The Myth of Mechanical Application When Dealing with the Irrational

By Jim Glennon  |   Dec 16, 2020

“…the test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application.”

100% of the people who give their opinions about an officer’s decision-making process and subsequent conduct during an interaction with a citizen captured on video, are giving those opinions in the aftermath. While viewing said video they are experiencing zero stress. As they sit sipping their extra-large Cinnamon Roll Frappuccino staring at their computer screens they are, while forming those opinions, at no risk of being injured nor will they suffer any negative consequences, no matter their final conclusionary judgement.

So, why the partial quote from the Graham vs. Connor decision authored by Chief Justice Rehnquist and a paragraph on the Monday-morning quarterbacking of decisions made by police officers? 

Well, first watch the accompanying video, then consider how many dynamic evolving variables were occurring at any given moment throughout the encounter.

You watch it?

Thoughts?

What would you have done differently, if anything?

Rehnquist’s Opinion and the Irrationality of People

The Graham Standard concerning an officer’s use of force was born from the Graham vs. Connor case back in the 1980s.

The Supreme Court decided that judging an officer’s behavior during a force event would forever more be considered through the lens of the Fourth Amendment and the Objective Reasonableness standard.

Generally, whenever an officer uses force, whatever action the officer took in the moment, the question would be: “Were those actions ‘objectively reasonable’ based on the facts and circumstances in that moment?” The “reasonableness” would be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

The argument that Graham needs to be overturned or another standard set in its place that is being made by many today, centers around the inability to precisely define “objective reasonableness” and the belief that an officer’s response to a threat should be a singular mechanical application.

Let me explain.

Those arguing for Graham’s demise, contend that since objective reasonableness isn’t definable, it is too lenient and advantageous for the police. Many want it replaced with a different term— “minimal use of force”—which is interesting because that term, those four words, is completely impossible to define.

In addition, what those who offer opinions and second guess police officers want, apparently, is a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with uncooperative, combative and violent subjects. In other words, if a person does ‘A’, then the officer response needs to be a clearly established, well defined, accepted and disciplined, mechanical application, ‘B’.

Which, of course, is ridiculous. It dismisses the complexity of human behavior and the multiple ever-changing variables that present themselves when police officers are dealing with irrational people.

The Myth of Mechanical Application

The primary problem with the one-size-fits-all mechanical application theory is that ‘A’ alone never happens. Never. Especially when someone is unreasonable, illogical and violent. While an officer may be dealing with someone’s ‘A’ behavior, their ‘D’, ‘F’, ‘Q’, ‘Z’, ‘X’, ‘P’ and ‘M’ behavior is in full swing…and at the same time.

The actions of people void of reason are never linear, organized or foretelling. They are a mess. Their behavior is unpredictable, complex and nonsensical. Impossible to cogently track.

Such instability makes them dangerous, especially when they have a weapon, a gun. Like in the attached video.

In this case the officers see a gun in the vehicle within reach of the driver. They ask him to put his hands on the steering wheel, which seems like a reasonable request to most reasonable people. But the man responds to the officers by saying, “No!”

Who does that? Someone unreasonable and irrational.

A respectful gun owner and believer of the second amendment is also respectful of the law and obliging to reasonable requests by law enforcement. This man, from the get-go, was purposely antagonistic, which also made him imminently dangerous.

The officers then gave the driver the lawful order to exit the vehicle. He refused. The officers pointed their guns at him and told him if he refused to comply, they would release the K-9.

His response? “I will shoot you if you do.”

Again, what type of person says that with two guns pointed at him? He shows virtually no fear while astonishingly arguing about his constitutional rights.

The man is illogical to the extreme.

You watched the rest of the video. His irrationality continues.

There is never any singular ‘A’ behavior from the man. He has no linear thought process. His actions are unstable, and he could grab his gun and shoot one or both officers easily in less than a second.

This crazed individual is a perfect example of what type of irrational behavior officers deal with daily; people who go beyond the simple actions of ‘A’ that their critics mistakenly believe is the norm. This man is exhibiting ‘D’, ‘F’, ‘Q’, ‘Z’, ‘X’, ‘P’ and ‘M’ while threatening to kill the officers who are doing their absolute best to act reasonably. They maintain professionalism while adjusting by the moment to the man’s erratic actions and nonsensical ramblings. In addition, they are acutely aware that they are perhaps, seconds from death.

This is a perfect example of when reasoned behavior encounters unreasoned behavior in the real world. There is no precise way to resolve such an encounter. No mechanical application that can be employed.

We are using this video to try and highlight reality for those who aren’t in the business of law enforcement. A business and profession that exists because normal people, reasonable people, can’t deal with the irrationally unreasonable. They need help.

Police officers do a great job at that. I say that with no qualification attached. The sheer numbers of noncompliant, argumentative, armed and dangerous people dealt with by this nation’s police officers every minute of every single day is mind boggling. How well those situations are handled statistically, how few times officers’ resort to violence and force, is a testament to their valiant and compassionate efforts.  

People want simple when simple doesn’t exist. Watch and rewatch this video. Share it. What would you have done? What are the possible consequences?

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Lt. Jim Glennon (ret.) is the owner and lead instructor for Calibre Press. He is a third-generation LEO, retired from the Lombard, Ill. PD after 29 years of service. Rising to the rank of lieutenant, he commanded both patrol and the Investigations Unit. In 1998, he was selected as the first Commander of Investigations for the newly formed DuPage County Major Crimes (Homicide) Task Force. He has a BA in Psychology, a Masters in Law Enforcement Justice Administration, is the author of the book Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement.