NBC5 Special Report: Use of lethal force by police

Medford, Ore. — Only on NBC5, a vast majority of police officers will go their entire career without firing their weapon. But now more than ever, officer-involved shootings are in the spotlight, and at the forefront of political conversations across the country.

In a two part special report, we’re going inside the Medford Police Department, to learn more about when and why officer’s use deadly force, and how their actions are evaluated following a lethal force situation.

“Being involved in a lethal force situation is not something that we choose to do, it’s something that we’re forced in to doing,” Lieutenant Kerry Curtis of the Medford Police Department says.

Since 1990, the Medford Police Department has had 17 officer-involved shootings, Lt. Kerry Curtis says it’s a situation no officer ever wants to be in, but it’s a risk they face.

“Law enforcement officers across the country don’t come to work with the mindset they’re going to kill somebody,” Lt. Curtis says, “if you’re having to utilize lethal force that means somebody is trying to kill you.”

There are means of non-lethal force that Medford police utilize over 120 times a year, but all tools, including non-lethal ones, aren’t 100%.

“Our tasers have been very beneficial to use and have probably saved people’s lives,” Lt. Curtis says, “but our statistics with tasers last year, were about 60% effective.”

That means the choice officers make when faced with a deadly threat, is a choice that could either save or cost them their life, and potentially others.

It’s a decision that is made in mere seconds, and under extreme circumstances.

“It goes from a contact, to now you’re presented with a lethal force situation,” Curtis says, “when you’re faced with a lethal force situation our bodies do weird things, auditory exclusion where we lose hearing, tunnel vision where our eyes lose peripheral vision, heart rate, breathing, all of those things increase and adrenaline dump,” Lt. Curtis adds.

Officers are evaluating if the person they are facing has the intent, the means, and the opportunity to cause them harm, and they make the best decision based on the tools and training they have. Including their MILO simulator, a tool that aims to help officers think and act as quickly as possible.

“The whole gamut of scenarios that we might face in reality are reflected in the computer system.”

“Our goal is to stop the threat, it’s not to kill somebody, it’s to stop the threat.”

According to Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert, the same laws apply for police and civilians when it comes to self defense.

“Once the investigation has been completed we present the cases to a grand jury in our county,” Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert says, “so you have 7 people from your community who are hearing all of this information and then making their determination from the information they’ve heard.”

5 of the 7 grand jurors have to agree, but most often Heckert says their decisions are unanimous. In every case of lethal force by MPD since 1990, the officer was cleared. And although the same laws apply, officers are actually held to a higher standard than civilians when it comes to lethal force.

“Typically if a civilian was involved in some kind of a deadly force incident that wasn’t going to result in charges we would not present it to a grand jury,” Heckert says.

Still, there is skepticism, from those who feel deaths could be avoided. But experts who testify in many of these cases say,  officers are trained to fire until the threat stops.

“So this idea that you’re going to shoot a gun or a knife out of someone’s hand that you might get from television or something is just completely inaccurate and not possible for anyone to do in the field,” Heckert says.

Friday on NBC5 news at 6, we’re putting that theory to the test, by putting you, the community, in the shoes of a police officer. A group of Rogue Valley residents with ranging opinions on law enforcement will go through a training simulator where they will decide whether to shoot or not shoot. Will their opinions change? Find out Friday on NBC5 news at 6.


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