Every law enforcement officer must understand that doing what is right, and using force that is reasonable is not always enough. Officers must be able to explain to an investigator, a judge, a jury or any court of enquiry that what they did at that moment in time was reasonable for them based on the totality of circumstances. It is my experience that in the majority of incidents officers use a level of force that is reasonable, but struggle when they are asked to explain why they did what they did. Over the years some officers have slipped into the habit of using generic statements in their documentation such as: “The subject resisted arrest and force was used to subdue them.” When asked for more detail they would use such eloquent explanations as: “He was an asshole.” A quick review of the index in the law books fails to turn up the word asshole, and it is not listed as a subject behavior category in any use of force model that I am aware of. In lethal force cases some officers simply state, “I shot him because he had a knife.” The mere fact the subject had a knife is insufficient justification for shooting a subject. Another often used generic response in lethal force situations is “I feared for my life so I shot him.” While that fear is an important part of the big picture, and the officer’s justification, it is only a part and by no means stands alone as justification.
Laura A. Zimmerman, Ph.D. of Klein Associates/ARA made similar observations in her 2006 paper titled Law Enforcement Decision Making During Critical Incidents: A Three-Pronged Approach to Understanding and Enhancing Law Enforcement Decision Processes. In that document she states:
“After actual incidents, officers often justify their actions by claiming that the suspect was “aggressive” or “hostile” or that the suspect was “acting suspiciously” or making “furtive movements.” These non-elaborative descriptions provide little justification for actions…”
Another growing trend in North America is for officers to lock into a subject behavior category on a use of force model to explain why they used force. Officers write in their reports that the subject was ‘assaultive’ and therefore, the officer was justified in using a baton strike. While a baton may have been a very reasonable force option there is insufficient information in this explanation to justify it.
Administrators, trainers, and legal counsels around North America are looking for answers as to why this is happening. These answers are diverse and may vary dramatically depending on whom you ask. Some of the possible answers include:
- Officers and agencies have become reliant on the technology such as in car video cameras, Tasercams®, etc which takes the responsibility to tell the story away from the officer and defers it to the camera. The camera however never tells the whole story.
- Police unions and associations who encourage officers to say the absolute minimum or say nothing at all. The old “Admit nothing and demand proof causing officers to falsely believe that the less you put in your reports the better.
- The ‘Hollywood Factor’ that results today’s police officers being subjected to a cop show an hour, none of which reflect the reality of use of force events or of the profession. The cops on TV never have to justify their actions and if they are questioned they become indignant and demand to “be left alone so they can do their job.”
- The all too common question asked by trainers during control tactics training: “What category of subject can we use this (tool or technique) on?”
The objective of this series of blog postings is to provide some observations from my 20 years of training experience and present some thoughts and ideas on how as a profession we can begin to shift this trend and put the art back in articulation. On Tuesday we will look at a definition of articulation and then start to explore solutions.