AMU Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

There Are Valid Reasons Why Police Will Use Force

By Andrew Bell, faculty member, Criminal Justice at American Military University and
Bruce Razey,
35-year police veteran

Police use force to uphold the rule of law and also so the citizens they protect will not have to use force to protect themselves, others, and property.

Police have a duty to arrest and lawfully detain a resisting person and to defend themselves from physical aggression. A necessary element of an arrest is the detention of the subject. Detention occurs when the arrested individual submits to the control of the officer. Only when a person resists control should the police use force. While officers have a duty to arrest lawbreakers, they also have a right to defend themselves.

Remember the recent scene reminiscent of the Old West of that husband and wife brandishing weapons at protesters? Citizens don’t want lawlessness and people taking matters into their own hands. What all good citizens want are the principles of the rule of law: publicly promulgated citizen support; equally enforced by the police; independently adjudicated by impartial judges; and consistent with international human rights principles, that  is fair government for all.

The Rule of Law Is Not One-Sided Compelling Only Citizens to Follow the Law

Notice that the rule of law is not one-sided compelling only citizens to follow the law; it also demands the government be fair and equitable. With the recent killing of George Floyd and other Black citizens, many Americans have lost trust in the rule of law. So how do we regain that trust? Would stopping the use of force by police (as some believe) bring us an equitable solution? No, even the United Nations believes that the rule of law must allow for the use of force by government.

Trust must be built. It starts with educating the why and how police do what they do. Understanding how officer training works and why police have broad discretion in the use of force will go a long way in rebuilding trust between citizens and police.

[Related: Diversity in Police Force Hiring Promotes Community Trust]

Contrary to popular belief, many police departments never train nor approve choking as a compliance technique. Pain is what brings a disorderly subject under control, not the sleeper hold. Police train in a few simple takedowns and come-along techniques to gain control quickly.

We do not recommend chokeholds for several reasons: They are not only dangerous, they are difficult to learn and perform during an altercation with a subject. Severe injury or death can occur if the maneuver isn’t applied correctly or for too long. Therefore, use-of-force training should never include submission maneuvers so technical that they require consistent practice to maintain the skill.

The Longer a ‘Fight’ Continues, the More Dangerous it Becomes for All Parties

The longer a “fight” continues, the more dangerous it becomes for all parties involved. When verbal commands and hands-on control techniques fail, officers are trained to use less-lethal weapons, such as batons, pepper spray, stun guns, Tasers, and the like. Once these weapons were referred to as non-lethal. However, many departments changed the term to less-lethal after there were several deaths.

For example, pepper spray can cause severe, even deadly medical complications to people with respiratory conditions. Heart patients, especially those with pacemakers, are also at risk if a stun gun or Taser is used against them. These weapons can even cause cardiac issues in healthy people. As for a baton strike, there would be no danger of being struck if the aggressor would not provoke the responding officers. However, The Marshall Project and others have suggested that had these less-lethal tools been used Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, and others would not have died.

When police are forced to employ less-lethal weapons, they seldom if ever know the physical condition of the person resisting arrest. So they need to be trained and prepared to render first aid to the individual as soon as possible.

Another popular idea calling for limiting police use of force is if we do away with less-lethal weapons that it will reduce the use of force. In reality, use of less-lethal weapons helps to minimize injuries to officers and offenders.

A 2020 study by The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) indicated when “Less-lethal tools are integrated with an agency’s use-of-force policies, training, and tactics – the policing profession is likely to see positive movement in use-of-force statistics and improvements in police-community relations.”

Criminals Resisting Arrest Are Focused on Just One Thing, Getting Away

Criminals resisting arrest are focused on just one thing, getting away; How they do it is of no concern to them. Resisting often begins with pushing, punching, and kicking. However, when that fails, most criminals will increase their resistance any way they can to escape. They might even choose to choke the arresting officer.

Conversely, the police officer is limited to a few pain compliance holds and, if necessary, whatever tools are on the officer’s belt. Officers are trained to use only the minimum force necessary to make the arrest. Going beyond the least amount of force could be defined as excessive.

Try to picture yourself as a police officer arresting someone for an illegal act. As you attempt to handcuff the violator, he twists away, punches you, and runs off. You chase him down, and a wrestling match ensues. During the scuffle, your pepper spray falls from your belt and the suspect retrieves it. You must prevent the suspect from using the pepper spray. If not, he will temporarily blind you and leave you gasping for breath. That will enable the suspect to escape, or worse, take your gun and shoot you. All you have are your Taser and sidearm to avoid becoming incapacitated. You have only a split second to decide which weapon to grab. What would you do?

It is decisions like this that officers make daily. But if the suspect is seriously injured or killed, your decision and tactics will be scrutinized by the media, your department, and everyone else who sees the video or hears about it on social media. Lying on your back with the suspect leaning over you with pepper spray in his hand is not the time to weigh the pros and cons of your actions. Most anyone would defend themselves using any means necessary, and police must be afforded the same opportunity.

