In some situations it may be absolutely reasonable and appropriate for a law enforcement officer to strike a suspect in the head/face area with a fisted punch. To be clear, I am writing about a knuckles-leading-the-way punch. Using a fisted punch is a natural response that some have trained to do for many years through martial arts, boxing, or other fighting sports. It is true that under stress the dominant response will prevail so if the officer has spent many hours practicing fisted punches, he/she will most likely deliver fisted punches as a body weapon option when under stress. Others have “previous experience” in using fisted punches in other contexts.
There are some downsides to striking a suspect in the head/face area with a fisted punch. The first and most concerning problem is the injury potential to the officer. People tend to punch with their dominant arm in order to get the most power into the strike. The problem with an officer using his/her dominant arm is that it is usually the weapon side arm as well. There is a high likelihood of injury when using a fisted strike including bone breaks and wrist injuries. It would be difficult for an officer to draw and fire his/her firearm with a severe injury to the weapon side hand.
Another consideration should be the anger reaction that will result from a punch to the face. Remember the last time you were punched in the face? Were you a bit livid at the person throwing the punch? The resulting effect may be that the person will now fight even more strongly against your efforts to control him. In today’s society you are almost certain to get a complaint from a suspect that was punched in the face. We have to be honest with ourselves and realize that although you may not have the complaint sustained in the end, who really enjoys the process of being a subject officer in a complaint process? Also, a fisted strike may appear “brutal” and “thuggish” to witnesses who in today’s world expect officers to act as trained professionals.
There are viable options to a fisted strike that are less injurious to the officer. Using a palm-heel strike can generate a substantial amount of force while offering more protection from injury. The body mechanics are virtually the same but instead of using a fisted hand the officer uses the heel of palm as a striking surface. Another option would be to use a hammer fist (lower edge of fist used for pounding blows)1 strike.
In choosing a force option, officers must be mindful of the level of the intrusion into the suspect’s 4th Amendment rights. A way of analyzing this intrusion would be to look at the expectation of injury to the suspect based on “how” the force option is being used. A blow of sufficient force with any personal body weapon to a head/face could result in serious bodily injury or could be fatal.
Serious injuries that could result from a fisted strike to the head/face include
1. a blow to the face area could cause disfigurement
2. a blow to the temple or to the skull at the junction of jaw and ear, possibly damaging major blood vessels
3. a blow at the junction of head and neck, possibly severing the spinal cord2
This expectation of injury must be reasonably balanced with the governmental interests at stake, or the “why.” In Graham v Connor (490 U.S. 386 (1989)), the US Supreme Court gave law enforcement several factors to examine when evaluating the “why” of an officer’s force option including, but not limited to:
1. the severity of crime at issue
2. the threat of the suspect
3. the level of resistance offered by the suspect.
Knowing that purposely striking a person in the face with a fist (the “how”) may cause serious injury, the governmental interests (the “why”) must be of a more serious nature as well in order to create the reasonable balance as described in Graham.
Some trainers have observed an increase in officers using a fisted strike into the suspect’s face as a first response to any resistance. This may be a reasonable response if the officer can articulate the need for a more severe force response. Unfortunately in many of the cases being discussed the articulation is not enough to justify a “punch him in the face” response. This could be a function of different variables at play. The officer may have done a poor job in documenting the totality of the circumstances known to him/her at the time. In other cases, the officer may have received training that overemphasized punching drills in their defensive tactics training.
Trainers need to be aware that an overabundance of pugilistic3 training may have a negative end result. We are not training officers to stand toe-to-toe with a suspect to have a fair boxing match. Officers need to understand that they may have to resort to pure violence of action at any given moment in response to a life-threatening event. The use of body weapons is an important part of any defensive tactics training in order to teach officers to defend themselves and/or to create distance to transition to a better suited force option. The problem that can result from the overuse of pugilistic training is that the trainer is reinforcing the use of a fisted strike. This brings into play all the listed problems above, instead of other law enforcement solutions.
1 California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, Learning Domain 33 (Arrest Methods/Defensive Tactics)
2 California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, Learning Domain 33 (Arrest Methods/Defensive Tactics)
3 Pugilism is the skill, practice, and sport of fighting with the fists; boxing (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Pugilistic).