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For more than a year now, Evanston police officers have been able simply to walk downstairs to use the firing range to participate in training sessions and to meet annual state qualification requirements. The firing range, tucked into the basement of the police department, became fully operational without fanfare in spring 2011.Evanston police officers no longer need to travel to Lake County for these exercises.

There are about 160 sworn officers in the Evanston Police Department, and some train more than the minimum requirement, so the firing range sees a lot of use. The department is also in talks with Northwestern, and soon Northwestern police officers may use the range as well in exchange for paying some maintenance costs.

The EPD firing range is not a high-tech, TV-crime-show range with individual firing booths and a target bobbing on a wire. Rather, it has the institutional look and feel of a hospital or middle-school hallway. The sole target is affixed to a wooden frame toward one end and stands before a bank of chewed-up rubber airplane tires. Airplane tires are used, said Chief of Police Richard Eddington, because they have no steel belts, which might deflect live bullets.

The ventilation system is state-of-the-art. It moves “a solid wall of air” down the range at constant pressure, removing smoke and particulates from the air, eliminating the “coal miner’s nose” that officers used to get from gunpowder and smoke, said the Chief. The range is “extremely hygienic for the people who use it,” he said.

No Moving Targets

There are no booths, because “people are not standing still” when in a firefight, he said.

A trained officer knows that the first move when confronted by an offender with a gun or other weapon is to step to one side, out of the “line of force,” said Chief Eddington. That motion forces the offender to adjust aim or shift, giving the officer an advantage.

Stationary target practice is fine for snipers or marksmen, but in a “use of deadly force” situation such skills are rarely called upon. Most of the time when an officer needs to fire a weapon, the target will be fewer than 10 yards away, said the Chief. “We don’t get to just stand still and aim very often. Steady nerves, practice, and recognition are more important than precision marksmanship,” he said.

The Use of Force

Chief Eddington says he hopes the firing of weapons is confined to the indoor range. But, he says, when force is required – which it seldom is in Evanston – the officers must be ready.

Officers have “innumerable interpersonal conflicts” in the exercise of their duties, said the Chief, and use force “an infinitesimally small number of times. We use deadly force an even smaller” number of times. The last use of force by an Evanston Officer was in 2009, when Desrick York was shot while attacking his landlord with a knife. The City prevailed in a civil lawsuit arising out of that event filed by Mr. York’s estate against the City [see sidebar].

Police departments the world over set up protocols and “use of force continuums,” said Chief Eddington. There are “volumes and volumes and volumes” of research in the topic, he said. The research and protocols only go so far, though. “No two of these events are the same,” said Chief Eddington. “It is not so much what the officer is doing, but what the offender is doing. … There are so many dynamic factors involved.

“If an officer discharges a weapon [in the line of duty], there’s going to be an investigation,” said the Chief. The investigation is conducted by an independent body, which will also issue a ruling.

“No one is cleared immediately; no shooting is automatically ruled clean,” the Chief said.

In making its determination about the use of force, the independent panel may consider the number of opponents facing an officer, the officer’s physical size, the opponent’s physical size and the length of the encounter – since an officer may be exhausted from having fought to a standstill and fear that a weapon will be taken away.

Deadly force may be used only to preserve the life of an officer or others, and then only as a last resort, said Chief Eddington. Officers are trained to use handguns, and the firing range is a key component of that training, but the Chief far prefers other methods of intervention.

“I am an incredible proponent of Tasers,” Chief Eddington said. Tasers use an electroshock to render anyone struck by them incapacitated. Muscles literally do not respond in a “Tased” person’s body; the incapacity lasts about five minutes – long enough to subdue the offender – and causes no long-term damage. He said that he has been in law enforcement long enough to see what came before Tasers, including “sticks and fists. … It was ugly.” There was significant damage requiring hospitalization, surgery or worse. With Tasers, though, in five minutes everyone can be back to normal. “Nobody’s nicked, nobody’s in the hospital. It just makes a whole lot of sense,” he said.

The Chief says Tasers are better at subduing an offender than gunshots. Someone shot in the heart has “about 15 seconds of oxygenated blood” in the system. That person will continue for those 15 seconds doing whatever it was he or she was doing. Chief Eddington spoke about the heroic deeds soldiers accomplish after having been shot. People can do a whole lot of good – or bad – after getting shot, he said.

