Use of Force Policy Considerations


Earlier this month, I had a short conversation with a senior law enforcement executive. This Officer is both an experienced LEO and an experienced martial artist. At the outset of the conversation, he was reflecting on recent national developments regarding use of force encounters. Reflecting on some of the information reported in relation to the NYC Gardner case, he offered this statement: “I hope that academies will align their training with municipal policies.”

While I was pleased that a colleague was paying attention to national trends and developments, I was concerned by this expressed hope. As a trainer, who subsequently became a supervisor, commander, administrator, and agency head, I’m skeptical of fellow administrators who seek to correct “perceived” use of force disconnects by seeking simple “alignment.”

Use of force situations are fluid, dynamic, messy, and seldom predictable. They don’t follow a prepared script, and they seldom align entirely with our preconceived expectations. Use of force situations frequently “go sideways.” Responsible trainers recognize this reality of use of force situations, and do their best to provide students with strategies and techniques that are more than likely to be successful, even when things don’t go exactly as planned.

While some large agencies have internal academies which only train their personnel, many police academies are regional, or cooperative…training personnel from a large selection of departments and communities. For Department administrators to expect trainers to align their training with inconsistent policies that are often both reactionary and overly restrictive is unreasonable. Contemporary Use of Force trainers train to the “reasonableness” standard, established by Graham vs. Connor, and to nationally accepted standards and best practices. These standards and best practices are consistent. Policies often are not.

Rather than place unreasonable and unrealistic restrictions on the training provided to officers, law enforcement administrators should instead consider basing policy decisions on the reasonableness standard and best practices. One department that I am familiar with previously prohibited their personnel from carrying metal flashlights. The stated intention of the ban was to keep officers from striking subjects with their lights. Instead, the unintended consequence was to cause officers to switch to larger, plastic lights. These lights were allowed under the ban, and were capable of inflicting greater damage than the banned, smaller lights.

Instead of evaluating the reasonableness of the flashlight strikes, the department chose to address the equipment. A subsequent review showed that the vast majority of the time that an officer utilized a flashlight to deliver a strike, it was both reasonable and necessary. Therefore, the flashlight ban was unnecessary and ineffective. After considering this, the prohibition was reversed and flashlights were re-defined as impact tools. As an impact tool, any strike that would be allowable with a baton would also be allowable with a flashlight.

Use of Force policies should not focus on tools, techniques, or tactics. Use of Force policies should instead emphasize that based on the “totality of circumstances” and the degree of risk presented by the subject any force utilized by the officer must be reasonable and necessary to overcome the subject’s unlawful resistance and to regain and maintain control. Regardless of the tool or tactic selected, the force applied must be appropriate to the risk and threat encountered.

Utilizing this type of totality analysis and training, disconnects between training and policy can be avoided. Officers who understand use of force analysis understand that a potentially lethal technique or tool cannot justifiably be employed on a subject who does not present a potentially deadly threat. Eliminating those choices from their force decision necessitates choosing a more reasonable force option.

Law enforcement Use of Force is a complicated and dynamic area of practice that requires decisions to be made under enormous stress and tight time constraints. Use of Force policies should not be crafted to complicate these situations, but rather to simplify and streamline them. Officers who find themselves in a use of force situation should not be placed under the additional pressure of having to recall specific bans and prohibitions. Instead, they should have a firm understanding that as long as their chosen force option is both reasonable and necessary based on the risk and threat they are facing that the option will be considered to be “within policy” and accepted by the agency.

M.J. Wynn
March 15, 2015

Teaching Baton Totality

May 2007 (MJW)

The police baton in its many forms; nightstick, expandable, side-handle, etc. is traditionally viewed as an impact weapon. When viewed in this light, the baton is justifiably and appropriately employed as a “defensive tactics” tool against a subject the officer perceives as “assaultive.” However, this traditional view is narrow-minded and restrictive.

If the baton is only employed for striking, its usefulness is extremely limited. In New England, where I work, there is often extreme reluctance to “hit someone with a stick.” It is not uncommon to hear officers, especially veteran officers, say, “I’m never going to hit someone with my baton. I’m just not going to do it.” This fear and reluctance is the result of several high-profile incidents, negative prior experiences, public perception, and ill-informed department managers. As a result, many officers and agencies have relegated the police baton to a nearly symbolic role. One local agency issues their officers an under-sized baton, orders it placed inconveniently out of reach on their belt, and directs officers not to use it! It is provided simply so their officers can honestly state that they had all of their Use of Force tools available during a fight.

This state of affairs is truly unfortunate, because the police baton; whether a straight stick, a friction lock or positive lock expandable, side-handle, or some new, high-speed version, is an amazingly versatile piece of police equipment. It provides the knowledgeable and motivated officer with nearly limitless techniques and tactics with which to resolve a wide range of conflict…only a fraction of which involve “assaultive” subjects.