Department policies limiting police action in high-risk or dangerous situations are not new. For instance, our department had a policy banning firing on a moving vehicle. Pursuits are commonly limited in several respects: first in the number of police vehicles involved, and second, disengaging or terminating the pursuit when the risk to the public outweighs the seriousness of the offense.

Also, if other methods of pursing and apprehending the suspect are available, the vehicle pursuit may be terminated as when the police air unit can follow and identify where the suspect vehicle’s stops. Finally, a supervisor must be made aware of the situation and can also terminate the pursuit at any time.

During Police Contacts at Least One Gun Is Involved 100% of the Time, the Officer’s

During police contacts at least one gun involved 100% of the time, the officer’s weapon. A resisting arrest incident can quickly turn from fighting to deadly force if the suspect grabs the officer’s firearm or other less-lethal weapons. This situation occurs more often than one would think.

To illustrate, one of our officers responded to a misdemeanor shoplifting at a retail department store. The offender was cooperative and cordial. However, since he had no identification, the officer was required to make a physical arrest, instead of issuing a summons. Due to the suspect’s friendly demeanor, the officer agreed not to handcuff him, almost always a mistake. Then the shoplifter overpowered the officer and shot him with his duty weapon.

In another incident, an officer walked into his bank to cash a check. He greeted a man leaving and held open the door for him. The man then turned around, yanked the officer’s baton from his belt and hit him in the head, knocking him out and causing severe injuries. The officer had no idea the man had just robbed the bank.

Occurrences like these cause police to be on continuous high alert. Unfortunately, to attain and maintain that high level, the public often misconstrues their body language as arrogant and daunting. So, officers are taught to be aware of and to retain their lethal and non-lethal weapons.

Today, many people believe the police should be restricted from using specific means of force. Even while facing an armed individual, some say “The officer should have shot the guy in the leg. He didn’t need to kill him.”

The police are not target shooters. They train to strike body mass, not limbs. The purpose is to stop the aggression quickly, not prolong the situation by wounding the suspect. The longer the aggression goes on, the more dangerous it becomes for all parties involved. The choice between living another day or going through the court system is not a decision police officers should ever have to make.

There are bad people in police departments, politics, activist groups, the media, and in everyday life. The trick is to identify these individuals and weed them out so they cannot cause harm. Police are held to a higher degree than most professions, and that is the way it should be.

Even with all their training, police are not skilled enough or well-equipped to handle every situation they are called to answer. Some advocates say we ask too much of police and citizens need to decide what they want their police to do. In the case of drives to defund the police or limit police powers, there should also be a push to unburden police of non-emergencies.

[Related: Police Reform: Ways Agencies Can Improve Officer Ethics]

Police are not social workers, doctors, or lawyers. Police in St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, will no longer respond to non-violent 911 calls, such as quality-of-life complaints or mental-health concerns. However, regardless of this initiative, allowing for more concentrated training in the use of force will do little to prevent mistakes and bad apples that deserve citizen and government scrutiny.

Police Must Train to De-Escalate Any Potential Use-of-Force Situation

The dynamics of police action can change in a moment’s notice. Using the force necessary to make an arrest also requires the officer to reduce that force (de-escalating) when the suspect becomes cooperative.

Police must train to de-escalate any potential use-of-force situation. Defusing situations should always be the first option. Second, police should train to de-escalate themselves as well as other police officers when warranted by changing situations. Techniques such as time outs, tactical pause, peer-on-peer, and supervisor-on-officer and even disengaging (yes, even backing down) must be part of the use-of-force policy and training.

It is time for people to understand why the police use force and to educate their families and friends on the subject. The police are expected to take charge of a situation, not shirk their duty when faced with an aggressive individual. It is always safer to complain to the police department’s internal affairs unit or the equivalent than to challenge the arresting officer. Communities must trust and respect those they call to help and protect them. But, only by working together can mutual trust and respect be achieved.

About the Authors

Andrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Andrew also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member of American Military University since 2004.

Bruce Razey began his law enforcement career in 1975. During his 35-year career, he worked for three diverse police departments. Bruce served in patrol operations, special operations and the investigative division. His assignments included field training officer, air unit coordinator/observer, field training supervisor, community policing supervisor, detective supervisor and committee chairman for internal affairs review unit. He served on numerous hiring and promotional boards; authored and co-authored policies and procedures; created lesson plans to instruct new and veteran officers in a variety of topics; and established policy and guidelines for an improved method of conducting police lineups and eye-witness testimony. Bruce holds a bachelor of science degree in criminology from the University of Saint Leo, Florida. He graduated number one from the Regional Police Academy and from the West Point Leadership & Management Training Course.

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