How Did We Get Here?

May 19, 2015

During a fight with the cops, bad guys don’t worry about techniques and tools most of the time. They go for broke, and they win or they lose.

And too often, we see cops doing the same–cops who keep pulling the trigger on an electronic-control device or keep swinging the baton or twisting that control hold, even though it isn’t working. It’s ineffective and often leads to higher levels of force. We, as a profession, seem to get focused on the tool. No matter how good or true of a tool it is, nothing works every time.

As a defensive tactics instructor, one of the core principles I have always taught is that if what you are doing isn’t working, you need to try something else: There’s a time to transition.

Similarly, regarding the current national discussion regarding the police use of force, in too many cases our supporters say, “Well, if you don’t break the law or resist, then there will be no problems.” While to some extent I agree, it’s largely irrelevant. We keep swinging that baton of righteousness and a skeptical public is walking right through it. Now’s the time to transition.

How Did We Get Here?
We look at each use of force from the framework of whether it was justifiable and reasonable given the circumstances. It usually is. But I always wonder how we got to needing to use force in the first place.

It’s fair to say that a very small percentage of the population wants to kill cops. Unfortunately for the cop, by the time he or she identifies that small percentage, it’s often too late. So we’re forced to approach every situation from the perspective of, “I just want to go home safe and whole.”

Now consider the stopped citizen’s perspective. Usually, they just want to be heard or maybe get away. He or she doesn’t understand why the cop is worried about going home safe because he or she doesn’t want to kill the cop.

Scenario: Cop decides it is time to go to handcuffs, for safety. Citizen wants to be heard still and pulls away. Cop starts to use some ineffective level of force he was taught. Citizen resists. Cop escalates. Citizen defends. Cop, who is not effective with the skills he has been taught, ends up compromised and in potential fear of his life. He’s losing and now in real danger.

Justifiable shooting.

But how did we get there?

A police officer’s inability to effectively use force quickly is what, I believe, causes higher levels of force to be required. I’m not going to debate whether an unarmed person can kill an armed person. Of course they can. I am saying that I’ve seen videos where an appropriate elevation in the force used could have altered the scenario and reduced the possibility of shots fired. A punch to the mouth could have saved a life.

If we want less violence, we need to teach and use and become comfortable with more hand-to-hand violence. Tony Blauer and Blauer Tactical Systems teaches the Three Fights principle:

Fight 1: You vs. you—this is the fear management, the internal fight, the personal courage fight to do whatever it takes to win.

Fight 2: You vs. the Bad Guy—this is the actual confrontation. Do you have the physical skills to win the contest?

Fight 3: You vs. The System—this is worrying about whether it’s court defensible. Is it within policy? This is thinking about what is going to happen after the fight, when what you should be doing is winning Fight 2.

And they don’t always happen in that order. Way too often, Fight 3 climbs right in the middle of Fight 2. We don’t want to do something that may look bad on video or raise questions.

So we hesitate while we reconsider. In a real fight, that doesn’t work.

The problem is that most of our systems are designed to win Fight 3. They are supposed to be designed to win Fight 2 first.

When I was asked to review a use of force, I was told that the options I had were to determine whether it was within or outside of policy. I suggested a third option of within policy, but additional training required. I was told that my third suggestion opened the department to liability. If the case being reviewed involved someone being seriously injured or killed, my suggestion might be construed as negligence in training. True, I suppose. But it robs us the opportunity to get better.

My answer?

It’s a training issue—and not the type of training where you need to sit in a classroom and learn more about others. That has value, but it’s not what we need here. I mean the he kind of training where you learn how to deal with a situation physically, when physical is the right answer.

Giving officers true confidence and competence with the skills they need allows them the opportunity to listen and talk when it’s appropriate. They need to have the confidence and competence to act effectively when they must. We can’t teach this with a PowerPoint or a book or an internet article. We teach this by regularly putting officers in stressful situations and teaching them real physical and psychological skills and principles that they can use in a situation that’s “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving” (Graham v. Conner).

The more skilled, confident and competent officers are at using all the possible tools in the box, the less likely they’ll ever have to use the wrong one.

We wouldn’t let them off FTO if they couldn’t write a report, didn’t know the process to get someone medically cleared or booked into the jail. Why do we let them work before they can effectively, physically handle a situation that requires physical handling? Officers get through that regularly.

There’s no single source available that provides information on how much money is paid out annually regarding police use of force, but I would guess it’s in the high millions. That would have paid for a lot of training time. It would have paid and a lot fewer lives would have been damaged and destroyed on both sides of the coin.

Simply: We can’t afford to not train better.


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