Threat recognition, use of force and “less lethal” options for police officers

When cops assess a potential threat, they determine whether lethal force is necessary or if one of several “less lethal” tools such as a baton, OC or TASER will be successful


An officer facing a subject in a rapidly unfolding, high-stress, use-of-force scenario has numerous options from which to choose. They rapidly assess the scenario and determine whether or not lethal force is necessary to stop the threat, or if one of several “less lethal” tools – baton, OC and TASER to name a few – will be successful. 

But having all of our “less lethal” tools available can lead critics to denounce officers who use objectively reasonable and justifiable force. They may decry, “Why didn’t he/she just use ____?” Some of the surrounding research could substantiate why experienced officers look like “loose cannons” to unskilled eyes, while they are really preempting a pending assault. 

I recently attended a presentation on cognitive factors in force decision-making, in which Joel Suss, Ph.D., of Wichita State University, explained the Temporal Occlusion Paradigm, a means of testing how a person generates options when given a particular situation. He used a tennis game in his first example. In an early iteration of this research, respondents were given a series of stop action photos taken from a video. The stop action photos were of a person executing a tennis serve. Subjects were asked if the ball was going to arrive at their forehand or their backhand. 

Defense Technology recently introduced new 40 mm and 12 gauge Aerial Warning/Signaling Munitions. (PoliceOne Image)
Defense Technology recently introduced new 40 mm and 12 gauge Aerial Warning/Signaling Munitions. (PoliceOne Image)

I am oversimplifying the research, but one of the findings is significant: Skilled players anticipated their opponent’s intentions earlier and more accurately. That is, experts knew where the ball was going before non-experts. Further research suggests that skilled players process what they are seeing more efficiently while predicting outcomes more accurately. 

The Police Context

Suss switched the presentation to that of a domestic violence scenario video. The video wasn’t much different than ones used in academy training. It began with an officer dispatched to a home for a disturbance call. The front door of the house is ajar, and the officer can see a male subject standing over a seated female subject. I don’t need to go through the whole thing, but it is basically a common force decision-making scenario. 

The officer witnesses the activity, but the video stops in mid-stride. Participants were told to immediately divulge the option they generated from the scenario. 

Rather than, “Would the ball end up in your forehand or backhand?” the question became, “What would you do, officer?”

If you are wondering what I was thinking, the experimenters could have stopped the scenario very early – this guy would have been in handcuffs quicker than they could have paused the scenario. 

Suss gathered some excellent data, and communicated it well in his presentation. If you connected the dots here, the theory is that experienced officers will make force decisions earlier and more efficiently. The force option chosen – whether that be firearm, baton, elbows, knees, OC, or TASER – is decided by the officer in a split second based on his or her observation of the actions of the subject. This may explain why routine force decision making for an experienced officer looks like a “loose cannon” to YouTube “experts.”

Speaking of the TASER, in the StreetCred study, Unarmed Civilians & The Police: Analysis of the StreetCred Police Killings in Context Data, two TASER facts stand out. In almost 30 percent of incidents where the officer was confronted with an unarmed person, the officer deployed a TASER prior to employing a firearm. 

This is good. It indicates that an intermediate level of force was employed before the firearm. The other fact that stands out is the NIJ study that found 99.7 percent of people who are on the receiving end of TASER deployments suffered minor or no injuries, making a TASER one of the most statistically safe tools an officer employs. 

That having been said, what other “less lethal” force option tools are out there in addition to TASER?

Three New Products

I recently got a chance to look at First Tactical’s internal Elbow Pad and Knee Pad, which integrate into the Tactics Tactical Pants and Tactical Shirts. They are multi-density closed cell pads that stay correctly positioned for joint protection. These pads are extremely low profile, and the pre scored articulation areas keep them bending with the user. Combined with the subtle reinforcement of First Tactical’s Hard Knuckle Gloves, these products add low profile protection for the officer.

Another tool you may not yet be aware of is from Monadnock. The company has just released its AutoLock HG-X3 Expandable Baton, which has its improved cam and stainless steel ball bearing locking mechanism. Officers like the fact that the baton stays locked when used for thrusting at a target. If the officer is threatened by a suspect grabbing the baton, the shaft rotates, eliminating having the baton “torqued” from the user. It is available in 21” and 22” sizes. 

In addition, Defense Technology recently introduced new 40 mm and 12 gauge Aerial Warning/Signaling Munitions. They are marked with a tactile feature on the nose for instant identification as a 100/200/300 meter delivery system. When the launcher fires at a 15 degree angle, the cartridge deflagrates about 20 feet over the intended target, delivering 170dB (wow!) of sound and five million candelas for 7.5 milliseconds. This type of munition was designed to scatter crowds without chemical munitions. 

Not a New Product

Finally, the Orcutt Police Nunchaku – that’s right, the nunchacku – is getting a little more attention lately. The Anderson Police Department – a small agency in Northern California – has adopted them as their less lethal option. The nunchaku is a cool tool – but you know already because Bruce Lee made them famous. 

Remember, when you – or your agency – is choosing a new less lethal option, the appropriate training needs to be incorporated into that purchase. Stay safe. 

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