Lieutenant David Bissonnette has been a Rhode Island police officer for 19 years and a Use of Force & Police Arrest and Control techniques instructor at the Municipal Police Academy for 16 years. He has also trained officers on an in-service basis throughout Southern New England and teaches a course in police diffusion and de-escalation techniques. Lieutenant Bissonnette is a certified Force Analyst through the Force Science Institute and is considered a subject matter expert on topics of police use of force by the Rhode Island Attorney General. Lieutenant Bissonnette serves with the Middletown Police Department.
Amelia Spalter: What are the most important things for civilians to understand about the role of force in the justice system?
Lt. David Bissonnette: When you use the word “force” in law enforcement, it really covers a broad spectrum. We have what are called options. They start as low as an officer’s uniformed presence, then we have verbal commands and physical skills and techniques. We also have several other tools and options and as a last resort, lethal force. We’re allowed to pick whatever option is the most reasonable based on the totality of circumstance at the moment that we make the decision to use force. So, if someone comes at me with a knife, in your opinion, what is the most reasonable option? It’s actually very difficult to say. It all depends on a variety of different things. Is the guy in front of me or is he on the other side of the room with a bunch of furniture between us? It all depends on the circumstances that you’re facing. It’s very subjective.
That’s why when a lot of people see these things on TV, it’s very difficult to understand what the officer is going through, especially when the people are really only getting part of the picture. If we have the time and if it is tactically feasible, we always try to de-escalate. That’s just police 101. The decisions aren’t random and force is always a last resort. It’s what the subject does, what their actions are, and what their level of resistance is, that’s going to dictate the level of force that we’re going to use. If you comply, there will be no force used.
The other thing I want the public to know, and this is kind of a big one, is sometimes you don’t get the full picture when you see a five second video on the news. You’re often seeing a brief snippet of what actually occurred. Maybe it was edited by the news for time, or maybe the camera didn’t get turned on until the officer responded to the suspect’s actions. For example, if someone hit me in the head with a brick, you would think that I should respond by arresting them, right? But if I get hit with a brick and then someone turns the camera on after and I go in to arrest, they’re not getting the full picture.
AS: The protestors have expressed a strong desire for better understanding of why police do the things they do. What do you feel is the best way for police departments to openly communicate with the people they serve, without compromising privacy that is in place for safety reasons?
LDB: There needs to be change, I’m certainly not going to say that there doesn’t, but I’m one person. I work on a 40-person police department in Rhode Island. We’re talking about nationwide change here. People from both sides need to be willing to sit down together in order for that to happen. People in law enforcement need to be willing to sit down and listen to the people that we serve and say, “What are your concerns?” But then the people that we serve need to be willing to listen to the law enforcement officers when we say, “This is why we do this, we need you to understand that.” Because there are some things that people don’t understand that police officers do for their very own safety. For example, have you ever been pulled over in Rhode Island? When the officer walked up, he probably stayed way back behind you, and you had to turn around to face him. There is a reason for that.
When we teach traffic stops here in Rhode Island, the techniques and tactics are taught to ensure the officer’s safety when facing numerous unknown variables. Car stops are one of the most dangerous things a police officer can do because we have absolutely no idea what we are dealing with. We’re not trying to be rude or unprofessional. We are trying to be safe so we can go home to our families.
As far as new training and reform and things of that nature goes, that’s a discussion that needs to be had with everyone. We all have different ideas of what we want to see. The things that I want to see, we already do here in Rhode Island. We’ve done them for several years now. But I’m willing to listen to what people have to say. Talk to us. If you say, “We want to see this.” Then we can either say, “Okay, I understand what you’re saying,” or “That’s not feasible because this is the reason why we do that.” I’m willing to listen to anything anyone has to say.
AS: Setting aside the obvious discussion of morality, looking at George Floyd’s arrest from your expertise in use of force, what was wrong with the arrest from a technical standpoint?
