As of Oct. 26, 879 people have been killed by police this year. On Oct.16 alone, three were shot and killed in police-related incidents, according to The Guardian. The 32-year-old Santa Cruz resident, Sean Arlt, was one of them.
From 10 feet away, Arlt was shot in the chest and head by a Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) officer. SCPD was called to the scene because Arlt was pounding on an acquaintance’s door in the Westside neighborhood and threatening the residents inside. When the officers arrived, they prompted Arlt come to the front of the house. He wielded a metal rake as he confronted the four officers and when he failed to obey commands and continued to advance, he was tased. When the stun guns didn’t stop him, he was killed.
The officer’s training, which has been drilled in since their first day on the force, kicked in and they followed the procedure they were taught. But the procedure should have accounted for the fact that Arlt had a history of mental illness. The responding officers were aware of the situation and should have prepared accordingly by bringing non-lethal bean bag rounds — which SCPD has — before falling back on lethal force.
While the incident is an ongoing investigation, the officer-involved shooting that killed Arlt sparked debate throughout the community between those who supported the SCPD and their actions and those who did not and expressed frustration and anger, insisting there were other solutions.
Officers first reach for stun guns, pepper spray and batons when threatened, but hands slip to their gun holster too quickly when one of those prove ineffective. Arlt allegedly backed the officers against neighborhood cars parked at the curb of Getchell Street, but that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
When asked if SCPD officers have any other form of non-lethal self defense when their lives are threatened, SCPD Deputy Chief Rick Martinez responded “No. Simply because it’s not safe.”
Last year, Los Angeles Police Department reported using Tasers 1,101 times without its desired effect in 516 cases. Likewise, spokesperson for Taser International, Steve Tuttle, told The Seattle Times that it’s difficult to accurately hit a moving target because there has to be “good” connections with both electrical probes. If they hit loose clothing or fatty tissue, it’s not as effective. When lives are at stake, there needs to be more assurance that effective non-lethal tactics are used before reaching for a gun.
The problem stems not always from the officers, but from officer training. According to the Police Executive Research Forum, the typical police recruit spends 58 hours learning how to use their gun — and just eight hours learning the department’s crisis intervention or de-escalation tactics.
Martinez said the officers involved had completed training on crisis communication and de-escalation tactics. Last year, SCPD partook in three 16-hour firearms training courses in April, May and June, as required by the state. SCPD completed courses on using stun guns and firearms again in November.
A January 2016 training focused on “de-escalation techniques and communication skills necessary in dealing with people in mental health crisis, who are suicidal or are highly emotional at an event”, according to the SCPD blog. The state requires two hours minimum of annual training on de-escalation — the SCPD’s training was four hours long. SCPD spends at least 36 hours teaching how to use firearms and four hours and a handful of scenarios on de-escalation in crisis and mental health situations every year. That’s part of the problem.
The reliance on lethal weapons by our own law enforcement is disturbing. A man who had a history of mental illness, like 19.6 percent of the total adult population in the U.S. does, was shot because he was determined to be a threat while brandishing a garden rake. Responsibility goes further than a badge on your chest, and obligations to the community aren’t just professional — they’re moral.
Police training is one among many problems with this and other police shootings. SCPD should respond to instances like this with non-lethal defenses at the ready. SCPD knew Arlt had a history of mental illness, and should have used other resources available, including batons, smarter physical maneuvers and bean bag rounds to avoid killing a community member.
This tragedy is emblematic of wider issues surrounding how law enforcement interacts with the people they pledge to protect. This includes access to mental health resources and transparency within the community.
Preserving the lives that officers are charged with protecting is of the utmost importance — regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or mental state. There are many steps to change the nature of police and community relations, and we can start by changing the way officers are trained.