It’s a gray (-haired) area

Video of a noncompliant 72-year-old great grandmother became the Internet’s hottest sensation this week. From a cursory review of the reactions and commentary on this thing, some of the news headlines should have been: “Police officer tases Mother Teresa.”

Without a doubt, it has generated intense debate, criticism, and questions — not only among the general population but also within the law enforcement community.

As a young officer working in a community with a large elderly population, I found myself not only helping the proverbial little old lady cross the street, but also dealing with a large elderly man with dementia who thought the CIA had sent two Tucson cops to kill him. With that background, I certainly sympathize with the officer dealing with a crabby little old biddy. At the same time, I wonder what would have happened if he had used a different force option.

Image taken from a May 11, 2009 video released by the Travis County Constable's Office. (AP Photo)
Image taken from a May 11, 2009 video released by the Travis County Constable's Office. (AP Photo)

Sort of a lose/lose proposition.

Okay, let’s step back and use this video as Rorschach test for dealing with exactly this type of force scenario. How you come down on this video says a lot about several things:

1. Where you believe TASER fits in our use of force options
2. How you feel about the witness factor — that is to say, “How will the community feel about the force option when they observe it?”
3. How you feel about force options when the officer has a vast disparity in age or size against a noncompliant subject
4. Your personal experience in dealing with these types of violators
5. How confident you are with your other force options

After you decide how you feel about this incident and the abovementioned considerations comes the important point: How does your agency view this video?

In other words, forget the bloggers, reporters, pundits, magazine writers, your squad mates, and your local radio celebrity. What really matters is your agency’s perspective on this specific use of force incident, because that will give you a concrete understanding of five issues above. Those answers will help in shortening your reaction time and giving you the confidence you may need to project control before ever having to use force.

All Sheriffs, Chiefs, and Directors should sit down with their training staff and use this video to discuss the agencies policies, all relevant laws and liabilities, and the community’s likely reaction to this action. This video provides a golden opportunity to reinforce what your agency thinks would be the model way of dealing with this 72-year-old nightmare — truly training to policies — and that is the important point for every law enforcement officer everywhere.

Remember hindsight bias. Because we know the ending to the story we don’t have to deal with all the ambiguities the officer in the video had to deal with. We don’t have to deal with the threat of traffic — not only to us but to the crazy lady — and all the time wondering how to get her into custody without hurting her or our career.

PS: Those of you who would just write “refused” on the citation and walk away, pretend she’s under arrest for something else, since the real issue is taking an elderly, noncompliant lady into custody.

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