Every couple of months I get a use-of-force case sent to me for review that just makes my eyeballs pop out. Not over the incidents themselves, because in a great majority of the cases I’m asked to look at, the force used by the officers was appropriate and proper. That’s not just Lieutenant Dave talking — statistics back that statement up. In fact, the latest International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) study “Police Use of Force in America” found that police use “excessive force” in less than one-half of one percent (0.42%) of their force encounters. Put another way, excessive force was not used 99.583% of the time.
What really gets my Italian blood boiling is this incessant need by police chiefs or sheriffs to find something wrong in their officers’ action in spite of the righteous use of force. It seems that some brass, just to appease the media or other anti-police factions out there who believe that the law enforcement community should be relegated to a “visible” force presence only, look for anything to bang the officer on. Here are a few examples.
Case #1 — Without Hat
A young copper out west was involved in a long-distance pursuit. This chase lasted for more than 30 minutes and ended up out in the boondocks — so far out there that his backup got lost trying to find the officer. When the suspect crashed, the intoxicated driver and his two accomplices immediately overpowered the lone lawman and began a relentless close-quarters face-to-face assault on the cop. This three-on-one attack prevented any chance of less-lethal force saving this officer’s life. His only option was his sidearm. And that’s what he used, firing three times.
The score at the end of this encounter: one bad guy KIA, a second bad guy wounded, a third bad guy not injured at all. The involved officer — although bloodied and bruised — survived.
The State Attorney’s Office cleared the officer. The Firearms Discharge Review Board found likewise. So far, so good.
However, when I read through the case file, what made the veins pop out of my neck were two sustained violations of agency policy. The first one found that the officer neglected to “put his hat on” before defending himself from this brutal assault. The second found that the officer used “improper language” toward his would-be killers. I’m not making this stuff up. Apparently, “Gentlemen, please stop beating the crap out of me or I’ll be forced to employ deadly force against you” would have been the preferred verbal response to the trio of thugs. Regardless of this two-pronged administrative finding, I’m fairly confident the federal civil rights lawsuit will conclude the shooting was reasonable.
Case #2 — Seven Words
In another language-related incident, a struggle during a domestic violence call resulted in one of the arresting officers making a less-than-polite reference to the suspect’s birth status. This ground fight, while less than a minute in length, lasted for what seemed like hours. Again, the force application — which consisted of several knee strikes to the suspect’s common peroneal nerve and a short burst of pepper spray followed by handcuffing — was deemed by the agency to be proper. But, apparently the big brass took offense to the spontaneous utterance by one of the officers during the physical confrontation. It appears this comment which, in sum and substance, went something like, “Stop resisting, you SOB!” made its way into the civil rights complaint.
Why? Because it was addressed and repeated word for word in the agency’s Use of Force Review Board’s minutes. In fact, those notorious seven words made in the heat of battle and captured on one officer’s belt recorder almost seemed to overshadow the Review Board’s finding that the force used by the officers on this drunken WWE-wanna-be was in fact reasonable and well within policy and department training. So did the jury. They found “no cause” all the way around.
However, the “unprofessional language” finding will remain in the officer’s IAB file for his remaining years with the agency.
Case #3 — Super-sized SUV
I recently spent two days in federal court listening to a police chief take apart a young officer for using deadly force against a suspect who was piloting a 5,000-pound SUV directly at him. Again, the incident began as a pursuit and like in Case #1 above, the involved officer’s backup got lost. The officer wound up all alone, at 0300 hours, looking down the headlights of a rapidly-approaching, super-sized SUV driven by a coked-up career criminal who actually made a 360-degree turn in an attempt to run the cop over rather than continue his escape to freedom.
For almost two days, this retired police chief — who possesses no force creds whatsoever — outlined all the policy statements this officer violated. The list went something like this:
• Not using his PA system to order the driver out when the pursuit momentarily ended — before starting up again
• Not positioning his vehicle in the precise felony stop manner
• Not getting into his car and driving away
You’ll note that none of these policy statements have anything to do with his use of force. Fortunately, the U.S. District Court judge — after listening to this senseless verbal tripe for nearly two days — heard it the same way. He granted the defense’s motion for a directed verdict and tossed out the plaintiff’s claims, but not before adding that all the traffic stop policy violations articulated by the plaintiff’s expert (the aforementioned retired police chief) had no bearing whatsoever on whether the officer’s use of force, at the split-second he used it during this rapidly-evolving incident was reasonable.
The appeal, filed in a timely fashion, went nowhere.
The lesson here, Chief Smith and Sheriff Jones, is this: Recognize that deadly force altercations are critical incidents. The primary focus for your officers and deputies during those times has to be on saving their lives. Sure, the hat is part of the uniform, but there comes a time when screwing it onto your head has to become secondary to the central issue of getting out of this life-threatening assault alive. And yes, we all know that law enforcement officers need to address the public in a respectful way. But when a particular segment of that public is bent on killing or maiming one of your own troops, perhaps not calling the prospective cop-killer or violently resisting suspect “Sir” at that precise moment can be overlooked, or maybe addressed in a separate setting not related to the formal after-action force critique, or better yet, dealt with during an informal counseling session.
Many retired, credentialed, and degreed police administrators or trainers — like yours truly — begin second careers as law enforcement consultants and use of force experts. Those of us who undertake that honorable part-time profession might endeavor to keep our critiques of officers’ conduct focused on the big picture by asking the question: Was the level of force used — at the precise moment it was used — objectively reasonable?