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The Judicious Use of Force - Managing Occupational Risk and Public Perception

"Perception is Reality"

The criminal trial of the "Diallo Four" is now behind us. The ramifications are of this incident are not. It is a mistaken belief that police seldom shoot unarmed suspects, while the phenomenon is actually quite common, much more common than most within the law enforcement community actually realize. NYPD has actually experienced two more highly politicized shootings of unarmed black suspects since the death of Amadou Diallo. And, before anyone suggests that this problem is somehow an indictment of NYPD, it should be noted here that NYPD has one of the most envious records of judiciously using deadly force. This problem transcends most of the narrowly defined political parameters that "police bashers" have attempted to constrain it by. Few issues generate more public interest towards the law enforcement community than news stories and events stemming from allegations that police used excessive force to effect an arrest. This issue is arguably more inflammatory than allegations of police corruption. If that notion doesn't seem to resonate with you, ask yourself when you last saw people rioting over a police corruption allegation. In contrast, civil unrest is quite commonplace in response to the perception that police have used force excessively.

If there is a silver lining embedded within this troubling issue, it can best be summed up in this manner;

The perception that excessive force has been used is generally just that, perception.
Perception is a malleable issue. It can be managed, if not controlled. Managing this issue will involve simple, logical but systematic utilization of existing resources. The most underutilized asset in this effort is commonly the agency's training staff.

Let's first discuss the issue of perception in more detail. Though it's conspicuously doubtful that we'll be able to change everyone's perceptions of how police enforce laws, we can reasonably expect to influence most people. It's been said that contemporary policing must rely more on the utilization of information than upon coercion. If information is power, as we've often been told, then disinformation might well be just as powerful. There are people and organizations whose purpose appears antithetical to that of the law enforcement establishment. That issue in itself isn't very negotiable, so we needn't waste time or effort concerning ourselves with it. However, we shouldn't concede advantage to those who would undermine our public trust through deliberate disinformation. We literally sit atop mountains of information potent enough to counter most of what our harshest critics allege about us.

If your agency has been compiling use-of-force statistics, have they been utilized for anything more than internal auditing? These statistics generally reflect the lopsided disparity between the number of arrests we effect, and those few that involve the use of force. Fewer still are those incidents that involve the use of so-called, "injuring force." In all recent studies recently observed, it appears that the perception of race-based disparities in force usage has no basis in fact. OK, you know all of this, but does the average citizen that you serve? Likely not. We've often unwittingly contributed to the perception that police comprise a secretive subculture, reluctant to cooperate with any effort at external oversight. Using information proactively might actually serve to attenuate misconceptions of police.

Our Perception of Reality

Ongoing research being conducted at Smith & Wesson Academy, in conjunction with CAPS, Inc., is shedding some positive light on many publicly held misconceptions. As considerable empirical research has shown, race doesn't seem to have the heavy influence on when, and upon whom lethal force is used by police. Is there a significant statistical disparity in the number of black males being shot by police? Yes. Is race the primary, predetermining causal factor that we've been told it is? Apparently not. We are finding that several factors affect the decision-making process, some before the officer's arrival on the scene. They range from the nature of the call itself, to the age, size and demeanor of the suspect. Lighting conditions and suspect proximity to the officer also factor significantly into the results of our study.

Our research efforts have prompted us to construct a preliminary working thesis. It suggests that the vast majority of "questionable" police shootings are the result of one or more of the following causal factors:

Cognitive Impairment
Action vs. Reaction Disparity
Sympathetic Firing Impulse
Flawed or Misinterpreted Deadly Force Policy
Victim Precipitated Homicide

We have found some of our findings to be so compelling that we have structured most of our "OFFICER SURVIVAL 2000" seminar around them. There are constraints as to how much depth of this issue we can cover in this article. Contact us if you wish to pursue this issue further.

Organizational Solutions Are Readily Available

The contemporary police trainer, quite commonly, is a vastly underutilized resource. His or her depth of understanding of salient issues far exceeds the level of knowledge held by his/her recent training predecessors. Professional police training organizations have truly uplifted standards, and greatly enhanced the dissemination of once closely held information. If you haven't already fully tapped into this resource, you may wish to waste little more time in doing so.

In risk management parlance, problems are assessed by weighing their severity against their frequency. The police use of deadly force is relatively infrequent, but its repercussions are severe. Conversely, the use of handcuffs and/or aerosol subject restraints is relatively frequent, but with consequences that are much less severe. Recent civil litigation (Davis v. Mason Co.) suggests that merely training officers to achieve competence in the mechanical components of force application (firearms, baton, aerosol, etc.) isn't in itself adequate. There is a growing expectation that police have also acquired the ability to discern when, and to what extent, force can be used reasonably. Here we have a perceptual convergence between what standards both the public and judiciary might hold us to.

In response to rising expectations, the most proactive training we see at this juncture is training that is task oriented. Traditionally, training geared towards achieving competency in use-of-force related tasks has merely dealt with the mechanical aspects of force application. Preparing officers to use force judiciously is best addressed within the context in which force-related issues are decided. Scenario-based training should be task-related training, and task-related training will vary according to the officer's individual assignment.

In changing how the public perceives our methodology and objectivity, consider exercising one additional option. In an effort to foster a sense of openness, and better understanding, allow members of the public and media to observe certain aspects of your agency's training. The most innocuous method for doing this is to allow community activists and journalists an opportunity to indulge in a few scenarios served-up from a video-based firearms training system (such as with FATS, Range 2000, PRISM, CAPS, etc.). Turn down the lighting (literally), and expose the uninitiated to how quickly and decisively deadly force decisions must be made by police. As this article is being written, this author has been exposed to two journalists in the past week (3-21-00) who were initiated to police decision-making in this very manner. One journalist, with NBC, illustrated just how difficult it was to make the right call on a PRISM video based firearms training simulator. The other journalist used his syndicated newspaper column to convey his own humbling failures of being "killed" before he could react, or of having shot someone inappropriately.

The subject of when and how law enforcement officers come to make their own individual deadly force decisions is one fraught with diverse and complex tribulations. However, it is our belief that managing image and substance needn't require competing strategies and resources. Effectively managing one (substance) might well assist in addressing the other (image).

This article is reprinted with permission from Smith & Wesson.
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