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A spirit that is not afraid

Protection and collateral damage: use of force and community-police relationships

For Shannon Arthur, interacting with the police means exercising respect and caution. That’s how she, the daughter and niece of New York law enforcement officials, was raised. But interacting with officers is not without fear.

“My uncle and my dad have always told me that by the end of the day, you are black despite the fact that you are a daughter of law enforcement,” Arthur, senior in political science, said. “You’re still black, and that means nothing.”

Ever since the high-profile shootings of young black men in several U.S. cities last summer, she’s been more cautious. But she’s particularly concerned with the well-being of her siblings, specifically her 16- and 18-year-old brothers and her 22-year-old sister.

“My biggest fear is that my brother or my sister fits a description of something and they don’t make it home, and it’s because of a police officer,” she said.

The fear comes to mind because of a police encounter Arthur had when she first transferred to Auburn in 2013. An officer pulled her over, saying she “fit the description” of someone officials were looking for.

“I don’t know whose description I fit because I’m just a black girl leaving Walmart with my groceries going back to the Connection where I used to live,” she said. “So that automatically makes you be on caution.”

She told the officer she didn’t fit the description of anyone and requested to know what “fit the description” actually meant before asking for his badge number. During the encounter, Arthur remembers the officer was aggressive.

If the same scenario resurfaced today, however, she said wouldn’t confront the officer because she’s even more cautious, but she noted that it’s important to know your rights during an officer encounter. She and her family know to always be prepared to record the interaction, something she feels is unfortunately “policing the police.”

Though Arthur believes instances like that shouldn’t happen, she understands officers are trying to stay alive in an unpredictable field.

“If I’m giving you a reason to be aggressive — like I’m yelling at you, I’m cursing you out — yeah, I can totally see you being aggressive back,” she said. “But if I’m just like, ‘Why are you pulling me over?’ It’s my right to know why you’re pulling me over.”

Since then she hasn’t had any similar confrontations with local police, though she knows others who have felt unjustly pulled over or unnecessarily treated aggressively.

At the end of the day, for her, it’s about self-preservation.

“Honestly, our goal is to make it home,” Arthur said.

The community and the police should work together to help one another, she said, with police transparency also playing a major role in establishing trust.

“I don’t want to live in fear,” Arthur said. “I don’t. Especially from someone who’s supposed to protect me.”

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Response to resistance

Last year, several officer-involved shootings in the U.S. sparked outrage from citizens within those cities and others around the nation. In response, many communities, including Auburn, made efforts to pinpoint the reasons for and potential solutions to tensions in their own backyard.

Lee County, in which Auburn resides, has had some of its own officer-involved shootings, one of which has recently sparked its own concerns about the way Auburn officers use force. However, police also explain how they train for different scenarios and how they’re often forced to make decisions in a matter of seconds.

Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones believes the key to professional law enforcement is training and education.

“There’s no way we can train for everything, but we certainly can train to develop techniques that would best apply, in a general sense, to situations that are presented to us that would give us a baseline to work from — in regard to reacting to our circumstance — that would hopefully result in a resolution without harm to anyone,” Jones said. “That’s our No. 1 concern.”

Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones and Auburn Police Division Assistant Chief William Mathews recount situations in which they had to make quick decisions.

The primary goal of the office, Jones said, is to resolve issues verbally rather than physically.

“Our absolute last resort — and that’s what we train — is using force,” he said.

Before a deputy sheriff can respond to calls and be on patrol at the sheriff’s office, they must complete a two- to three-month field-training officer program, in which they are assigned to a veteran deputy sheriff to learn the county and procedures of the office.

Alabama officers must also complete a 13-week, 520-hour minimum-standards academy training before being certified as a sworn officer.

To maintain their certification, municipal officers in Alabama must then complete at least 12 hours of training each year.

Beyond the basic standards are more specific types of training, such as mental health training, handgun trainings and firearms simulators.

“[Mental health is] something we work very hard to ensure that our people have as much knowledge about those type of situations as possible so that they know that just because it appears somebody is being noncompliant or someone’s not cooperating, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re intentionally engaging in that action,” Jones said. “It may be the case that they are suffering from a diagnosed condition that … would lend itself that the person is simply not able to communicate for some reason or another.”

William Mathews, Auburn Police Division assistant chief, said in Septmeber that APD officers recently completed a mental health training that described different scenarios officers may face, how to assess the situation and provided information from mental health professionals on how to deal with those instances.

Mental health has been a resurfacing topic for the APD after police shot and killed Melissa Boarts, who had mental health issues, in April.

Though a Macon County grand jury ruled the shooting justified, the Boarts family has filed a lawsuit against the city for wrongful death and assault and battery.

The Boarts family has repeatedly expressed concern about the way the APD may respond to University students who have mental health issues.

