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State Prisons to Retrain All Guards in New Shooting Policy

Corrections: Goal is to teach 29,000 sworn officers by late June that lethal force is allowed only when a killing or grave injury is imminent.

April 04, 1999|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — The California prison system, putting into effect its new shooting policy, has launched a massive effort to retrain 29,000 sworn officers to no longer open fire on inmates engaged in fistfights and melees except in extreme cases.

State Corrections Department Director Cal Terhune said that a more restrained deadly force policy was formally adopted last week and that the process of retraining and testing officers has already begun.

"It's a huge undertaking, and our objective is to have all 29,000 officers trained and tested by June 22," Terhune said. "If they don't pass the test, then they'll have to go through a remediation cycle."

For the last six months, corrections officials have tinkered with new shooting guidelines, removing ambiguous language and underscoring that deadly force is a last resort used only when one inmate is about to gravely injure or take the life of another prisoner or a staff member.

In the last several weeks, more than 150 officers and leaders of the guards union have been sent to Sacramento to undergo intensive training on the revised policy. Much of the training involves simulations of situations in which an officer can and cannot fire a weapon to stop prison violence.

"We pulled in about 153 staffers from the various prisons and put them through the training," Terhune said. "We did the same with the union shop stewards and chapter presidents. Now they're going to go out and do the actual training at each prison."

Terhune said the shift in practice presents a formidable challenge because of the vastness of the penal system and the fact that individual prisons often cling stubbornly to old habits, even in the face of reform.

The old shooting practice, although deeply ingrained in the prison culture, proved highly controversial. California has been the only state in which correctional officers resorted to lethal force to stop fistfights and melees involving unarmed inmates.

During the last decade, the practice resulted in the killing of 39 inmates and the wounding of more than 200. Many of the shooting deaths and injuries occurred after guards mixed rival gang members in the same small exercise yards and the inmates refused to stop fighting.

Deadly Force a Last Resort

A Times review last year showed that in a majority of cases none of the inmates carried a weapon or posed "great bodily harm"--the requisite factors to employ deadly force. In more than a dozen shootings, a bystander or the wrong inmate was hit by a bullet.

Terhune said the training sessions highlight the need for officers to work their way up the ladder of force. If an inmate refuses to stop fighting and guards are standing close by, the officers should converge on the scene using side-handle batons.

If the gun-post officer is the only guard nearby, he should give verbal warnings to stop fighting and then fire nonlethal wood blocks, Terhune said. Only in the most dire cases should the officer fire a lethal round.

"Deadly force will only be used to defend the employee or other persons from an immediate threat of death or great bodily injury," the revised policy reads. "A firearm shall not be discharged if there is reason to believe that persons other than the intended target will be injured."

Terhune said the initial round of retraining will concentrate on officers manning gun posts. After that, the sessions will broaden to include every sworn officer at the 33 prisons statewide.

"Each institution is going to have a training team of six people," he said. "We'll run three classes a day with a maximum class size of 35 officers. We're just going to have to keep training, training, training."

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