Reading police chief talks about use of force in public forum

by David Mekeel

Friday October 9, 2015 – Reading Eagle

 

Reading, PA - The setting may have been a little more intimate than hoped for, but the discussion was fruitful nonetheless.

 

Reading Police Chief William Heim, along with three of his officers, took part in a town hall-style meeting Thursday night at Zion Baptist Church. The event, hosted by the Reading Branch NAACP, was billed as "A conversation with the chief."

 

And with only about a dozen people in attendance, that certainly was the case.

 

Despite the small numbers, the meeting covered some important ground in what seemed to be a very productive way. The topic was police force, a hot button issue for certain.

 

"It's been all over the news the past few year," Heim said.

 

The topic is a complicated one that is influenced by many factors, Heim said. But what it boils down to, he said, is making sure officers only use force when it is needed, and only use the appropriate amount of force to gain control of a situation.

 

"Police are the only segment of the population allowed to use force to get people to comply," he said. "Which instills a lot of responsibility on us."

 

Heim stressed that officers are only allowed to use force to gain control, and must stop once that control is gained. Anything else constitutes punishment or retribution, and is not acceptable.

 

But, he admitted, sometimes figuring where the line is can be difficult. After all, officers are just human beings trying to deal with complex, often emotional and violent, situations."

 

Cops are regular people first," he said. "They have personalities, they have strengths, they have weaknesses."

 

Heim said officers are trained to use a force continuum that ranges from dialogue to use of their firearm. How far up or down that continuum they go - whether it's grasping an arm, using pepper spray or even deploying a Taser - depends on the individual situation.

 

And sometimes, it's a tough call to make, he said.

 

"When you're in a physical fight it's not an exact science, is it?" he said.

 

The most important things, Heim said, are making sure people nearby are safe, and that the officer wins. If an officer was to lose, he pointed out, a suspect could take his weapon and become an even greater danger.

 

Officers are also often not privy to all the facts when engaging a suspect. While they are trained to assess the situation, there's always the possibility that a suspect is hiding something, including a weapon.

 

That's why you might see an officer striking a suspect who is already on the ground, Heim said. If that suspect's hands aren't visible, he said, they could be holding a weapon and additional force is needed to control the situation.

 

Despite the night's focus on force, it was actually a discussion about the opposite that elicited the best response.

 

Heim spoke about a change in the way police are trained, saying in the past officers were often taught to be "warriors."

 

"That kind of term, 'warrior,' connotes an 'us versus them,'" he said.That's not the kind of police Heim wants in the streets of Reading. He said he wants his officers to be "guardians," with a goal of letting the community know "we're all in this together."

 

"We don't want to shoot anybody we don't have to," he said. "We don't want to have to use our batons on anybody we don't have to."

 

Part of the guardian way of policing is increasing foot patrols, which the department began doing two years ago. Officers, in small groups, are encouraged to walk the streets, visiting businesses and talking with residents.

 

Heim said he would like to see more of that, but with cuts to the number of police in the city it's difficult.

 

The night ended on a light note, with resident Robert Jefferson asking Heim a simple question that he said had been on his mind for quite some time.

 

"Why do they call you guys cops?" he said.

 

Heim smiled and laughed before offering an answer, admitting he wasn't sure if it was true.

 

Apparently, Heim said, the name comes from constables in England. Constables walking the streets were referred to as "constables on patrol," or cops.

 

Contact David Mekeel:  610-371-5014 or dmekeel@readingeagle.com