Police Shooting Raises Questions about Use of Force Training

WHYY

By Laurie Mason Shroeder and Peter Hall

The woman in the park with the gun wouldn’t stop talking.

Hopping nervously from foot to foot, she ignored the police officer’s barked orders to drop the pistol and insisted, “No, it’s fine, it’s cool, it’s no big deal.”

Holding his gun steady, the officer shouted commands over the woman’s voice while keeping a close watch on her hands. The second she began to raise the one with the gun, he fired three shots into her midsection. She fell, lifeless, behind a shrub.

As her body lay frozen on the projector screen behind him, Richard Vona, a former Warwick, Bucks County, police sergeant who trains officers in the use of deadly force calmly discussed his decision to shoot the woman — an actress in an interactive training video.

The woman’s refusal to comply with his simple commands, combined with her body language, told Vona she was a danger to him and others. Once she began to raise the weapon, he felt he had to act quickly.

“There’s got to be a point in time where you make the decision to take the next step, otherwise you lose all ability to control the situation,” said Vona, director of Bucks County’s Public Safety Training Center.

The validity of the use of deadly force by a police officer was raised again last week after an incident near Dorney Park in South Whitehall Township. After asking for backup in dealing with a man with a “mental issue” who was jumping on moving cars on Hamilton Boulevard, a South Whitehall officer fired five shots at Joseph Santos, who ignored commands to “get on the ground.” Santos, 44, of Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., died on the spot.

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