The city will not comment on specifics of the cases because of the lawsuit.

Court documents revealed that the officer who shot Boarts was equipped with a folding lock-blade knife aside from his handgun. Other officers at the scene also had different tools, such as pepper spray, batons and lock-blade knives.

Deciding what tool on the belt to use, Mathews said, is called “response to resistance.”

“When officers go through their training,” Mathews said. “They're taught that you can use the level of force that is necessary to stop the threat, and so the response to resistance is a continuum of force that can be as low as the officer presence and identifying yourself as a law enforcement authority all the way up to deadly force.”

However, he noted that the division doesn’t teach its officers to associate a particular scenario with a certain amount of force for fear of boxing the officer into a formulaic mindset in an unpredictable job.

“What we try to teach them is you use the least amount of force necessary to control the situation, control the threat,” Mathews said.

At the sheriff’s office, Jones said, deputies are taught to make verbal communication their first effort in a confrontation and make their gun the last resort. Some have also completed communications courses, which teach them how to assess body language and analyze someone’s word choice.

“They work with that to try to verbally mitigate, or deescalate, the situation to the point where compliance comes without any physical action,” Jones said, adding that noncompliance played a role in many of the high-profile officer-involved shootings in the U.S. last year.

The officers must look at each case individually because there is no formula for responding, Jones said. But today, he believes people are much quicker to rely on guns in tense situations.

“Now I’m not saying they shouldn’t protect themselves … but I think it seems like it’s just an overall sense of urgency to respond with the maximum amount of force to any threat that’s presented and not really assessing a situation before they make that decision,” he said.

One way the two agencies try to prepare officers to respond to unpredictable situations is through a firearms simulator.

Lee County sheriffs demonstrate and explain the office's firearms simulators.

“It puts them in an environment where we can kind of control it but also gives the officer that experience to feel that surge of stress and try to work through it and still maintain that control and hopefully making good decision-making processes all the way through it,” Mathews said.

The result of those decisions is something APD officers think about often. Mathews said they are sometimes concerned with their level of force being criticized in hindsight.

“We really don’t have the luxury of time when we’re deciding whether or not to use force in most cases,” Mathews said.

People now are also more apprehensive about becoming officers because of the recent criticism of the job, Mathews said.

Reflecting on the unrest in some areas of the county because of the high-profile shootings, Jones said the sheriff’s office strives to have open dialogue with all members of the community, which he believes is the key to preventing similar issues from arising in the county. To him, many of those problems stemmed from a lack of effective communication.

Community and communication

Jade Kinney, Auburn graduate student, organized “Together We Can,” an event Nov. 17 to bring local law enforcement and community members together in response to the national shootings over the summer.

Leaders and officers from the Opelika Police Department, Auburn Police Division and Lee County Sheriff’s Office attended the event along with community members, students and faculty.

“We don’t really understand each other, so sometimes things can happen within our community … that may happen out of incomprehension or miscommunication,” Kinney said. “I felt like this was a time to get a better understanding of one another.”

That gap in understanding is due, in part, to the minority community’s and police’s preconceived perceptions of one another, she said. As an African-American woman, Kinney said it’s important to her that the voices of the community are heard.

“I think sometimes (the perceptions) can be skewed, and I feel like this is a time where we can kind of reject those biases, so to speak,” she added.

Jones, who attended the event, said the sheriff’s office’s public service duty extends beyond enforcing the law and providing public safety.

“It’s living in this community. It’s interacting with people and understanding our differences and embracing them,” Jones said.

At a table with a couple of Lee County sheriffs and other attendees sat joyce gillie gossom, a consultant who completed the University’s diversity climate assessment last spring.

“(The event is) one more piece to breaking down seeing each other only as ‘other’ and only as categories and only in their boxes,” gossom said. “Any time, to me, you start referring to someone else as a category, you’ve dehumanized them and you’ve taken their humanity out of the equation, and now they’re no longer like you.”

What distinguishes people from one another, to her, are invisible differences such as how someone was raised — something people will never understand about one another if they continue to place each another into categories.

The Climate Study for Inclusion, Equity and Diversity, gossom said, determined that people believe Auburn University is a family in which not everyone feels included.

“And everyone agrees that not everyone is included as part of that family,” she added. “And everyone wants to do something about it, and no one really knows what or how to go about doing it.”

The assessment presented 17 initial recommendations to begin to improve campus diversity and inclusion over time.

Overcoming difficult times and situations come with unity and collaboration, said APD Chief Paul Register, who spoke at event.

“I think that what we’d like more than anything is for our community to know who we are and to be here for you while you’re here at Auburn University or living in the city or visiting,” he said.

Register also encouraged attendees to talk with members of the police department if they ever feel they had a bad experience with an officer.

“We feel like you’re our children and our family,” he said, addressing University students. “So we want to be here for you always." 

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