Inside the Academy – Defensive tactics

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. - Use of force by police officers is a hotly debated topic. There are questions about when an officer may use force, what type of force an officer may use, and when that force crosses the line. Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, a police officer may use force if they have probable cause.

Officer Eric Austermann, an instructor at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy, said police officers may meet force with greater force but not excessive force.

“We need to use the most reasonable force option," said Austermann. "It’s not necessarily the least intrusive or least injurious, it has to be the most reasonable.”

Many factors determine what type of force is reasonable, according to Austermann, including the size and strength of the officer and the suspect, and the type of weapon being used.

“Once you start looking at the variables, transparency oftentimes just happens," he said. "You say, 'Okay, that makes more sense. I do see why this person decided to go with utilizing a Taser rather than hands on force because the person is so much smaller, and we have that strength disparity.'”

An officer may have split seconds to decide which type of force to use. If they choose the wrong option, they may be criminally charged with using excessive force or they may put the safety of them self, their fellow officers or the public at risk.

“We don’t want to hurt anyone, but we don’t want that to happen to us either,” said Recruit Trevor Green.

Austermann teaches recruits that using force is going to upset some people in the public so it is crucial they use force in a way that is effective and protects the officer, the public and the person being arrested.

"Ineffective force oftentimes appears to be excessive force," Austermann said. "If (an officer) feels (they have) the right to use force, and the force (they) use is ineffective because it’s ineffective, (they) now need to use more of it. Of course, that oftentimes appears to be excessive."

Austermann said an officer uses force to gain control of the situation, and he teaches the recruits how to take control no matter what they’re up against.

“He really does design his course using human anatomy, and what’s best and what’s quickest to create compliance," said Green.

One of the strikes Austermann teaches is the brachial plexus strike. He said a strike to this bundle of nerves in a person's neck will quickly and temporarily incapacitate someone. A move like this could stop someone in their tracks before the situation escalates into a more violent one.

After practicing the strike with their classmates, the recruits reported feeling stunned and disoriented with blurred vision. All reported the symptoms were temporary and faded within minutes.

Another strike involved using the knee to strike someone in the thigh.

"If you were getting ready to handcuff the person and they pull away, you’re already standing next to them so you can knee them in the knee or the side of the leg," said Recruit Octavia Hearon. "It’s basically supposed to get them off their balance because they’ll be focusing on their leg and not resisting anymore.”

The recruits said they were glad to have had the experience of feeling the strikes so they know what a potential recipient of their strike will feel.

"Those strikes are actually very safe, and we’ve chosen those strikes specifically because it does allow the officer to gain control and minimize that injury," said Austermann.

After weeks of training and practicing their moves in a controlled environment, Austermann tested the recruits in a less predictable scenario. The drill involved a mock foot pursuit with the recruits splitting up into two groups: the officers and the "suspects" being pursued.

The recruits ran around a track, jumped fences, weaved in and out of cones, then met their partner on a wresting mat and tested their defensive skills while attempting to make an "arrest." The goal was to get their hearts racing and let them experience how challenging the task can be when they consider all the external factors of a pursuit.

Police officers are also trained to use force more powerful than their own strength but less lethal than a gun. Next, recruits will learn what it feels like to be pepper sprayed and Tased.​

To see more of Fox 2's exclusive look inside the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy, visit www.fox2now.com/academy.