P1 Research: Cops fear using force despite confidence in training

The issue with rewarding LEOs for showing “great restraint” when it comes to UOF is that it evaluates quality of outcome, not necessarily quality of decision


PoliceOne and LSU’s 2017 "Policing in a Post-Ferguson Society" survey asked 3,346 sworn law enforcement professionals across all ranks and department sizes about the impact of major events like Ferguson and Dallas on their happiness and overall performance as law enforcers.

Our special report, Major Event Impact: How Ferguson and Dallas Changed Police Psychology, features expert analysis of the survey findings, covering critical topics like use of force, community relations and career satisfaction. Click here to learn more about the coverage.

By John Bostain

Police use of force is in the national spotlight. News outlets like CNN have hosted town hall forums, social media is regularly flooded with stories about police conduct and the candidates in the last presidential election cycle frequently brought up the topic. The question is, has the intense national focus caused officers to fear using force? 

In this March 11, 2015 file photo, police and protesters square off outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
In this March 11, 2015 file photo, police and protesters square off outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

A recent Pew Research Study found that 76 percent of the officers surveyed are more reluctant to use force, even when it’s appropriate. Now, a survey administered by PoliceOne entitled “Policing in a Post-Ferguson Society” is finding similar results. 

The survey, a joint project between PoliceOne and Louisiana State University, examined officers’ opinions related to policing in the post-Ferguson era (August 2014-June 2016) as well as their feelings since the ambush attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge (July 2016-present). More than 3,000 sworn law enforcement officers responded, providing valuable insight into the attitudes of officers in the field. 

While the sample size is not representative of the 900,000 law enforcement officials in the U.S., the opinions reflected in the survey are consentient with what I hear as I teach around North America. Approximately 53 percent of the officers surveyed indicated they are apprehensive about using force, even though it may be necessary, and 40 percent indicated that apprehensiveness increased after the events in Ferguson. 

Further, nearly 50 percent of the officers indicated the amount of stops they made (traffic and pedestrian) decreased in the period after Ferguson. When it comes to their own safety, 59 percent of the officers surveyed indicated their feeling of safety decreased after Ferguson, and that number jumps to 67 percent since the Dallas and Baton Rouge attacks. 

Officer reluctance

Interestingly, 95 percent of the officers indicated they are confident in their ability to use force and believe they have received proper training, so the reluctance to use force is being caused by other factors. In short, many officers appear to be more reluctant to use force when appropriate, which may have negative implications for officer safety.  

The notion that officers may be more reluctant to use force now versus prior to Ferguson may be welcome news to the general public and special interest groups. Activist groups, research foundations and even some police executives have been calling for officers to show more restraint during dangerous situations. The Los Angeles Police Department’s Preservation of Life award is just one example of this.

Restraint examined

But how much restraint is too much? Research on the Restraint in the Use of Deadly Force conducted by the FBI found that 70 percent of officers have been confronted with a situation where they could have justifiably used deadly force, but did not. It appears officers already show great restraint in deadly situations. How much more is expected?

The problem with rewarding officers for showing “great restraint” is that it evaluates the quality of the outcome, not necessarily the quality of the decision. Just because the outcome was good, doesn’t mean the decision making was good. 

For example, a person decides to go out to a bar and get drunk. Rather than call for a cab, they decide to take their chances and drive home. The following morning, they wake to find their car in the driveway, undamaged and nobody got hurt. That’s a pretty good outcome, right?  The person saved money, didn’t hurt anyone and didn’t damage their vehicle. That’s a good outcome. But, is anyone going to claim the decision to drive drunk was a good one? Of course not. It’s the same when rewarding officers on the outcome of an encounter and not whether they made quality decisions. 

Overcoming apprehension

Is there a way to overcome the apprehensiveness that many officers say they are feeling about using force? While these surveys have provided insight into how officers are feeling, the cause of those feelings is still open to interpretation. Until there is more research on the topic, our police officers would be well served by training focused on enhancing use of force decision making. One of the most important things we can do is slow down, when feasible.

It’s time to address the culture of speed that exists in the law enforcement profession. Anyone who takes a wide scale, objective look at law enforcement training programs will see that there is an element of speed ingrained in much of what is taught. For example, consider how recruit officers are taught to respond to an open door alarm activation. In almost every academy in the country it’s taught the same way. Arrive on scene, call for back-up, set a perimeter and call for a K-9 if available. They are further instructed that in these situations, time is on their side, so there is no need to rush.

However, as Harold D. Stolovitch says, “Telling ain’t training.”  When officers are given a chance to practice responding to an open door alarm activation in a scenario, they attempt to follow what they were told in the classroom. They call for back-up, to which the instructor promptly replies “back-up isn’t available.” The recruit then asks for a K-9, much to the chagrin of the instructor, who replies “You know we don’t have a dog out here! “

What the instructor really wants the young recruit to do is get into the building, clear it and debrief. Why? Is it because that’s what they were taught? No. It’s because they have several other groups of students to get through the scenario before the instructor can go home. This is an unintended consequence of well-intentioned training, and it isn’t malicious on the instructor’s part. This is just the way we’ve always done it. So the culture of speed starts in the academy and grows from there.

There are many other examples of how we are priming officers towards a culture of speed in training.  For example, in driver’s training, you are allowed to hit a certain number of cones as long as you do it under a certain time limit (you can hit stuff, as long as you do it fast enough). Another example is scenario-based training that ends as soon as shots are fired or a takedown is complete, without allowing it to progress to a natural conclusion.

With increased speed often comes decreased quality of decisions. That’s why officers need to be primed to slow down when feasible. Slowing down isn’t the same as going slow. I prefer the approach of John Wooden, who taught his players to “be quick, but don’t hurry.” To hurry is to be chaotic and out of control, but quick is fast, while also being deliberate and purposeful. That's where good decisions come from.

Improving decision making

What we know from reviewing the emerging research is that officers appear to be more reluctant to use force, and some agencies are compounding that problem by implementing policies to ensure restraint by their officers. The community and the police officers themselves would be safer with a focus on improved decision making, not a focus on how to avoid using force. One step toward that goal is to slow things down and be quick, but not in a hurry. Is it the solution to solve all of our problems? No, but it’s a start.


About the Author
John Bostain is the Co-owner and lead instructor for Command Presence Training Associates.  He is a former Hampton Police Officer, serving in patrol, narcotics, and the academy.  He then served as a Senior Instructor for Defensive Tactics, Use of Force, and Patrol Operations for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) for 13 years.  John was also the 2012 ILEETA Trainer of the Year and can be reached at jbostain@commandpresence.net

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