Lately, it seems like any encounter other than a two-sided, even conversation with a suspect is subject to intense scrutiny when it comes to law enforcement. Things which used to be taken for granted, such as the fact that fighting an officer would, in fact, result in them fighting back to protect themselves, are now being portrayed oftentimes as action taken under some kind of at least tacitly approved rebellious movement against a “system” which is keeping people “down.”
Given the fact that people are now ever-more willing to fight us as a result, and also given that such scrutiny is losing people their jobs, many of us are now experiencing hesitation when it comes to any use of force – and that hesitation is likely causing injury and even death among our ranks and those of the public we protect.
When Hands Up goes to Hands On
One long-held and simple equation can be used to sum up use-of-force application in its most basic sense: Non-Compliance/Resistance = Force, where Force is directly proportional to the level of Non-Compliance/Resistance and the threat it poses to safety of the officer and others. It’s a balanced and proportional system based upon reality, as opposed to theory, and for the most part has traditionally worked pretty well: common sense says that if your job is to stop a threat, you must meet it and overcome it proportionally.
Now, however, theory is rearing its ugly head and shoving itself into the mix in the form of doubt. Because what we do is so intently examined and “analyzed” after the fact, when there’s plenty of time for the media, the brass, and the public to look at every detail of a scenario, we are now beginning to try to treat our incidents the same way in real-time – analyzing everything we do as we do it, with an eye towards predicting and hopefully avoiding repercussions.
That’s great if you have time to do it, but in most use of force cases, the simple truth is that you basically never have time to do anything other than what is necessary, prudent, within the scope of your training, and reasonable. If we spend too much time analyzing what we need to do, and whether or not it’ll get us in trouble later, we sow seeds of doubt that can cause us to hesitate in a scenario where that hesitation results in an escalation of threat – potentially preventing us from using a lower use of force option to mitigate the threat earlier on, and as a result ironically increasing the chances that we’ll be subject to that intense after-the-fact analysis later on.
Hands Off = Dead or Hurt
The emphasis upon verbal control as a solution to nearly any potential problem is a myth being perpetrated by those who, for whatever reason, don’t understand that there are those who will (and may in fact want to) become physically violent to a significant degree. Perhaps it’s simply that they’ve never actually met someone like that due to their life circumstances, or they want to believe that anyone can be talked to, but we in public safety know that that’s simply not true – and that even people who most of the time can, in fact, be talked to sometimes can’t because of their actions or emotions.
These same people are the ones who call us, like everyone else, when someone does exceed that threshold in a way that directly or indirectly threatens themselves or their compatriots, necessitating intervention on our part in order to mitigate that threat. It’s why we exist, literally, as official protectors of our constituency.
Despite that, however, they’re often shocked when we take action as needed to deal with the situation – but it’s critical to not let that reaction define your action. While it’s thankfully not common, doing so can, and has, resulted in officers being killed or injured, and then you become another type of tool for the media: the brave officer who was valiantly serving his community, even when that injury or death could have been avoided if use of force had been applied as it was actually needed and without thought to repercussions on one’s career.
Your job, however, is not to be hurt or killed – it is to serve your community honorably and with pride, and return home in the same condition that you left it. Part of that means being confident in your ability to use force judiciously and properly when needed – you have been vested with the authority to do so for a reason, and trained on when and how to, so don’t be afraid to apply it when it’s the correct reaction.
Listen to Yourself
Ultimately, believe it or not, your gut will often serve as your best indicator of the true danger of a situation – but only if your brain doesn’t silence it with “what ifs” that delve too much into what might be instead of what actually is. In the end, in the vast majority of cases, force which is correctly applied is vetted in the end, even if it’s a long and potentially difficult process to get to that point (especially often true with lethal force cases).
Remember, however, that letting your brain take over too much, pushing in all those arguments and media stories about what happened to someone else, might result in your not being there at all to go through that vetting process, or instead being forced to see it happen from a hospital bed. The rest of your life will happen, one way or another, after these moments and encounters, and I would argue that not being injured or killed is a much better outcome in the long run than potentially having to suffer through watching your name be called out on some media outlet for a little while, or be persecuted, again, for a short time – or even to see that of an innocent victim whose injury or death you might have prevented.
Greg Bogosian is certified as a Reserve/Intermittent Police Officer by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and spent twelve years working as an EMT-Basic, including four years as a field EMT and dispatcher for the City of Boston EMS. He was additionally a member of a Federal medical disaster relief team for ten years, with experience responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the pre-deployment of resources for Hurricane Ike. Greg currently has a passion for educating public safety professionals about matters which impact their lives every day, and welcomes feedback and suggestions in the spirit of ensuring that best practices make it out there for all to benefit from.