Since I began writing this column a few months ago I have received an inordinate number of comments on the topic of force.
The discussion on the use of force by police, or as it is called in cop circles, “Response to Resistance”, should be an ongoing dialogue. Police agencies and the public should be able to openly discuss the issue from a common level of understanding. However, since most of the comments could be summed up by asking, “Why do police officers always need to use so much force?” it could be assumed that law enforcement should be trying harder to find common ground on this topic.
The picture at left depicts a San Francisco police officer moments after being assaulted during a riot. While this may be a shocking picture to some, it is included here as an example of why police approach every contact with their guard up.
Statistics on assaults against officers have long suggested that there is a much greater risk of injury in failing to meet and overcome the threat from an unknown subject(s). This is especially true with explosive incidents, such as suicidal subjects, domestic disputes and large protests because these can switch from peaceful to violent in the blink of an eye.
As I was told more than twenty years ago, there is no such thing as a routine call.
In practice this means that if a subject commits an arrestable offense then the outcome is a foregone conclusion. It only awaits the decision by the arrestee whether or not to comply. If a subject follows verbal commands then the expected outcome is a simple and nonviolent arrest. Resistance is the game-changer.
Again, police officers are not trained to fight fairly. We prefer lop-sided odds, say 5:1 in our favor. We will pull hair or trip people, use Tasers and impact weapons, or deploy any reasonable tool or tactic available to us to make the arrest. The operative word is “reasonable,” a term which is ubiquitous in police policy manuals as well as legal statutes.
The crux of many arguments, however, is the level of force used. It should be no surprise that violent encounters, especially for individuals unused to such an occurrence, can raise questions, concerns and even anger. In the relative calm following violent police encounters I have always made it a point to answer any questions of family, friends and bystanders. I have learned by experience that this small gesture can do much to squelch further violence or mistrust.
One of the issues that should be acknowledged is that most citizens have little experience with forceful police encounters. Because of this, and the lack of background information on the topic, people caught up in these situations can have very skewed recall. On numerous occasions I have listened to excessive force complaints only to view a video that told a completely different story. It’s not necessarily the fault of the citizen, it’s just that these encounters can be so spontaneous, traumatic and confusing that their brain has failed to process the situation correctly.
Because many forceful encounters are fluid and brief, it can be an easy thing to miss seeing the single action that led to a forceful police resonse (the picture above shows the result of a subject throwing an object and hiting a cop, an action that will launch a immediate police response). To be fair, the same could be said about a police officer stepping into a picket line and giving a protester a cheap shot. In short, if you weren’t in a position to dispassionately view the entire event, then you will likely be missing relevant facts.
It is true that not every police officer, on every occasion, employs force correctly. However, most police officers use force as a direct response to aggression and DO use the minimal amount necessary to get the job done. That job is not to fight fair – it’s to win the fight.