LDB: The neck restraint that was used in that arrest is not used here in Rhode Island. It has not been taught here since I went through the police academy in 2001 and it will never be taught as long as I am involved in training. We teach recruits and officers to avoid the neck. There are other places you can put pressure that will not cause injury. I don’t know how heavy Derek Chauvin was, but let’s say he was 185 pounds. All of his weight, all 185 pounds, was on Mr. Floyd’s neck. Well, what’s inside the neck? Very small bones that encase your spinal cord. If those break you can paralyze or kill somebody. You have sensitive parts of the body to include your trachea and carotid artery which if damaged, could result in injury or even death. I watched that video over and over again, just looking at it and trying to figure out why the officer did what he did. From a technical standpoint I couldn’t determine a reason.
From the moment he’s on his stomach with his hands behind his back and cuffed, he’s controlled. At that point, you get off of him. You maybe even try to sit him up. If he’s still struggling, you can hold him on the ground without putting any pressure on the neck. But really, even if you don’t have any weight on him, tell me how he’s going to push up off the ground without his hands? So, for that officer to continue to kneel on Mr. Floyds neck was disturbing and was not anything that I have taught for the past 16 years.
We see serious injury and death in this job all the time, but to watch it happen at the hands of somebody that’s considered a fellow officer angered me. You have a duty to render aid. Even if they accidentally knelt on his neck, one of the other officers should have said, “Hey, man, get off of him.” Or, “Okay, that’s enough.” Or the officer should have realized, “Oh, no, my knee is on his neck. Let me get that off of there.” If you’ve got somebody who’s fighting, who’s that big, and you’re slipping all around on top of him trying to keep him restrained, your knee can end up there. But you move it when that happens and you get your weight off of him right away. To hold it there for over eight minutes, almost four of which were after he stopped responding, without rendering any aid, is absolutely inexcusable.
AS: What should the average person do to de-escalate a potentially violent situation while they are waiting for police to arrive?
LDB: My advice is separate yourself. Because, let’s say it’s an argument between you and your boyfriend, girlfriend, or whomever, someone close to you. You are not going to contain them because at that time, he sees you as the source of his anger. So, one of the best things you can do is separate. Leave the house, go to a neighbor’s house, and then call the police. If someone is so angry at you that you think it is going to escalate to violence, back away. Unless you’re cornered and you don’t have any other way out, back away, get out of there. Now, we’ve had incidents where people will try to stop you from leaving. Remember that all houses have two exits, at least. Remember there are windows. If you can’t leave the house altogether, go into another room and lock the door and call the police. You want to distance yourself because if in that moment the other person sees you as the source of their problems, things are not going to deescalate while you’re standing in the same room. That’s what’s called a crime of passion, and it’s something that does happen. Somebody can really get hurt.
If you’re not involved in it and you’re just a witness, same thing. Of course, I’m not telling you to just sit there and go about your business if you’ve got two people with you who are screaming at each other. Obviously, you’re going to try and say, “Hey, guys, stop. Calm down. The police are on their way.” Or something like that. But if you run in to try and break it up, they’re both so angry that they might turn on you. It’s happened to us and you could get really hurt. You do not know what that person is capable of at that point. What if one of them has a knife? I definitely wouldn’t go jumping into the middle something, especially when you’re not familiar with what’s going on. If at all possible, create distance and get away. I always tell my kids, “If something happens where you feel like you’re going to get hurt, run. Get away as soon as you can and then find someone for help.”
AS: Is there anything you’d like to say directly to people who might have become scared to call 911 or otherwise interact with police?
LDB: Don’t believe everything you hear in the news. You can believe this piece of news you’re reading now, because this interview is coming from my heart. I want people to understand that I’ll stand on the line with you and protect your free speech because that’s what I took an oath to do. But don’t believe every single thing you hear and see. The majority of cops want to help you. They come to work every day, they put on quarter-inch thick body armor, and they go out and do their jobs with honor. What other job do you know where you have to strap on a bulletproof vest to go to work? Do newspaper reporters have to do that? Do doctors? Do lawyers? No. There’s a reason for that. Not everything you see in the media is accurate. They only show negative. If they showed you all the positive that the police do, there wouldn’t be time for them to put anything else on the air.
