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Experts testify on use of force and police training during ex-officer’s trial

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Police supervisors, training instructors and expert witnesses were the focus of the second day in the trial of former South Whitehall officer Jonathan Roselle, 34, who appeared before judge Kelly Banach March 13 on a count of voluntary manslaughter in the 2018 shooting death of Joseph Santos, 44, near Dorney Park.

Prosecutors have argued that Roselle’s use of lethal force was illegal and unnecessary, saying Santos was an unarmed man in crisis and posed no immediate threat of harm or serious injury to Roselle, who also carried several nonlethal devices including a baton, OC spray and a Taser.

Roselle’s defense attorneys say Santos’ actions of striking vehicles and erratic, noncompliant behavior, as well as the risk of Roselle being overpowered and disarmed, justify Roselle’s actions. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Sgt. Kevin Edelheiser, Roselle’s former supervisor, recounted his interaction with Roselle following the shooting and testified about officers’ mental health response training.

Footage from Edelheiser and Roselle’s body cameras show Roselle sitting in a cruiser when Edelheiser approaches to check for injuries. “I’m fine, I’m concerned that I f---ed up,” a shaken Roselle says.

“I don’t know why I defaulted to the gun.”

Roselle tells Edelheiser about Santos “jumping on my vehicle” and said he should have stayed in his cruiser until backup arrived, but added that he “didn’t know what he [Santos] was going to do, if he was going to go out in traffic.”

“I can’t explain it,” Roselle tells Edelheiser, who responds, “don’t, don’t explain it,” as the recording ends.

When asked by prosecutors why he told Roselle not to elaborate Edelheiser said that it “wasn’t the time” as his duties were to secure the scene for investigators, not evaluate Roselle’s explanation.

Edelheiser said cadets receive weeks of mental health instruction to identify cues, learn de-escalation principles and application of appropriate force for noncompliant individuals in crisis. He added that officers also receive training for individuals on controlled substances.

Edelheiser added that mental health calls were fairly common for his platoon, about two or three per week, and said in his 17 years with South Whitehall police he has used force on suspects at times, usually hands-on techniques, but has never deployed his OC spray, Taser or firearm.

Defense attorney Gavin Holihan asked if officers were trained to respond to mental health calls by themselves. Edelheiser said he preferred to have a second officer present as they could provide a different perspective on the situation and serve as backup.

However, he added that lone officers facing a crisis situation must maintain the “Reasonable Officer Standard” – evaluating the situation, known facts, suspect behavior and other factors - and be ready to “talk more, move more or go hands-on by yourself,” including nonlethal or, if appropriate, lethal force.

When pressed by Holihan about the “reality” of making a use of force decision rather than following theoretical procedures, Edelheiser said an officer is generally best-suited to make a judgement call when theories are applied to the situation.

“It’s still part of my job, responding to the incident, to put those theories, those proven theories, into place,” Edelheiser said.

Sgt. Kyle Pammer, a use-of-force instructor at the Allentown Police Academy where Roselle was trained in 2017, outlined training objectives governing use of force in law enforcement and presented the police’s Use of Force Model to jury members.

The model is a continuum detailing the control measures and force options officers should logically use when dealing with different types of individuals from cooperative subjects to resisters or assailants.

The options range from verbal commands to various nonlethal equipment to an officer’s firearm.

According to the model, lethal force is only authorized for the highest-level assailants whose actions like likely cause death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others. In all other instances lethal force is categorized as “excessive.”

Holihan noted the model only listed general categories of subjects, making no exceptions for people with special needs, and that the authorized use of lethal force did not specify that an assailant necessarily be armed with a weapon.

Pammer said the model is based on a subject’s actions toward an officer, not their mental state, and acknowledged that death or serious bodily injury could be caused by an unarmed suspect.

He said officers were taught weapon disarming, hand-to-hand combat and resister compliance techniques at the academy, in addition to nonlethal systems’ training and weapon retention tactics to prevent assailants from taking an officer’s sidearm from their hands or holster.

According to Pammer, Roselle “did well” in all defensive tactic instruction during his training.

He also noted that Roselle received scenario-based training, allows cadets to gain hands-on experience in determining and applying the appropriate level of force in a realistic situation.

South Whitehall Police Chief Glen Dorney said his department’s standard operating procedures guide officers to exercise control when conducting arrests and other duties, utilizing the Use of Force Model and their training.

Additional procedures also addressed individuals with special needs. Dorney said officers were taught to spot different conditions, avoid aggressive actions, deescalate the situation through communication or separation and always be “calm and professional” in their duties.

Dorney also noted that as a South Whitehall officer, Roselle was carrying a standard Level III retention holder, which requires three separate actions to be taken before removing the firearm and said it would be extremely difficult to remove the pistol through brute force alone.

Holihan pointed out that South Whitehall’s policy states that an officer’s use of a Taser should not replace the use of a firearm in situations where deadly force is appropriately authorized.

He also noted that departmental policy specified officers could use deadly force if an assailant has a Taser or OC spray and reasonable belief exists that deadly force will be used against an officer if they were to become incapacitated.

Dorney said officers’ decisions to apply lethal or nonlethal force is based on their perception of the situation and depends on the circumstances, the need to make “near instantaneous” decisions, the force model and their training.

“It’s all situational,” Dorney said.

He testified that Roselle underwent certified Taser training and received a perfect score on the written Taser exam, two use of force exams, an “individual with special needs” evaluation and all other department tests.

Dorney testified that he felt confident Roselle knew the proper and improper uses of a Taser through his training at the time of the shooting, and that he had no reason to believe Roselle was not sufficiently trained to be on patrol by himself.

Roselle had been on patrol by himself for less than five months when the fatal shooting occurred.

In addition to the police witnesses, forensic pathologist Dr. Barbara Bollinger was called to testify about Santos’ toxicology report.

Based on samples taken from Santos’ heart blood and vitreous eye fluid, Bollinger said that Santos had several controlled substances – including methadone, morphine, codeine, hydromorphone and 6-monoacetylmorphine – in his system.

Bollinger said that several of the substances, particularly 6-monoacetylmorphine, were components of heroin, and indicated that Santos had used heroin at some time before his death, although an exact time could not be determined.

She added that a coroner told her the Santos was in a methadone program, which helps users treat narcotic and opiate addictions.

When asked about the effects of these substances, Bollinger said all of the drugs were pain relievers and sedatives but noted that certain individuals could suffer adverse effects or reactions.

Holihan also asked Bollinger about “excited delirium,” a controversial term generally defined as “acting in an agitated state” which may be brought on by drug use and include aggression, increased strength and “out of character,” violent or frightening behavior.

Bollinger said she did not know the exact statistics behind excited delirium cases and did not evaluate the condition with regards to Santos.