Reporter's Notebook

Use of force: Knowing when to pull the trigger is harder than it looks

The guy in the yellow tank top is coming at me with a heavy chain in his hand. "You better do something," a voice to my right says.

RCMP training simulator aims to show cadets how to de-escalate and control a tense situation

CBC journalist Katie Nicholson visited an RCMP training academy to experience how cadets learn about use of force. (Matt Howard/CBC)

This story is part of Deadly Force, a CBC News investigation into police-involved fatalities in Canada.


The guy in the yellow tank top is coming at me with a heavy chain in his hand.  

"You better do something," a voice to my right says.

Tank-top man is shouting obscenities and sure enough, he lurches forward and swings that chain at my head.

I'm still fumbling with the pepper spray in my left hand. In my right hand I've got a pistol clutched to my side.

The screen freezes. I'm dead and failing my first class at the RCMP academy.

CBC's Deadly Force analysis captured 461 fatal encounters with police in Canada since the year 2000 — 71 per cent of which were the result of police gunshot. (CBC News )

Last week, CBC News published an investigative series called Deadly Force — an analysis of all fatal encounters between Canadians and police over nearly two decades. It captured more than 460 deaths since the year 2000 — 71 per cent of which were the result of police gunshot.

After sharing our findings with the RCMP — 118 of the victims were killed by their officers in the line of duty — I was invited to learn more about their training.

So here I am in one of the RCMP's simulator training rooms, where cadets learn about use of force.

The simulation

The setup of the room is simple — two chairs side by side, roughly six metres back from a massive screen. It's an approximation of a squad car. On one of the chairs there's a radio, a baton, a pistol and a pepper spray canister.

The pistol and the pepper spray look and feel real but have been jury-rigged to shoot laser beams at the interactive screen. A spray in the right direction can send the man on the screen to his knees, coughing and sputtering. A shot will take him down.

In an RCMP training scenario, a man armed with a heavy chain approaches, and threatens with the chain. The cadet’s challenge is to de-escalate the situation. (Matt Howard/CBC)

Cpl. Rob King, that voice to my right, is guiding me through this unfamiliar territory.

The scenario is fairly simple. There is a fender bender. Two people get into an argument. Then one of them becomes violent. The other man runs away when the man in the tank top pulls a heavy chain out of his truck. Then the man turns his anger on police.

In this case, that's me.

The learning curve is steep.

"You can't just spray him. You have to tell him he's under arrest first," King gently chides me. "What did he do?" 

"He broke that guy's phone," I reply.

"That's property damage. He's causing a disturbance," King reminds me. Two arrestable offences which I have to communicate to the guy, while trying to de-escalate the situation.

Emphasis on de-escalation

The emphasis is on de-escalation and using the least force necessary to get control over the situation. If you mess up, deadly force is the only option. 

And there are milliseconds in these training scenarios between the last moment you can use pepper spray and the moment you have to pull the trigger.

Just, the officers have told me, like real life.

"Step back, create distance — distance is good, it buys you more time," King says.

Check. I am all about stepping back from this guy.

"Speak with authority." 

Not a problem.

As we run the scenario again and again, I hear things come out my mouth that sound like a bad episode of Law & Order.

The RCMP training academy has a special class aimed at teaching officers how to de-escalate situations. The simulated scenarios work on training officers how to de-escalate and when to use less deadly force. CBC News participated in a course and discovered in a confrontation, there are just milliseconds separating the moment a non-fatal option like pepper spray will work and the moment fatal force is the only option. 3:46

King coaches me to keep talking to the man.

"You can still do this," King says, making Muppet talking hands at me. "This is your best weapon. Your best ability to do everything is your ability to talk."

A lot of good that does me. Once again, the perp advances and swings the chain. Officer down.

"Have you heard what he's said, though?"

No. I did not. I'm faintly embarrassed because most of my job is about listening to people.

The weight of a gun

But there's another problem. I'm armed and clumsy with the weapons.

In fact, the very act of having a weapon in your hand ratchets up the tension. There is a weight to a gun — not in its heft but in its deadly force.

And while this is just a training gun, it is an exact replica of an RCMP issue and I'm not used to pointing guns at people. I feel a surge of adrenaline. I'm uncertain and panicky.

Not surprising, perhaps. I'm a journalist. I'm trained to cover tense standoffs, not to be in the middle of one — and this program is designed for a police cadet with weeks of training under her belt. Also, I'm convinced I can talk this guy down with words alone.

At a certain point, King tells me, lethal force is necessary.

RCMP Cpl. Rob King demonstrates use of a simulated pepper spray weapon in a training scenario at RCMP Depot Division in Regina. (Matt Howard/CBC)

"Since that chain could potentially kill you, that chain gives him the tactical advantage of reach and if he gets swinging it, it's got momentum. If one of those chain links was potentially to strike you and hit you in the head it could kill you instantly, agreed?

"Yes."

I never fire the gun. Every time I resort to the pepper spray.

Three times I'm too late on the draw. One time I spray too wildly off the mark. Finally, I chose the right moment to intervene. The man falls to the ground coughing and grasping at his eyes and drops his chain.

But there is something else I haven't considered — another inducement to using the gun.

King asks me what I think would happen if the man hit me in the head with the chain.

What, he wants to know, would he have access to?

"Everything."

"Everything including your …?"

"My gun."

Through the weeks of working on the Deadly Force project, these are the things I never considered until now. There is, of course, an entire school of thought that police shouldn't be armed. But the RCMP are armed and this is part of the training.

Finally, Cpl. King shows me how it's done, effortlessly bringing the man down to his knees with pepper spray, all the while ready with his pistol in his other hand.

American-made scenario

This was an American-made scenario and not a favourite among the instructors. The RCMP has started developing its own training scenarios. They costs thousands to produce and aren't much good if they are widely shared, so they show me some under the promise I won't divulge the specifics. 

In one, an unarmed man who has committed a very serious crime lurches toward officers. His hands may be empty but because of the thing I have just seen him do, Cpl. King tells me the threat risk is much higher.  

The scenarios produced by the RCMP are markedly different than the American-produced scenario they showed me. For one, they feel more Canadian.- Katie Nicholson

In others, an agitated person with access to a weapon is in striking distance of bystanders. It's on the cadet to figure out when others in the scenario are in danger. Failure to act can result in others getting hurt or killed.

It's all about getting a sense of timing and a read on tense situations.

The scenarios produced by the RCMP are markedly different than the American-produced scenario they showed me. For one, they feel more Canadian. They take place in obviously Canadian suburbs, or lonely stretches of winter roads, or hockey arenas. 

There is also an emphasis on communication and interaction with the person.

These things can get messy fast and these encounters cover the full spectrum of human behaviour. Again, just like real life and just like the circumstances of many of the fatalities in our database.

My takeaway is simple. Behind the 461 deaths in our database there are 461 split-second decisions. Whether those decisions were justified or not is often up to professional bodies, investigators and, in some cases, the courts to decide.

But being in those moments isn't easy — and perhaps training like this can help officers intervene earlier with less lethal means.


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