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Nonlethal force: What's up?

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As I retire from my career with the Los Angeles Police Department, and slide off into a future of consulting, lecturing, training, writing, and expert-witness work, I’ll do my best to bring you three decades worth of perspectives on many topical issues.

Over the next several months, I will mainly focus on use of force issues, especially nonlethal force, as I have in various ways for LAPD over the past quarter century. Some articles will address other topics, and you will find that I have an opinion or two about what is going on in law enforcement politics. Although you may not like to hear it, and as much as you may wish it wasn’t so, you are a member of an increasingly political profession!

One of the recurring issues that needs attention is the label itself: nonlethal, less-lethal, less-than-lethal, and the rest.

The argument continues to brew about what is the most appropriate terminology for weapons that are designed to end a situation without killing someone. There are legal, logical, and emotional arguments. We’ll deal with the labeling issue (and you can already see that I prefer “nonlethal.”)

We’ll also take in-depth looks at TASERs, “excited delirium” and “sudden in-custody deaths.” TASERs have been out there for more than 25 years (I bring a long-term perspective to TASER issues, having performed LAPD’s research and testing in 1979 and 1980), and the “flipped out” delirium cases and sudden death problems that have been with us forever are getting considerable public attention these days.

The public and the press (but not so much the medical examiners) used to blame neck restraints, then so-called positional asphyxia and “hog-tying,” then pepper-spray, and now it’s TASER’s turn in the barrel since so many more of us are using the devices these days. It will be some time yet before that particular controversy dies down and the world begins to see, that it isn’t the police restraint tactics, but rather, as usual, “It’s the drugs, stupid.”

More and more TASER-related medical research is being conducted, and we’ll get into those things, too. And we’ll get into TASER policy, training and tactics issues. As great a life-saving tool as TASER has proven to be, some of us need to adjust our policies and training.

This month’s article merely lists a few issues and questions about nonlethal weapons and use of force to be explored more deeply in future articles.

As you read what follows, think seriously about your own agency’s situation for each question.

• What nonlethal tools do you have on your belt or otherwise available to you when you run up against a resistant suspect who must be controlled? Tasers? (The M-26 or X-26?) Pepper spray? Beanbag guns? What else?

• What are your agency policies with respect to use of force, especially nonlethal force?

• Do you have a use of force continuum? Is the continuum part of your policy, or part of your training material?

• Are your policies in line with Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor? Or are they more restrictive? Or (oops) more loose?

• What training does your agency provide on each of your devices?

• Who does your training? Do you have your own academy? Your own internal training staff? Or do you your people elsewhere to receive training? Or bring outside trainers in to do it for you?

• Is your training the best it can be?

• Is it well documented? Is it refreshed? How often?

• What tactics do you use to reduce deaths and injuries among officers and suspects?

• How proficient are your officers in these tactics? How do you know?

• Do you promote the early, aggressive use of nonlethal weapons when a suspect stands you off and unlawfully resists arrest, before the situation degenerates into a major use of force? Or do you hang back and make the mistake we’ve been taught for a generation: talk, and talk, and . . . more talk . . . and then sometimes literally talk them to death because they finally attack you or your partner or some other innocent person, and you shoot them when your time and distance advantages are suddenly lost?

• What kind of review processes do you have for use of force incidents?

• Do uninvolved supervisors conduct an immediate field investigation?

• Who writes the reports?

• Are photographs taken to show injuries or lack of injuries?

• Are witnesses located and interviewed early, before rumors cause stories to get made up?

• Do you interview officers immediately after a critical incident, like a shooting, no matter how many hours they have been awake? Or do you provide a cooling-off period and let them get some sleep before subjecting them to a detailed interview?

• Do you reward good tactics?

• Do you track and counsel and train officers who have a pattern of troubling trends?

• Do you involve your trainers in your review processes?

• Do you debrief involved officers for lessons learned . . . every time?

We’ll get into research that proves that nonlethal weapons result in fewer and less severe injuries to officers and suspects, compared to conventional tactics. The law requires us to use force reasonably. Nonlethal weapons provide us more and more opportunities to do just that.

Let there be no mistake: there will always be a need for deadly force, given the nature of attacks on officers. But many situations can be resolved more reasonably, more quickly and less injuriously with nonlethal weapons, supported by appropriate policy, training, equipment, tactics, and review processes.

In forthcoming articles, we’ll explore those and other issues in depth.

It’s an increasingly tough world out there for those who wear the badge. Consent decrees. Prosecutions of officers. Front pages that scream “brutality.”

Get used to these things. They’re not going away. And they don’t just happen to the agency across the state or down the road.

I encourage you to look forward, plan for the next inevitable front-page tragedy, and do what you can in advance to protect the interests of your officers and your agency.

With a little well-directed effort, you really can have fewer and less severe injuries to officers and suspects; reduced personnel complaints; reduced civil liability and worker’s compensation payouts; and an improved public image for your agency that is seen as trying to do the right thing in a difficult world.

If I can look back and honestly claim that I did my best to help officers and agencies examine the way they’re doing their use-of-force business, and improve it in ways that keep officers safe, out of trouble, and victorious in court, I’ll feel pretty good about my life.

But all I can do in this column is write about it. You need to do the work. So get started:

1. Examine your own agency’s use-of-force incidents. What types of tools and tactics are being used, in what situations? What types of injuries are resulting to your officers and your suspects?

2. What are the costs of litigation and officer disabilities resulting from your agency’s use-of-force incidents?

3. With respect to use-of-force incidents, examine your agency’s Purpose, Policy, and Practice. How well do they line up?

4. Grade yourself or your agency on the following six leadership issues:


    • Recognize the need to adopt more humane knockdown tools and tactics.

    • Make a solid commitment to reducing injuries to suspects and officers.

    • Acquire one or more effective, available nonlethal weapons.

    • Put less injurious weapons lower on your use-of-force chart.

    Train to win! (Dynamic, not static. And have a back-up plan.)

    • Debrief your officers, involve your trainers, and value continuous improvement.

Finally, with all the fancy gear that is out there these days, we still need more and better. The “Phaser” from Star Trek has long been the model for an ideal nonlethal weapon. So, until next time, I leave you with this question:


    If we can put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth, why can’t we put a man on the ground and take him safely to jail?

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