We’ve all seen the look. Officers are trying to control a suspect to place him under arrest. A family member, friend, or bystander has their phone on and inches ever closer to the scuffle, while yelling “I’m recording this!” The officer looks up, his eyes meet the lens, and there’s that look. For a split second you can see the officer processing the ramifications of this incident after it hits the social media feeds. The officer is capable, acting reasonably, making lawful decisions, and enforcing the laws of his state. Yet there’s still a moment of pause, just enough time to create self-doubt, because the actions are being recorded and will be played over and over in a court of public opinion.
We’ve spoken previously on the “3 Dominoes of Field Training,” in which we recognize that a failure to perform can be traced back to a lack of self-confidence. In the past, officers would act with good faith, and if things didn’t go to plan, they had the opportunity to explain themselves and the process they went through. Now, however, cellphone footage is being posted and Monday morning quarterbacked before the officer is putting her report on paper.
The incident can be reviewed frame by frame—with personal bias, assumptions, and perceptions tossed in to the mix from all corners of the globe. Knowing this, the sight of a camera or the announcement that an officer is being recorded can cause hesitation, second-guessing, or the use of ‘kid gloves’ with actively resistant or aggressive suspects.
And the public knows this.
When your detainee’s wife screams that you’re being recorded, she isn’t hoping that you’ll straighten your gig line or use “please” and “thank you.” She’s hoping that you’ll doubt your actions, hesitate, make an error, and give her husband the opportunity to escape, evade, or attack.
Unfortunately, hesitancy on the officers’ part can cause a flare of self-confidence on the suspect’s. It gives them time to plan, think, and act—a luxury we can’t allow someone who is trying to hurt or evade us. How do we overcome this moment?
A Recorded Profession
Understand that you are always being recorded. Don’t wait for someone to announce their intent to document the incident. Between the proliferation of small electronics, smart phones, security camera, and body-worn cameras, there should be an assumption that someone, somewhere, is capturing your day on a digital archive.
At our agency there is an expectation that our officers are using their body-worn cameras. Rather than waiting for the subtle hand signal letting me know that my back up is taping, I just assume that he is. We handle ourselves professionally. We’re living in a digital age, working in public service, and should understand that many people have a vested interest in monitoring us.
The incidents in which officers usually find themselves being closely scrutinized are events that have high liabilities—that is, high possibility of financial loss, personal risk, or organizational embarrassment. These events also tend to occur at a low frequency, or things that officers do rarely. Gordon Graham, when speaking of High Risk/Low Frequency Events, says that “they can be addressed through a serious training program.”
The FTO’s Role
What does a serious training program look like? The FTO recognizes that every minute together with a trainee can be used for training. We use a variety of techniques to fill our trainee’s brain with scenarios, solutions, and situations to assist their “recognition-primed decision-making skills.” We incorporate training scenarios in briefing, “what if/what when” scenarios in the car, written tests on policy and law, provide honest and timely feedback on performance, and have a review of evaluations by an FTO supervisor or coordinator.
We debrief even the smallest of incidents, highlighting successes as well as failures. We ensure that the trainee has the information they need to move on to the next call with confidence, knowing what actions to repeat, and where to make changes.
Field training officers, more than any other officers, need to be educated, up to date on case law, and confident in their decision making. The FTO is not only reacting to witnesses, victims, and suspects. He or she is also reacting to their trainee and the trainee’s actions and decisions.
The FTO is placed in a position where they need to allow or overturn those actions and decision at a moment’s notice. The ability to act quickly requires a mind that processes valid information quickly. In order to do that, you must be a leader in your agency when it comes to Constitutional law, state law, use of force, policy, and ethics. Then you must pass this knowledge on to your trainee—in the field, and sometimes on camera.
Know the difference between consent, reasonable suspicion, and probable cause. This sounds like a rudimentary academy-level idea. But how frequently have we seen videos with the following dialogue? “Am I being detained?”
“Can I leave?”
Recognize that every person you contact while working falls in to one of those three levels. Be assured that you know what level you’re at, and that the level can change multiple times during a contact. You should know whether the contact is free to go, needs to stay, should be handcuffed, or is being arrested. Once you’ve made that determination, take decisive action. Be confident in your decisions, and willing to back them up. Make those decisions based on a wealth of information—legal bulletins, case law updates, policy changes, and in-service training—and once you have a solid foundation of information, you should be able to work and train, secure in the knowledge that you’re making the right decisions for the right reasons—whether there’s a camera around or not.
Train with Cameras Rolling
In Jim Glennon’s book, Arresting Communication, he speaks about the “IDIOT” in all of us. We’ve all fallen victim to allowing our internal idiot take control. Emotions, attitude, language, and tone take a turn for the worse when that pesky and problematic “Bizarro You” takes over.
In contemporary policing we need to be sure that moment in time doesn’t happen on patrol and therefore is not caught on camera. Those moments when a mild-mannered officer converts from Jekyll to Hyde can cost a good officer their reputation and maybe their career.
How do we avoid that costly lesson? Incorporate modern technology into your FTO program. Training officers should be familiar with and comfortable using their BWC. Student officers can be video-taped and that footage can be used as a training tool. The more familiar we are with our internal use of video, the less worried we will be when those phone cameras turn on.
Remember to have a sound training system in place. Be a subject matter expert in your field concerning law and constitutional matters. Wrap it all up with strong emotional control. The more confident you are, the less you will hesitate when your authority is challenged.
Train hard, and stay ever vigilant.