It is shocking when a police officer uses violence upon the constitutionally protected. When they use deadly force instead of a Taser or strike someone instead of using pepper spray — it scares us.
Departments welcome scrutiny of police use of force, but it should be an informed scrutiny with an understanding of the tactical challenges that guide officer decision-making in our streets, alleys and backyards.
When the Supreme Court described police confrontations as “rapidly evolving, dynamic and uncertain,” it implicitly recognized that officer decision-making degrades when things happen quickly and that officers experience emotional uncertainty when they face unpredictable subjects. This is why the justices ruled that police use of force “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
Let us examine, from the officer’s view, just a few of the factors that influence their decisions.
Stable and calm circumstances can quickly become complex and dangerous. For example, fleeing suspects sometimes run into innocent people’s homes. Police know that they must do their best to contain and isolate a volatile person from posing a danger to innocent people around them.
Ideally, a police officer should be purposeful and deliberate, but human behavior is not linear — people are calm one moment and explosive the next. The idea of progressing through a force option menu, called a use-of-force continuum, is an antiquated approach.
As early as 2002 FBI trainers recognized that a continuum does not account for how an attempt to control can quickly become a self-defense situation.
The most dangerous moments officers face are when they approach people to control them or handcuff them.
Clear verbal commands and good communication skills and deescalation techniques are important, but they are not always effective. The FBI called the use of a step-by-step progression a “prescription for hesitation.”
An officer who hesitates in close quarters may have to use substantially more force than if he acts decisively and with urgency.
Officers respond frequently to those suffering from mental illness. Most of the time, they arrange treatment and transport the person to a local hospital without incident.
Sometimes victims of mental illness are agitated, excitable or paranoid. They may be suffering from multiple conditions such as drug-induced psychosis, paranoia, schizophrenia or even head trauma.
Officers know these behaviors are often associated with aggression, great strength and unresponsiveness to pain. Officers also know that a prolonged struggle may place the mentally ill person at a higher risk of death because of increased body temperatures and cardiac arrest. Sometimes effective communication and verbal commands and even pleading do not work. When this happens, police training and protocol dictates that officers develop a plan for capture and control and implement it quickly.
The Taser can be used to prevent someone from getting up, running or attacking, but the Taser does not always solve the problem. You have to target separate quadrants of the body, ideally above and below the waist in order for the Taser to be effective. Accuracy is difficult when the officer or suspect is running and jumping. Loose or heavy clothing can stop the darts from making skin contact. Moreover, people suffering from a severe mental illness or under the effect of drugs or alcohol may not even experience the effects of the Taser. Occasionally, they just pull the darts out or simply ignore the Taser and continue in their aggression.
When an officer enters into close personal space with a potentially dangerous person and intermediate methods, such as a Taser, fail to control the subject, the confrontation can spin wildly out of control. At this precise moment, everyone — the officer, the general public and the suspect — are in danger because at every police-to-civilian conflict, there is always at least one gun present: the officer’s gun. If an officer loses, his or her own firearm could be used to hurt others. An overt attack by a physically superior person is catastrophic.
These are but a few of the many tactical variables an officer has to consider in every interaction. Death at the hand of a police officer is a heart-breaking tragedy for everyone involved. Informed scrutiny is our civic responsibility, but a balanced perspective is necessary because these events are rapidly evolving, dynamic and uncertain.
Capt. Bob Higginbotham is a retired police officer, behavior analyst and use-of-force expert.