When Johnson City police officers responded to a domestic call at a local motel, they didn’t know what they’d find.
When they made contact with a man involved in the incident, they found a rifle pointed at them. After repeated orders for him to put the gun down — which he ignored, according to reports — one officer fired his service weapon.
That happened in December 2010, but Police Chief Mark Sirois said that incident will always be on the mind of the officer involved.
“People forget that law enforcement officers are human. We get into this profession to help people. Sometimes we have no other choice but to use force. On occasion, and it’s rare, we have to utilize the firearm. The officer (involved) has to deal with that the rest of his or her life. It’s traumatic,” Sirois said recently.
Between 2007 and 2011, Johnson City police officers fired their weapons during three different incidents. Twice someone was shot. One of those died at the scene.
A survey of 295 law enforcement agencies in the state indicate there were nearly that many officer-involved shootings over a five-year period, a report by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about the use of deadly force released earlier this month said.
But those numbers do not include two deadly force incidents that occurred in Johnson City during the time period studied. There was also a third incident in which officers fired at a fleeing vehicle that had attempted to hit an officer, but no one was shot.
The purpose of the study, which covered 2007 until 2011, was to take an in-depth look at officers who have used force or deadly force with a weapon while on duty, and the effect that incident had on the officers involved, the department and the community.
Sirois said he isn’t sure why the Johnson City Police Department didn’t participate in the study, but believes the survey request may have been misplaced during the transition between him becoming chief and the former chief’s retirement.
Sirois said there are several methods officers have that are defined as force. Those include hands-on, a baton, a chemical spray, a electrical shock device — commonly called a Taser — and a firearm. An officer’s decision to use on of those is based on the situation, Sirois said, but is never taken lightly.
“We have a very thorough and stringent use of force general order. We train on our use of force policy on a very regular basis,” he said. “It’s very common for us to train during roll call. We ask questions, we go through scenarios, we have firearms training twice a year for our officers.”
Sirois said the department also uses a Firearm Training Simulator — FATS — that allows officers to experience real-time scenarios using video and a simulated weapon where they must make split-second decisions on whether or not to use their weapons.
“That’s a shoot, don’t shoot system and analysis and evaluation system,” he said.
Sirois said use of force would be defined as anything beyond an officer’s presence and verbal commands to control a situation.
Officers determine which force tactic to use based on the situation they face, Sirois said.
Officers are trained to use “the amount of force that is objectively reasonable at the time to mitigate the situation,” he said.
The TBI study found there was a “common theme in the importance of firearms training, including judgmental training, to the law enforcement community as a whole,” the news release detailing the study said.
Using a firearm is “a heavy responsibility. ... We don’t take it lightly. Fortunately we don’t have to resort to that often,” Sirois said.
Statistics show the JCPD’s use of force incidents are low, Sirois said.
“Use of force to arrest — of all our arrests in 2010 — 1.4 percent involved the use of force,” Sirois said. In that year, the department made 4,207 arrests and 61 involved use of force. Twice in that year officers discharged a firearm. One of those resulted in police shooting a man who refused to put down a rifle he had pointed at them when they attempted to serve a warrant on him.
JCPD’s percentage of use of force has gone down since 2010, department statistics provided by Sirois said. In 2011, 1.1 percent of the 4,480 arrests involved use of force, and in 2012, 1 percent of the 4,489 arrests involved use of force.
Going back to the time frame of the TBI study, the JCPD had one fatal use of force incident. It occurred in the Roan Centre parking lot in 2007 when officers tried to serve a warrant on a man. He shot at officers and when officers returned fire, the man was hit and killed.
Sirois said officers had no other choice but to return fire to protect the public and themselves.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office also did not participate in the study, but officials there said there were no deadly use of force incidents between 2007 and 2011. The study indicates it was based on an assumption that if a department did not participate, there were no use of deadly force incidents to report.
Sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers did, however, use other forms of force during that time period, with the highest associated with using a chemical spray.
Sirois emphasized the decision to use a firearm is not taken lightly.
“It’s a heavy responsibility to wear a uniform ... we don’t take it lightly,” he said.