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UCCS criminal justice students prepare for life-and-death decisions

December 25, 2017 Updated: December 25, 2017 at 7:01 pm
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Photo courtesy University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

The increasing danger police officers face on the job in recent years has been enough to send even veterans into early retirement, but criminal justice students at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs say they won't be deterred.

About two-thirds of the class of 39 said in October that they plan on a law enforcement career, despite the stigma the profession carries today and the microscope they'll be under.

"Because it's still the right thing to do. The job still needs to be done," senior John Antich said.

His peers agreed as they slouched back in their chairs, some with brightly colored hair, and others wearing jerseys or baseball caps. It's a topic they've covered so often in their "police and society" class, a required course, that it has almost become boring.

"I get that question a lot bartending - 'Aren't you scared?'" junior Brittany Bille said. "It motivates me more because somebody has to do it and I want to be that person that goes in there and makes it better. I want to be part of that change."

They sounded brave and confident as they shared the reasons behind their willingness to risk their lives in the communities they hope to serve. But can they make some of the tough decisions that real officers make on a daily basis?

Their criminal justice instructor Rodney Walker, a retired Colorado Springs police deputy chief, put their judgment to the test. He played two YouTube videos showing deadly use of force by police in other states and then asked: "Was it justified?"

The first video, "Arizona cop runs over rifle-toting suspect," showed a man holding a rifle to his neck and ignoring officer commands as he walked down the street. At one point, the man fires a single shot into the air. Then a police cruiser plows into him.

"What did you see?" Walker asked the class.

"A cop going ballistic and running the guy over," one student joked.

But was it justified?

On first blush, nearly all said no. One hedged, "That's a tough one." Another called the move "reckless."

"He did pose a threat to the immediate area," another student countered.

"You guys are always hedging your bets," Walker said. "We can't hedge in policing, we have to be accountable for our actions."

The students started to break down what they recalled from the three-minute video: the man is walking toward what appears to be a busy road; he isn't listening to commands; there are bystanders who have the potential to become hostages or victims; officers are armed with handguns, while the man had a rifle.

They questioned whether a police dog could have subdued him, or if a stun gun could have been used.

More seconds ticked by.

"At some point you're going to have to intervene here because he's not compliant, and you're going to have to use force," Walker said. "At what point do you say he has to be stopped?"

Students recited the hierarchy of life again: 1. Hostage. 2 Citizen. 3. Officer. 4. Suspect.

Walker asked again, "Was this a good use of force?"

"I say good use of force," one student called out. "Good," another seconded, followed by approving nods.

"It isn't the conventional use of force, but it's still going to be a good use of force," Walker said. "We all know in our hearts here that we can't let that go on. If he took out a bystander, what's going to be the first question by the public? Why didn't you (police) do something?

"Does it look pretty?" he asked.

"No."

"Does any use of force look pretty? No, because you have to hurt someone."

Walker tried again, playing dash-cam footage of Tulsa police chasing an armed woman who fires numerous rounds at them before being run over by a cruiser. This time when Walker asks if the use of force was justified, students are quick to say yes.

"She was a direct threat to the officer," one student said. "There was a school in the background," another added.

"Would you have done the same thing?" Walker asked, alluding to the use of a police car as a weapon.

They chuckled: "Oh yeah."

"It's unfortunate it came down to that but remember, suspects dictate their actions, you're just responding to those actions," Walker said.

The students acknowledged the public isn't likely to view the use of force the same way.

For one, people without a law enforcement background always want to know "Did you explore all of the options?" junior Matthew Charbonneau said, but that's not a direct solution when lives are on the line.

"You can't just sit there and put off a decision. You have to tell yourself what's right and wrong," Charbonneau said.

"It's easy to scrutinize when you watch (the video) 10 times on YouTube," sophomore Jake Demerath agreed. "We have to make split decisions."

Ankica Maddux, a junior planning to join the Navy before pursuing a career as a homicide detective, said the public needs to be asking the right question when critiquing police actions. It's not just about the black and white, right and wrong, she said. Instead, ask, Was it necessary?

Sophomore Salvador Estrada compared it to his time playing goalie.

It never upset him when teammates, coaches or fans critiqued his actions, he said. He was the last defense against their opponent, and he wasn't immune to mistakes, he admitted. What was upsetting: "When they would think they know better when they're not even playing the same position."

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Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin

Facebook: Kaitlin Durbin

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