HARRISVILLE — Harrisville police officers are trained in handling a range of situations, in the proper sort of response depending on the specific circumstances.
Sometimes the mere presence of an officer will help deescalate things, prod those involved in a tense situation to calm down, said Max Jackson, chief of the Harrisville Police Department. Sometimes officers must take a more aggressive approach, as, seemingly, occurred in the early morning hours of March 23, when three officers responding to a call at a Harrisville apartment complex fired on the knife-wielding suspect they encountered, critically injuring him.
Reps from two Black Lives Matter groups in Utah have decried the force used against the man, Jamal Bell, calling it excessive. Lex Scott, head of Black Lives Matter Utah, said the incident underscores the importance of providing police officers with a more deescalation training, specialized training in how to handle and calm particularly explosive situations.
“When you run in with guns drawn and screaming, it does make the situation worse,” Scott said.
A detailed accounting of what exactly transpired on March 23 — a domestic disturbance, according to authorities — has yet to be publicly released. But Scott, who’s met with Bell and discussed the incident with him, said the man was shot by the responding officers 11 times. She maintains that there was little to no effort to peacefully defuse the situation, heading off the violence.
“They weren’t trying to preserve life. They were trying to end a life and they weren’t successful,” she said.
Responding to such a situation isn’t necessarily about the use of brute force. “It’s about communication. It’s about deescalating a situation. It’s about making sure you’re not threatening,” Scott said.
Jackson, while not delving into particulars of the incident, which remains under investigation, said police have a “continuum” of response alternatives at their disposal, depending on the tenor of the particular situation they face. If an officer’s presence doesn’t calm a tense situation, verbal commands come next, followed by physically taking someone into custody, presuming the person isn’t armed with a dangerous weapon.
Next comes use of incapacitating tools and substances like pepper spray while deadly force remains the last resort. Whatever the option, Jackson said a suspect has a central role in whether things escalate or calm down.
“Once the subject stops their action, we deescalate with them,” he said. If, for instance, an armed suspect complies with an order to put down a weapon, “the officer will deescalate to the appropriate level.”
Scott, meanwhile, takes issue with the notion that how an encounter with police unfolds is all, or mostly, on a suspect. Police, in her view, have a big role in defusing a situation, maybe a bigger role.
“That entire narrative has to change in this country. Police are there to protect and serve, (it’s) not comply or die,” she said. “We are untrained civilians who are expected to have more discipline than trained officers who are paid to protect us. It’s hypocrisy.”
Officers from the Harrisville, North Ogden and Pleasant View police departments responded to a report of a domestic disturbance at Bell’s home at an apartment complex at 2510 N. Charleston Ave. in Harrisville at around 5:30 a.m. on March 23. Bell had a knife of some sort in each hand and advanced on officers despite repeated commands to stop, according to a Harrisville PD press release. An attempt to use a Taser on him failed, the release continued, “and the subject was shot multiple times.”
Officials haven’t release additional details as the Weber County Attorney’s Office investigates to determine if the officers’ actions were justified and if Bell should face charges.
“We are moving fairly quickly. I think we’re going to be done with the investigation fairly soon,” said Chris Allred, the county attorney.
But Scott said there’s more to it than the official description put forward.
It all started when Bell arrived home around 3 a.m. that morning, upsetting his girlfriend by the late arrival. Arguing ensued, with door slamming, and then police were called to the scene, said Scott, citing the account Bell’s girlfriend gave. A neighbor apparently called police, according to what Scott said was a recording of the exchange between responding officers and dispatchers posted on YouTube.
When he was shot, Scott said, Bell was just inside an entryway to the apartment while the three officers who fired, one from each of the responding departments, were just outside it. Bell’s girlfriend “said it happened very quickly, very quickly,” Scott said, and Bell remains hospitalized.
Bell has never harmed his girlfriend, she told Scott, and police had never before been called to the home, though the Harrisville press release cited “a history of domestic abuse” at the address. Whatever the case, Scott thinks officers could have done more than fire their guns to address the situation. The three officers, she thinks, should have been enough to subdue Bell. If one attempted use of a Taser failed, she thinks, maybe the other officers present could have used their Tasers.
To her point that police departments need more training in deescalating tense situation, she noted the resources of the Salt Lake City Police Department. Officers there have access to rubber bullets, meant to stop but not kill a culprit, and the department is served by a special weapons and tactics team versed in negotiation with suspects.
Sgt. Jeremy Hindes, of the North Ogden Police Department, said officers in that department have access to a range of training programs meant to instruct officers in how to deal with people in varied emotional states. Training to deal with crisis situations, he said, is fairly standard.
Scott has pressed for release of footage from the body cameras worn by the three officers who fired their weapons and the Standard-Examiner has also requested the video. While the investigation continues, though, officials have not yet made it public.