Monday night, after weeks of deliberation, a grand jury in Missouri announced it would not indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on any charges connected to the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. For some, the decision marks just another instance of black people – young black men, in particular – being mistreated by the criminal justice system. For others, the lack of indictment is vindication for a police officer who appeared to be in fear of his life. Still others recognize plenty of questions remain unanswered (most importantly, why did Wilson feel the need to fire 12 shots) but accept that the grand jury did not think it had enough to indict.
East Greenwich, Rhode Island, is not Ferguson, Missouri. In particular, our police force looks a lot like our population – largely white. But what happened in Ferguson on Aug. 9 does raise the question: how do police in East Greenwich handle potentially dangerous situations?
“We have a ‘force continuum,'” said Deputy Chief Skip Cirella. It starts with what he called “command presence,” the announcement that police are present (either verbally or with the sirens and lights).
“We do that in hopes that alone will be enough,” he said. It often isn’t. So the second level would be using hands, pepper spray or a baton to deter a person. The EGPD recently added tasers to its list of weapons, but not every officer opted to be trained in taser use. The final level would be pulling out their gun, the service weapon.
EG police are authorized to use their gun when a suspect has a weapon or otherwise poses a threat to the public.
The fact is, the last time an EG police officer fired his weapon for anything other than to put down an injured or sick animal was 18 years ago, according to Police Chief Steve Brown.
“About 18 years ago, we had a suspect who was fleeing the scene and he swerved his car at the officers and one of the officers shot out his front tire,” Brown said.
In Ferguson, Wilson was alone at the time he came upon Brown and another man, who were walking down the middle of the street. According to Wilson’s grand jury testimony, he called for backup but then tried to get Brown into the car before backup arrived.
EG police officers also patrol alone but Cirella said officers are directed to call for backup if there’s any altercation or if there’s been a break in.
“Better safe than sorry. We encourage officers to call for backup if they feel the situation is unsafe,” he said. When it comes to using force, Cirella said, “we start out at the minimum and it always depends. Every situation is different.”