Beware the "one device fits all" policy in use-of-force continuum

By Sgt. Ozzie Holshouser
Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Police Department

The past 20 years has provided a number of changes and additions in use-of-force options for law enforcement personnel. Most of the changes and additions are because of departments wisely seeking alternatives for use-of-force options in a litigious society. But some of it may be a result of “dumbing down” personnel and a heavy reliance on the tools, not the hands.

As a pressure-point-control-tactics trainer, you know the use-of-force continuum and the force variables ad nauseam. When examining use-of-force continuums, we “categorize” them along with departmental policies, as “Total Control Theory” and “One-Plus-One Theory.” The results of implementing use-of-force policies that invoke “one device fits all” can result in such incidents as the Rodney King beating, where the Los Angeles Police Department used the side-handle baton to solve all problems. Departments worldwide switched to the collapsible baton, some as a result of the LAPD incident. (The thought was that the public associated the side-handle baton with bad police behavior. This was extremely difficult for Aubrey Futrell, one of our staff instructors, as he is the side-handle baton guru). Most departments sought an option for officers who would not carry a large baton system, especially smaller officers. Few departments trained officers on tactics and techniques to enhance the use of the batons, especially what to do after striking the subject, such as arm-bar take downs. (I was told: “Just show them how to use it. That way we can fill up the classrooms easier, we won’t need to put down mats, and people won’t run into each other.”)

Shortly thereafter, the OC-spray bandwagon reached its capacity. Many organizations, including my own, used research conducted by an FBI agent, who later was convicted of charges related to recommending a particular brand of OC and one of its distributors. While OC is a valuable tool, many departments revised their policies to allow its use for any level of resistance, regardless of the variables associated with use-of-force option selection. Some OC salespeople were telling department heads that the use of OC would decrease or eliminate the need for defensive tactics training. For many organizations, OC was placed lower in the use-of-force continuum, ignoring the medical implications, the potential failure rate, and the inability to decrease the combative actions of the subject. (One police attorney I spoke to stated that the department could place OC anywhere in the continuum as a “matter of strategy” without increasing the department’s liability.) Many departments replaced the collapsible baton with OC because it saved space on the belt and it saved money. “Look, spray, decontaminate, handcuff and transport” became the norm. Again, little or no time was spent showing officers follow-up techniques. Many departments also chose not to expose their officers to the product, meaning that if the officers felt the effects of OC for the first time in the field, they may not have known what to do. (The argument was “We don’t shoot officers to show how guns and bullets work, so why expose them to OC?”)

The latest gift from the Police Gods is the electrical conducting weapon, or ECW. Touted as a safe alternative to empty hand strikes, batons and OC (no decontamination), departments are buying the small, handheld devices that momentarily incapacitate subjects. They seem to work very well when the probes penetrate and the wires aren’t broken. (I have felt the effects several times and can attest to the effectiveness). Again, it takes the place of something, such as a baton, but research from unbiased sources on the safety of these devices is scarce. Many departments, including my own, allow officers the option of carrying an ECW or collapsible, but at least one of the two must be on the officer’s “Batman belt.” Again, the department provides training on the basic use and related policy, but I have found few organizations that combine the basic training for the device with techniques and tactics associated with its use, associated failure drills and follow-up control techniques.

Where does this leave defensive-tactics trainers such as us? Some would say we complain about the lack of training hours for DT because we have spent training time on the use of these new toys. We are accused of turf-protecting, like the horse and buggy dealers when the Model A was marketed. Many of us are the pack mules when training occurs. We get sent to the schools because we are touted (rightfully so) as the use-of-force experts. We are the first ones videotaped receiving the OC or shock for demonstration for the administration. When it comes time to plan training, and we specify the time needed to complete the training, our bosses’ and peers’ eyes roll in their heads when we dare suggest to accompany the training with physical skills (to include — gasp — failure drills.)

“There you go again,” they say. “You always have to include something to hurt people.”

Sound familiar?

How do you combat this response to your audacious behavior? You must respectfully remind them that we do failure drills with the pistol, why not with other equipment? You must respectfully remind them that the force continuum is “a graphical representation that illustrates an appropriate officer response for a specific level of subject resistance.” This includes the tactical, legal and medical implications of the levels of control. Respectfully remind them that if the continuum jumps around from a higher level of control to a lower level of control, and the matter goes to trial, a jury will get confused. Encourage them to speak to other experts in the field (you can’t be a prophet in your own backyard) to get “another opinion.” Remind them that all physical skill training is money in the bank when it comes to defending employee actions post-incident. Then, document what you have suggested, including dates, times, names and faces so that you can say you told them so. I also keep boxes and other packing materials handy in case they transfer me because I would not change my stance.

Sgt. Ozzie Holshouser has been with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina for more than 26 years. He has been a PPCT IT for several years, an associate staff member for more than two years and has worked full time and part time at his department’s academy for more than 22 years. Holshouser is a certified firearms instructor, SWAT instructor, and has taught more than 7,500 police personnel across the country on a variety of use-of-force topics.

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