation. That deputy was a former Marine, as are a good number of civilian law enforcement officers.

Bruce, who asked us not to use his last name for security reasons given his line of work, served in the Navy for eight years and sees a lot in common between serving in the military and in civilian law enforcement. “I was happy to be hired,” he says, “You know, my recruit class here, I think more than half of us are prior military.”

Bruce sees his military training and his time deployed as an ordinance disposal expert in Afghanistan as valuable background for serving in the police department.

But he says people who have had experience in the military also have to make important shifts in attitude when responding to civilian situations.

“It’s a definite mind set you have to switch off,” he says, “In the military, let’s say you are entering a building, you are going in that building to take care of a target, generally. Law enforcement is usually the opposite, you are going in there to prevent a tragedy or preserve life.”

Sheriff’s recruiters don’t give statistics on how many of their deputies are former military, but Sergeant Saunders says the discipline and structure suits people with a military background. “People that have prior military experience pretty much do well here,” he says.

A group of police and sheriff recruits jog past in formation. Saunders says the training is a lot like boot camp, because most recruits need to be toughened up to face the streets.

“That’s why we throw a lot of different scenarios at them,” he says, “so they can see it, and it’s a lot easier if someone’s a little more aggressive and then to train them to scale it down, than to have someone who is real meek and try and push them to be more aggressive when the time calls for it. So we like the person, we prefer the military type, very aggressive, so we can scale them down.”

The radio in the classroom squawks again, “On Black Mountain Road. RP reports chronic arguments between two brothers at this address.”

One of the best places to spot someone who needs to be scaled down may be watching how they react to a simulated radio call like this one, in the controlled environment of the Academy classroom.

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