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.
March 15, 2015