Police have to use force sometimes. It’s the nature of the beast. If you comply with their instructions and you do what they ask you to do, you’re fine. So, if I say, “Hey, come over here, sit down on the curb,” go sit down on the curb. There’s a reason I’m asking you to do that, and it’s most likely because I’m outnumbered and I want you at a disadvantage so I can deal with whatever else is going on. So, if I’m telling you, “Get your hands out of your pockets,” there’s a reason for that, because where do people keep stuff that’s going to hurt me? Just keep your hands where I can see them and stand where I ask you to. They are very simple instructions, and I don’t understand why people don’t comply with them.
That the police would show up and make a situation worse is so rare. Does it happen? I’m sure it does. But it is so rare. I understand that people don’t always agree with what the police do. We all have the right to free speech. But if you’re going to stand out there on a picket line and wave a sign that says, “Police suck,” how about you come in and see what I do first before you tell me that I suck? Because you know what? I’m a human being. I have feelings just like anyone else. I am a son, a brother, a husband, and a father.
Doing this job, I miss birthdays, family functions, and plenty of holidays. I have children. Imagine working a midnight shift on Christmas when you have little kids and having to miss them waking up to open their gifts. Or missing your son’s first little league game or your daughter’s dance recital. A lot of times, these officers are working 16-hour shifts because they’ve got to work overtime just to feed their families. If you think that this current light is the one we want to be seen in, you’re wrong. If you want to know more about us, ask. We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re not going to explain all of our tactics in the interest of our own safety, but if people just ask us, we will take the time to explain the legalities, the psychology, and the physiology of why we do what we do.
AS: Some feel that even police who have done nothing wrong themselves are at fault because the “thin blue line” prevents them from holding the officers who have transgressed accountable. Is that the case?
LDB: Let me put it this way, in my career, I have witnessed officers who have turned other officers in for committing crimes. We take an oath to uphold the law. In the case of George Floyd, the other officers should answer for what they didn’t do, which is to step in and stop what was happening. I disagree with the whole statement of “The majority protect the minority.” I don’t see it. We train these guys, “How can you live with yourself if you lie for somebody to get away with one small thing, then later down the road, they do a big thing?” Where does the line end? That’s called integrity. We teach that to recruits in the academy. We teach them that we’re never going to be rich, we’re never going to be famous, and it’s a thankless job. All I’ll have when I leave here is my name and my integrity, and whatever that stands for. That means more to me than anything. I’m not going to sacrifice that, or my career, or anything else for anybody because they make a stupid decision. So, no, I don’t see any of that happening here.
AS: Should there be a standardized national procedure for use of force training?
LDB: That’s tough for me to answer, because, again, I don’t have all of the information from outside of Rhode Island. I can tell you that in Rhode Island, there is a standardized curriculum. See, we’re fortunate here. We have one police academy that trains the majority of cities and towns in the state. The only city that does not go through our police academy is Providence. They have their own academy and the state police have their own academy. But the other 38 cities and towns all come through the Municipal Academy. The University of Rhode Island, Brown University, and the Rhode Island School of Design also send their campus police through the municipal academy, as does the Rhode Island Airport Corporation. So, the training that each one of these recruits receives is all the same.
I can’t imagine a place like Texas, or Florida, or California, where they’ve got multiple different academies. We’re lucky, as far as that goes. Because we’re a small state, we can standardize the training. I think that’s why we have the success we do. In addition, many of the departments in Rhode Island are certified through RIPAC [Rhode Island Police Accreditation Commission] and CALEA [Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies]. These are two separate accreditation agencies, RIPAC being a state accreditation agency, and CALEA being national accreditation agency. These two agencies set very high standards for their members to follow and serve as a further method of standardizing operations and training.
