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Hands-on versus nonlethal weapons

This month's article was inspired by an excellent newspaper article by journalist Mike Saccone in The Daily Sentinel, in Grand Junction (CO), published June 17, 2006. (Read the article)

The article was quite well done (better than most on the subject), documenting several points of view about policy and training issues. It points out the varying use of force statistics from one agency to another around Colorado. The variances seem attributable to varying use of force policies.

But I am troubled by some of the quotes in the article.

One respected research expert wondered if officers, "instead of doing what they should do - wrestle with someone, put their hands on them - are using a Taser."

I question if "hands-on" and "wrestling" are what an officer should do in many situations, because these tactics frequently result in major injuries, even death.

Surely officers should be trained to be proficient in defensive tactics, and goodness knows officers are attacked enough to have to use "hands-on" and "wrestling" tactics. But when there is distance between the officer and suspect, and time to deploy them, nonlethal weapons should be preferred in many cases to going "hands-on" with a resisting suspect.

Although the numbers have improved in recent years, the fact is that nearly one out of ten officers who are murdered in this country are still murdered with their own handguns, taken away from them during the "hands-on" and "wrestling" endeavors.

To say nothing of the major injuries to suspects and to officers that result from playing patty-cake instead of getting the nasty job done from 10-20 feet away with a nonlethal weapon.

As the police profession has evolved, changes in standards have resulted in hiring smaller, kinder, gentler cops who-while more effective at tactical communications than their predecessors--are less apt to be successful with "hands-on" and "wrestling" approaches.

Tactics instructors and physical training instructors all over the country bemoan this reality. It is a reality that we must adapt to, and nonlethal weapons are a big part of the answer.

The courts have been very supportive of officers resorting to nonlethal weapons instead of going to war, rolling around in the dirt with a suspect. Looks neat on TV, but not fun (or safe) in real life.

The 11th Circuit Court in the Draper v. Reynolds case (2004) supported the use of a Taser by an officer, acting alone, when she confronted a traffic violator who was hostile, belligerent, and uncooperative:


    "A verbal arrest command accompanied by attempted physical handcuffing, in these particular factual circumstances, may well have, or would likely have, escalated a tense and difficult situation into a serious physical struggle in which either Draper or Reynolds would be seriously hurt."

Devices like the Taser, pepper spray, and other nonlethal weapons that keep time and distance on the officer's side are the Great Equalizers in an environment where drugged-out, oversized nuts are more drugged out and oversized and nuttier than ever before.

More restrictive shooting policies and greater public scrutiny of use of force than in the past require the "brawn gap" to be filled by better, safer tools and tactics than those of our predecessors.

The restrictions on neck restraints in many agencies are another example of policy eliminating the best "hands-on" tactic available. So it should be no surprise that nonlethal weapons are bigger players in our use of force picture.

Officers have come a long way in their ability to use verbalization to defuse many critical incidents, making the arrest without using force. In fact, statistically it is the overwhelming norm to "talk people to jail,' as concluded by studies that show force is used in about one percent of all arrests.

But as I wrote in a previous article, officers continue to "talk people to death" in some incidents that would have a better resolution if appropriate force were used early.

Verbalizing, verbalizing, verbalizing, afraid to use force because of fear of the administrative and legal aftermath, only to end up shooting the suspect to death as the incident goes further and further down the toilet because we FAILED to do our duty to take decisive action to subdue the resisting suspect before the situation degenerated to the fatal moment.

This FAILURE plays out in what I've long estimated to be 1/4 to 1/3 of officer-involved shootings that might have been resolved by early use of nonlethal weapons, aggressively deployed.

A handful of the usual suspects continue to die in custody, regardless of what police tool or tactic was used.



    "Man Dies After Being Pepper Sprayed"
    "Man Dies After Being Tasered"
    "Man Dies After Police Use Chokehold"
    "Man Dies After Being Hog-Tied"

The custody death question continues to get sexy media play, but respected medical researchers continue to point to "excited delirium," that is, being flipped out, hyperactive, hyperthermic, and ultra-violent.

Nobody has yet documented any increase in the trend line over many years for sudden in-custody deaths, nor that any particular police tool or tactic is overrepresented in such cases.

Because Tasers have rapidly come into much wider use, they are now associated in 25-30 percent of sudden in-custody deaths, which is to say that they are NOT associated in 65-70 percent of sudden in-custody deaths.

The cause-of-death answer generally continues to be found in excited delirium that occurs in a small percentage of people using cocaine, PCP, or meth, and schizophrenics off their meds. This has been the case for decades.

The headlines change, but doctors say the medical causes of these deaths remain the same.

Everywhere nonlethal weapons are implemented, injuries drop, officer-involved shootings drop, many would-be uses of force are averted by the mere display of the weapon, and the world is a happier place.

Agencies that upon implementation had poor policy, training, and review processes that resulted in inappropriate uses of their nonlethal weapons seem to be moving toward the center, as is the history adapting to new stuff. There needs to be continued vigilance to ensure that the devices are used appropriately to reduce deaths and injuries, to officers and suspects.

Agencies need to diligently apply the principles of the Graham v. Connor case from the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that police use of force must be "objectively reasonable" in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, taking into account such factors as "the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight."

So I am baffled when respected experts continue to advocate "conventional tactics," "talking down," "hands-on," and "wrestling" in today's environment. All of these have proven to be more injurious and more deadly than using nonlethal weapons.

I still owe you a deeper discussion of "policy" issues. Maybe next month!

Until then, stay safe . . .

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