The first step in resolving this unfortunate misunderstanding is teaching the concept of Baton Totality. In the regional police academy where I instruct Defensive Tactics, we have embraced the concept of Totality in all of our teaching. In the simplest terms, Totality is understanding, and properly applying whatever force implement is in your hands at the time, based on the suspect’s actions and an accurate risk assessment. Baton Totality is the ability to properly deploy, and if necessary, properly employ the police baton against all levels of resistant subjects, from Passively Resistant to Lethal Force.

The second step in resolving this misunderstanding is redefining the police baton as a tool. The police baton is not an impact tool. It is much more than that. It is useful to our discussion, if we start to think of the police baton as a “control device,” rather than as a striking weapon. As a Senior Instructor-Trainer within the Monadnock Police Training Council, I am most familiar with the MPTC’s philosophy of “Protect & Restrain™.” However, this philosophy can be applied to any baton, or any baton-like object. Under the “Protect & Restrain™” philosophy, the baton is used as a defensive, blocking tool to protect the officer and others. It is also used as a leverage device to enhance control holds and pain compliance techniques. It can be used as a distraction device in order to prepare for a follow-up technique. Only as part of the “Protect & Restrain™” philosophy do we look at delivering baton strikes: as reactive, counter-strikes, following a successful blocking technique; alternatively as proactive, protective strikes against a subject displaying “pre-attack indicators” or other signs of assaultive behavior; or finally, as deadly force strikes to high-risk target areas against a subject presenting a lethal threat.

Having redefined the baton as a control device, rather than simply an impact tool, our next challenge is to explore exactly where the baton fits in the “reasonable officer’s response” category. Once we recognize that we don’t have to hit someone every time the baton comes out of its holder, we realize that we can begin deploying the baton at lower levels of non-compliance. Under an integrated force model, nearly all baton techniques, beside strikes, are justifiable against an “actively resistant” subject. Once we accept this premise, the baton becomes a very flexible and accessible tool.

By applying the concept of totality and an integrated use of force model, to our traditional contact and cover principles, we can deploy the baton in a wide range of situations. With a firm understanding of the above principles, the police baton can be deployed in nearly any use of force situation. Let us examine some possible baton deployments.

  • Officers are dispatched to a reported “family disturbance.” The address and the principal parties are known to both officers from previous law enforcement contacts. The officers arrive, enter, separate the parties and begin their investigation. On the basis of their initial interviews, the officers decide the male party is going to be arrested.
  • The contact officer is speaking to the male party. The subject is seated in his easy chair. His hands are clearly visible. He displays no overt signs of aggression or hostility. However, he will not comply with verbal commands from the contact officer. Our subject is passively resistant, offering no “physical or mechanical” means of resistance. The contact officer recognizes that he will have to close the distance and utilize “contact controls” to move the offender out of the chair.
  • The cover officer, rapidly assessing the risk, recognizes that although the offender is passively resistant, the situation is “volatile.” Once contact is established the offender can respond in one of four ways: he can comply; he can continue to resist passively; he can stiffen up, or grab the chair, becoming actively resistant; or finally, he can dramatically increase his resistance, becoming assaultive to some degree. Responding to the risk, rather than the action, the cover officer quietly and discreetly draws her baton, placing it in a low-profile, “vertical” carry.
  • If the subject complies, the baton can casually be returned to its holder, without the principles being aware of its deployment. If the subject continues his passive resistance, the cover officer can decide whether to engage, or remain in a position of cover. Should she choose to engage, the baton is returned to its holder. If she chooses to maintain cover, the baton can remain in a vertical carry, or transitioned to a higher profile carry, in order to deter increased resistance. If the offender becomes actively resistant, the contact officer can maintain an empty handed control hold, while the cover officer closes, delivers a baton distraction technique, if appropriate, and places a baton controlling technique on the offenders’ loose arm. If the offender escalates further, becoming assaultive to any degree, the cover officer can quickly close the distance, landing baton strikes to overcome the resistance, and allowing the contact officer to disengage, transition to a higher force option and then re-engage if necessary.

As the above scenario illustrates, the police baton can be successfully and appropriately deployed at nearly every degree of resistance. It can be employed against subjects who are actively resistant or higher. In our academy, we demonstrate baton techniques for removing a subject from a chair or bar, extracting a driver from a motor vehicle, compelling a prone subject to move their arms from under their body, armlocking a subject that is mounted on the officer’s chest, and many more.

The object of this training is to teach our young officers that their baton is much more than an impact tool. By exposing them a wider variety of skills and techniques, we increase their comfort level, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will choose to access their baton more frequently and effectively. Although we try to extend the concept of totality to all of the equipment on our officers’ belts, the baton is, by far, the most versatile piece of equipment in the traditional police arsenal.

Anyone can pick up a stick and hit someone with it. That doesn’t require much training. In the hands of a motivated and trained police officer, that “stick” can become much more useful and effective.

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