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Hidden hands are not harmless: Video reinforces sound officer safety tactics

One of the most dangerous positions a suspect can assume on the ground is prone with his hands tucked under his body, either at chest or waist level

Watch the hands. Always, watch those hands. If a suspect’s hands are hidden under his or her proned-out body, officers cannot assume compliance. In fact, quite the opposite is true — those hidden hands are a warning sign of potential, if not probable, non-compliance. This fact, while cemented into the minds of law enforcers since the first appearance of training videos starring my friend and PoliceOne colleague Dave Smith (aka, J.D. “Buck” Savage), is not exactly well-known among the average citizen surfer out there in Internet land.

Yet another video has surfaced — shot by a citizen and publicized by a local newspaper reporter as “police brutality” — in which a subject appears to be resisting arrest, clearly refuses to comply with officers’ repeated commands, and is subsequently subdued by police. The New Haven Advocate ran an item today stating that witnesses videotaped their local police as they “beat Joseph Donaby to a bloody pulp” during a June 23, 2011 incident. According to that report, “activist groups will hold a press conference ... outside City Hall” at 1730 hours this evening — just in time to make the six o’clock news.

Yes, this stuff with the “brutality” videos shot by the YouTube Nation is getting old. But it’s also not going away, and for cops who have to contend with constant public and political criticism, a discussion about the fundamental officer safety issues is worthwhile here.

Hidden Hands Are Not Harmless!
One of the most dangerous positions a suspect can assume on the ground is prone with his hands tucked under his body, either at chest or waist level. What’s hidden in those hands? If it’s a gun, how fast can he twist and shoot as you’re approaching him?

In March of last year, I wrote a column on the groundbreaking effort by the Hillsboro (Ore.), Police Department and the Force Science Research Center to better understand the threat presented by prone suspects. Then, in December I revisited the subject when FSRC released a follow-up paper in which Dr. Bill Lewinski and his team revealed that:

• Suspects lying flat with hands hidden under chest or waist can produce and fire a gun at an approaching officer faster than any human being can react
• The angle sometimes advocated as the safest for approaching a prone subject appears, in fact, to be potentially the most dangerous

In effect, if hidden hands are not controlled immediately and the suspect is armed and decides to shoot, an officer is likely faced with an insurmountable challenge to react fast enough to prevent what could be a fatal attack.

For my December 2010 column on this topic, I spoke with officers from the St. Paul (Minn.) Police Department who had been involved in an incident in which 19-year-old Romell Hill raised up from a prone position, getting off one shot before the contact officer and his two cover officers could return fire. All three officers survived — the suspect did not — but it could have turned out much differently.

Just last night, my friends over at Force Science Institute issued Newsletter Transmission #181 (watch for that to run in full the Street Survival Newsline one week from tomorrow, by the way). In yesterday’s transmission newsletter Dr. Lewinski said, “The average suspect can present a gun — from a pocket, from a waistband, from a vehicle console, from his side, from under his body — and fire in any direction in just one-quarter of a second. That's faster than the average officer can shoot, even if his weapon is on target, his finger is on the trigger, and he has already decided to fire. That's because of the time it takes to mentally process and impel a reaction to the suspect’s action.”

Okay, a few final thoughts before you review the video. You can clearly hear officers’ commands for the subject to “put your hands behind your back” and/or “show me your hands” at least eleven times (there are perhaps others, but some segments of audio are drowned out by sirens). You can also hear at least two instances in which the officers say “stop fighting” so although the man on the ground appears to not be moving all that much, it is evident to a trained eye that he is physically, possibly even violently, resisting arrest. Check out the video, and then scroll down for a few final words on the matter...

Suspect May Have Been Armed!
One last thing merits mention. According to published reports, New Haven police believe Donaby had a gun. I’ve tried to independently verify this with calls to the department’s PIO, but I suspect he presently has other fish to fry than calling me back.

As I have previously written, officers must prepare for resistance or assault after feigned compliance. The proned-out suspect can draw and fire a well-placed shot from a concealed firearm before an officer can even recognize the object in hand as a gun. I’ve personally practiced (under the supervision of a police firearms instructor in a safe, range-training environment) the movement to draw a weapon and fire aimed shots on target between my knees while lying in a supine position as if an attacker had bowled me down. I did it in less than one second. Over, and over, and over again.

Officers and agencies are constantly under public scrutiny because of a misconception that a prone subject is a helpless subject, and therefore any video footage of a couple cops forcibly subduing — or using deadly force on — a prone subject is considered “excessive.” The fact is, a prone subject can easily fire from that position in an unbelievably short period of time.

“Media critics and other civilians, including jurors and force review board members, seemed unable to understand the officers’ sense of urgency in some of these cases,” concluded Lewinski in a December 2010 report on their findings about the deadly threat posed by prone subjects. “Strikes with batons or flashlights delivered by officers trying to gain control of resistant suspects’ hands were sometimes interpreted as malicious outbreaks of rage and vindictiveness.”

The fact is, down does NOT mean out. Officers must continue to remain vigilant against attack even when a subject is on the ground. Add your thoughts in the comments area below, and as always, “Watch those hands!”

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