Allegations of excessive force and “police brutality” are at an all time high in America right now. This leads many officers to fall into a trap that makes it MORE likely they will receive an excessive force complaint. As a Defensive Tactics and Use of Force instructor for my department, I see a lot of use of force reports. I feel there are three factors that will greatly affect the outcome of an officer’s use of force complaints.
In spite of popular belief and what the media would have you believe, there isn’t a “police brutality” problem in America. There is an ignorance problem. The average citizens don’t have a clue about the realities of use of force laws nor the reality of actual violence. It is also in a defense attorney’s best interest to attempt to throw out as much misinformation and bullshit as possible to try to sway a jury and divert attention away from the real matter at hand… His or her client’s guilt.
Most police use of force incidents that end up going viral via YouTube as “police brutality” are perfectly justified. The problem however is how they look when viewed by someone who doesn’t understand the realities of violence. The problem isn’t excessive force. The problem usually lies in ineffective force.
Trap #1: Too little force
It seems counterintuitive to say using more force leads to less use of force complaints, but I believe it to be true. I don’t mean an officer should go all “Waterboy” on a suspect and start hammering them with a flurry of strikes or anything.
What I am talking about is using one or two very crisp techniques with conviction and violence of action, rather than drawing an altercation out for 10 minutes using a dozen ineffective techniques which serve to slowly escalate a situation. With the current anti law enforcement, political climate out there, it is understandable that officers are reluctant to use force. This is perfectly understandable, but unfortunately if forced to go hands on with a suspect, it is critical to get the suspect into custody as quickly as possible with the minimum amount of force possible. This isn’t going to happen if the officer doesn’t commit to the actions necessary.
The lack of training and confidence in the techniques can cause officers to be ineffective when trying to overcome a suspect’s resistance. Since it isn’t an option to just decide to let the suspect leave, this forces an officer to steadily increase the amount of force used to get the suspect into custody. This leads to a higher likelihood that either the suspect or the officer will be injured.
An officer is much less likely to receive an excessive force complaint if he takes a suspect down forcefully causing them to be stunned and taking the fight right out of them rather than dragging it on for a prolonged length of time. Especially when there are cameras involved and it looks like the officers are basically beating a guy, because they are failing to overcome the resistance effectively. This is why training outside of the once a year 8 hour defensive training block is so critical.
Too little force in the confrontation makes it more likely you will have to increase the force beyond what the situation initially requires.
Trap #2: Over reliance on tools
A cop’s duty belt contains a variety of tools, from OC (Pepper Spray), baton (either collapsible or straight stick), knives, Taser, radio, spare magazines and duty weapon. It is a good thing to be able to move up or down through the force continuum and have tools other than lethal force. Access to these wonderful tools can cause an over dependence however.
The Taser is an awesome tool on the ole’ Bat Belt. When used correctly, it tends to be very effective. Between its overall effectiveness and the erratic level of hands on defensive tactics training most departments receive, it is the tool most frequently misused. When the Taser fails, many over dependent officers are not proficient enough to transition to another tool in a manner that solves the problem with the least amount of force possible.
Trap #3: Poor documentation of the situation
I feel poor documentation is the number one reason officers receive complaints about their use of force. Each and every situation is unique and the smallest of factors can completely change the entire dynamic of a situation.
When writing a use of force report it is critical to be as detailed as possible. This is where the officer is offered the opportunity to write an entire book on that 10 minute situation. It isn’t too far of a stretch to use the old joke of “It was a dark and stormy night…” when writing a use of force report. This is the officer’s ONE CHANCE to document not only every factor of the suspect’s behavior that caused him or her to be forced to utilize force, but also what the officer was thinking and feeling at the time.
When writing a use of force report, I not only mention every conceivable factor and go through my thought process, but I also give a class in my report explaining what my training and experience has taught me about whatever the situation was. The report has to be able to independently explain the situation and justify your actions without any additional information from the officer. You may be called to court years later and won’t remember every little detail when you do.
Failure to properly document an incident can be the difference between a perfectly justified use of force and one that will end up with the officer fired or in legal trouble. The situation itself doesn’t change, but the ability to articulate one’s actions makes all the difference. Many defense attorneys will read the report and even if the situation is clearly reasonable force, will pursue a lawsuit if there are holes in the report.
I can happily say that while I may not be the smartest, toughest or most skilled officer out there, I have never been sued or in trouble for a use of force. I have been involved in numerous “critical incidents” and have had several serious uses of force, but I have always been able to clearly justify my actions and more importantly, articulate them in my report. If it isn’t in writing it didn’t happen. There are many examples of bad case law involving force due to what was a perfectly justified use of force that wasn’t articulated well. I personally don’t want to be making any case law anytime soon.
Sometimes there is nothing you can do to keep someone from filing a frivolous complaint. It is common for people to try to divert attention away from their own actions. The majority of these are false and often not even remotely associated with reality. I have seen people claim some pretty amazing and creative tales of being handcuffed and tortured or Tased hundreds of times, etc. The reality is their complete fabrications are easily disproved. There isn’t anything you can do about the completely fabricated fanciful stories people come up with. When you do legitimately have to use force though, it is in your best interest to make sure you are completely covered and that the force used really was reasonable for the situation and that it is well documented as such.
Do you disagree with my opinions on use of force? Feel free to let me know in the comments!
Also published on Medium.