AS: A recent study found that Rhode Island police use deadly force in fewer than 1% of arrests. Is there anything in our academy’s training that you attribute that statistic to, and if so, do you think it could be replicated in other states looking to revamp their training?
LDB: Even if you have the same material, it may be taught from a different perspective by a different instructor, so that type of thing is pretty difficult to quantify. In our case, we’ve got a group of 10 officers that teach use of force. These guys are the most dedicated, honorable, professional group of officers that, in my 19 years, I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. In order to do this job, you have to have a true love for the general public, and for serving people, and for the profession. These guys have a true love for the profession. They want to help. That’s our legacy. They want to make good cops and mold the future of this profession. In addition to that, we constantly reassess the training. We’re in the middle of doing that right now in an attempt to incorporate the use of force best practices that are available.
In Rhode Island, we train officers heavily in de-escalation. We train them in policing people with developmental disorders like autism. I have a son who’s on the autism spectrum. He reacts differently to people than you or I do. Now I understand that what an autistic person does could be seen by a police officer who doesn’t recognize it for what it is as noncompliance or resistance. For example, autistic people don’t like to be touched, so if I go to guide an autistic person somewhere and put my hand on them and they pull away, that could accidentally be seen as resistance. If someone doesn’t make eye contact, that could be seen as a sign of deception, but autistic people just have a really hard time with eye contact. So, unless our officers are educated in that, there’s a chance that there could be a mistake made. So we now teach the officers how to identify and deal with people that are on the autism spectrum. We also teach mental health first aid, which is basically how to deal with somebody who is in a mental health crisis.
Here in Newport County, we have a clinician that is based out of our police station. If we go out to a mental health call and it’s something beyond our capabilities, we call the clinician in, and she makes a determination as to what should be done. It has been hugely successful. That is something I’d like to see go nationwide; to get a clinician in each department who can be utilized. It helps, because a lot of times, we otherwise have to use force to control somebody for their own well being so they don’t hurt themselves.
So in Rhode Island, we have de-escalation training, mental health first aid training including autism specific training and we have anti-bias policing training. We get them in the academy, and then we get them upon graduation on an in-service basis as well. We have it every year. Not only because the training gets updated and improves, but because it’s mandated by law. That’s a big reason as to why you don’t see a lot of force in Rhode Island; because we have highly educated police in this state. I don’t just mean the education you receive in the academy. Half the police officers in this building have master’s degrees, and most at least have bachelor’s degrees. If they don’t, it’s because they come directly from the military, but then they pursue those degrees while they’re here. We’re highly professional, and that helps a lot, especially in this area.
AS: What would you say to someone who was considering becoming a police officer before these protests, but is now reconsidering?
LDB: This is still the best job in the world. It’s also the most difficult and the most thankless. So, when you do this job, you have to be willing to do this job for your own internal gratification. For example, let’s say you arrest a drunk driver. You have to be able to say, “Even though I ticked this person off because I had to make an arrest, if I hadn’t, maybe he would have driven down the road and killed a family.” Because all you’re getting in the moment is the guy screaming and yelling at you. We don’t know about the what ifs. All we know is what happened. So, yes, it’s a thankless job, but it’s still the best job in the world. It’s still the most honorable profession in the world. No matter what anyone says, don’t let people tell you otherwise.
There is something noble in what we do. There’s something really noble in defending those that cannot defend themselves. There is also the belief that some things are just truly worth giving up everything for. That’s what most cops are like because that’s how most cops think. To the naysayers, I would say, apply. If you have a problem with the way the system works, pick up an application and come fix it from within. Come join us. We want a big pool of applicants to pick from, so let’s work together and fix whatever your concerns are, if we can. Maybe instead you’ll realize why things are done a certain way. In any case, the more the merrier, please apply.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.