These days, there’s typically body-worn camera footage to give others an idea of what transpired in the moments before a police officer fired their weapon.
“It tells a story,” said Napa Police Cpl. Omar Salem. “But not the whole story.”
When you view a picture of the beach, he said, you don’t feel the heat of the sun or the sand on your feet.
That’s why Salem decided to dedicate a class in one of the department’s inaugural Hispanic Citizens Academy to the topic of police use-of-force, including an interactive portion where guests acted as a lone officer confronting a suspicious person — an officer dressed in all black — in three different scenarios. In one, the suspicious person was unarmed. In others, he had a knife or gun.
But before all that, a half-dozen guests gathered at the department Wednesday evening and listened to Salem speak about use-of-force laws over coffee and conchas.
He explained to the group that state law forbids people from resisting arrest, and officers may use “reasonable force” to prevent the arrestee’s escape or overcome their resistance.
Salem pointed to the landmark 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case, Graham v. Connor, in which the court held use-of-force incidents should be reviewed from the perspective of a “reasonable officer” on the scene of the incident. He spoke of California’s new use-of-force law, which states that police can use deadly force only when it’s “necessary in defense of human life.”
Officers next led volunteers one by one into the police department’s basement, where they put on protective glasses and clipped on a body-worn camera. They strapped in to a belt outfitted with holsters for a pistol loaded with non-lethal wax bullets and faux pepper spray cans filled with water.
The first volunteer was Gabriel Espinoza. He headed into a department hallway filled with storage lockers and was greeted by a suspicious man rifling through cabinets.
“I’m allowed to be here!” the man yelled, advancing toward Espinoza.
Espinoza stepped back, keeping distance between himself and the man. The scenario ended. He seemed violent, Espinoza said, but not toward him.
Espinoza said later that he was caught off guard when the suspect shot at him in his second scenario. They traded fire and the man fell to the ground.
In Espinoza’s third scenario, he walked into the hallway to find the man was suicidal and holding a knife to his neck.
“Do it for me,” the man said. “Kill me.”
Again, Espinoza tried to keep his distance and calm him down.
Espinoza, who served in the Mexican army, said he felt nervous and scared at times during the exercise when the suspicious person didn’t respond to his commands.
Next up came Jennifer Cardenas. In her first scenario, she hesitated to spray the suspicious person with pepper spray.
“If you take it out, make a decision,” Salem said as she prepared for her second scenario.
Cardenas walked back into the hallway and saw the suspect had a gun. She looked down and struggled to pull the pistol from her holster before firing.
Officers lose the advantage when they look down, Salem told her. It’s important to look up and scan the room for where one might take cover.
Cardenas, a college student who said she was considering trying to go for a career in law enforcement, said she was nervous during the exercise, but felt good about stepping out of her comfort zone and firing back when attacked. It gave her a better understanding of what law enforcement goes through when responding to dangerous calls, she said.
“When you’re in the moment, you have to (use force),” Cardenas said.
I participated in a modified version of the exercise after Cardenas, since I had already seen what the other volunteers had gone through.
I realized my chances at prevailing were slim before I even started. I struggled to load the pistol and remove it from my holster. When I entered the hallway, the suspicious person approached me, shouting that he had a gun.
I chuckled nervously, said nothing and looked back at the officers behind me. Did I expect encouragement? Tips? Who knows? I searched for the right words, but had no clue where to even begin.
Eventually, I commanded the suspect to put his hands behind his head and calm down. He ignored me, continuing to shout and advance toward me. I forgot about the pepper spray in my holster. He reached for a gun in his waistband and shot me at close range.
Suffice it to say that I won’t be getting recruiting calls from the Napa Police Department any time soon.
Rosario Nuñez took over after me. She was more authoritative than I when she first encountered the suspect with a gun.
“I’m the police!,” she shouted.
“Are you Clint Eastwood?” he asked. “You going to shoot me?”
“Oh, dios mío,” she said.
Nuñez told officers later that she appreciated their work and thanked them for sacrificing their lives. Napa Police officers will be in her prayers, she said.