No Big Bang

Tom Mix and Roy Rodgers – the “Bang! You got me!” – is not reality, said Chief Eddington. Very few shots can completely incapacitate an offender immediately. Similarly, the “shoot to wound” is a falsehood. “Why do I think that’s going to work?” asked the Chief, about shooting a suspect in the leg. “Is that going to stop you from doing what you’re doing?” Instead, the Chief said, the suspect is likely to be on the ground with a gun, forcing the officer to shoot again.

Shooting the gun out of someone’s hand “makes for good movies,” but up close gunfights are “fast and ugly. … It is just not physiologically possible to make those kinds of shots,” he said. The gun is nearly always held in front of the body, so hitting the hand nearly always means hitting the torso as well.

Despite a focus at EPD on subduing suspects by other means before resorting to firearms, at times the use of deadly force is appropriate; and when a police officer fires a weapon as the last resort, the officer aims to kill. Up to that point, the offender can “take the off ramp” and de-escalate the encounter. Even after shots have been fired, an offender can surrender. But if and when an officer decides it is necessary to fire, that is when training comes into play.

Shifting to a Deadly Target

For years, the main training ground for police officers has been a firing range. The standard target used for years, the classic silhouette with numbered rings and an “X” approximating the heart, has been replaced by a different target. The target shifted up a bit as a result, toward the top of the heart, the aorta, where there is a greater chance of hitting the spinal column. “We want to get this over as soon as possible,” said Chief Eddington.

Hitting the old “center mass” target can mean “the fight lasts a little longer than it needs to,” said the Chief. “A person can take an incredible amount of damage [in the middle chest] before you succumb.” With this new target, results can be swifter and more likely fatal.

Police, Guns and Civilians

The department’s emphasis on training highlights Chief Eddington’s opinion about civilians and guns. While he is careful not to take a stand on gun control and says that Illinois law determines what citizens can legally possess and carry, Chief Eddington does say that he thinks it is a particularly bad idea for neighborhood watch or similar civilian groups to carry guns. “I don’t know that we can provide civilian volunteers with the breadth of experience and training necessary to make [split-second] decisions” in the heat of the moment, he said.

Gun-ownership is a difficult question, because there is no adequate system for determining who has the demeanor necessary to responsibly handle firearms. “Go down your list of acquaintances,” said Chief Eddington, and “each of us knows who is responsible and also who should never carry guns.” He said he suspects that a sizable number of people in Illinois carry guns. Carrying a weapon is illegal, but many are able to do it because they do nothing “crazy to call attention to themselves,” he said.

The Chief says he recognizes that police officers are not the only ones carrying guns, but there are limits to what he can do to enforce gun restrictions. What he can do is make sure that all Evanston officers are properly trained. The Evanston police firing range makes that possible right in the basement of the headquarters on Elmwood Avenue.

Verdict for City in the York Shooting Case

The City of Evanston has obtained a verdict in its favor in a civil lawsuit brought by the estate of Desrick York, who was killed by Evanston police officers in April 2009. The judgment came after a jury awarded the York estate over $43,000, but the damage award was set aside in light of a finding by the jury that the police officers believed that Mr. York’s actions placed either the officers or a bystander “”in danger of death or great bodily harm.””

At a press conference held to announce the result, the City’s Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar said that the trial and verdict were evidence of a City objective: to bring litigation in-house rather than outsourcing trial work to outside law firms. “”This is the third jury trial litigated by the law department,”” said Mr. Farrar, and the third that the City has won.

At trial, three Evanston police officers testified about their actions that day, as did Chief of Police Richard Eddington and Illinois State Police special Agent Hunt of the public integrity task force. The jury, said Mr. Farrar, believed the officers when they testified that they reasonably believed they were in serious danger.

The matter was investigated by Special Agent Hunt’s task force and the officer’s actions were found justified. The investigation was turned over to the Cook County State’s attorney, who also found the officer’s action justified. Mr. Farrar said he found it “”heartening”” that the jury considered the evidence carefully and agreed with the officers.

Chief Eddington said that “”any death is tragic,”” but that the officers’ actions in this case were vindicated. The system used to investigate officer-involved shootings was also vindicated by the jury’s verdict, particularly when the attorneys representing the York estate were described by both Mr. Farrar and the Chief as very experienced civil rights attorneys.

Chief Eddington said the York incident was the only police use of deadly force case since he has been Chief of Police.