Special Report: For police, deadly force not an easy decision

Police investigating gunshots in Great Falls on Friday night

BILLINGS – In recent years, debate has emerged about whether law enforcement across the county and at home is too quick to shoot at suspects.

Since 2012, 37 officer-involved shootings have been reported in Montana, according to the Montana Department of Justice. Four happened in Billings last year. Officers in two of the shootings have been ruled justified in their use of deadly force, while two others remain under investigation.

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said dangerous drugs and defiance against authority often create situations where officers are forced to fire.

“You have to understand that law enforcement officers are interjected into some very, very serious and dangerous situations,” said St. John. “And in that split second, they’re making a decision whether to use deadly force.”

Add in alcohol, paranoia from drug use, and armed suspects, and St. John said the situations escalate.

“You have a culture of anti-law enforcement sentiment. Specifically, anti-authority. And people just won’t listen or do what police officers order them to do,” he said.

Billings Police Sgt. and fire arms instructor Justin Jagers said training is important for law enforcement because they must react so quickly.

“The fundamentals of what they’re doing with that firearm has got to be a reflex,” he said.

Officers are often forced to enter volatile situations with little information, and their ultimate goal is to stop the threat with the least amount of force, Jagers said.

He added that the job is all about decision-making, and that’s why officers are taught that distance means time.

“If I can get a second, that’s better than a half second. If I can get three seconds, I can make a better more informed decision about what’s going on. Now I have three seconds to realize, ‘That is not a gun. That’s a cell phone, and I’m not going to use deadly force,'” he said.

An officer-involved shooting fatality is no badge of honor, according to one Billings officer who has shot and killed an armed suspect. He asked to remain anonymous.

“All that training comes down in one second. I see his arm start to come up. I see my sights and his shirt, and then it just sounded like a roar… You don’t want it to end that way,” he said.

A shooting can cost officers their careers, St. John said. There’s both criminal and civil lawsuits, and St. John said his officers will face public scrutiny.

“It is absolutely a traumatic event for these officers. They are victims of violent crime. Somebody has threatened their well-being and their life and caused them to use deadly force to protect themselves,” said St. John.

Two questions always emerge after an officer-involved shooting, St. John said. First, why didn’t officers just wound the suspect? And second, why so many shots?

The chief and Jagers said officers are not trained to wound. That’s because many times when people are shot, they can still function. If the suspect has a gun, that means he or she can still harm or kill the officer or someone else.

And that answer ties in with the second question. St. John said officers must do what’s required to stop the threat, which often means firing multiple shots.

If there’s one thing St. John could stress to the public in volatile situations, it’s to do what an officer says.

“By all means, do what the officer says. If we are wrong, then file a complaint or file a lawsuit. But do not disobey a lawful order from a police officer. And then, do not compound that by making… actions that suggest that you have a weapon or that you may be taking some sort of aggressive action,” St. John said.

Reporting by Jeanelle Slade for MTN News