By Jim Glennon
It’s time to ask, “Who actually understands what it’s like to be a police officer?”
TV personalities? Office-bound politicians? Sports figures?
They are suddenly all experts on law enforcement, controlling violence and making life or death decisions in an instant.
At least they are from their comfortable chairs, in front of the camera and/or on their Twitter accounts.
There are dimensions of police work—things that literally mean the difference between life, death and catastrophic injury—that no one will EVER understand without taking the time to study them, to be trained in them and to experience them. In some instances that experience is gained during simulated scenarios and in others, through actual events.
Among those things is navigating massively stressful, unpredictable, rapidly unfolding, highly dangerous encounters with violent people who are often armed with any number of weapons and intent on hurting an officer, another person or themselves.
The number of factors officers need to consider in these situations—the most pressurized, time compressed circumstances known to man, incidentally—can be mind-numbing; things such as:
- Level and immediacy of threat?
- To whom is there a threat?
- How many people?
- Is there a need for force?
- What is the appropriate level of force?
- What is the degree of suspect compliance?
- Bystanders, backdrop, setting?
- Legal parameters?
- Realistic possibility of deescalation?
- How much time do I have to act?
- What is the speed of human movement in this moment?
- What is the level of danger posed by a variety of weapons?
All – I repeat, ALL – of the above need to be taken into account and often in the literal blink of an eye. In milliseconds!
Anyone who thinks that level of decision-making ability just comes naturally is wrong. Anyone who thinks while watching video footage of a police encounter from the comfort of their couch, desk or office they would have made “the better choice” and acted perfectly in the moment, is lying to themselves and you if they share those thoughts.
Pundits, daytime talk show hosts, athletes and politicians who watch a force video multiple times while slowing it down, freezing the action and considering options over a period of time, feel qualified to give an opinion – and criticize with contempt – concerning how the actual officer(s) acted in the moment. That is ignorant and misguided. That’s not meant with disrespect. It’s simply a fact.
Last week, a teenager in Columbus, OH was shot by a police officer as she was in the process of stabbing another teen. The attack played out in seconds and the officer’s decision to fire his gun in response to the stabbing he was about to witness in front of his eyes occurred even faster. Had that officer hesitated for a fraction of a second more than he did, it’s very possible that teen being attacked would have had a knife plunged into her body.
Take a look at footage of the incident, then we’ll discuss:
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Any number of emotional descriptors apply here. Tragic. Shocking. Terrifying. Sad. We all understand and agree with these.
But an equal number of other descriptors apply as well. Chaotic. Violent. Confusing. Deadly. Or how about one: Requiring swift and immediately effective action to cease a threat to another person’s life.
These descriptors seem to have been overlooked by those who found it necessary to unleash a torrent of opinions on how the involved officer should have handled that situation differently than he did. These people felt they had better ideas than trained law enforcement officers on how to deal with this situation.
Take Joy Behar, for example. Currently a co-host on ABC’s The View, Behar’s career has also involved work as a standup comedian, a radio talk show host, a TV producer and a high school English teacher. Among her suggestions to officers tasked with handling this incident was to “shoot the gun in the air as a warning.”
Let’s take a quick look at that.
First, in the tension of the moment and given the proximity of the girl with the knife to the girl she is intent on stabbing, is it realistic to believe the sound of a gun will actually stop the attacker’s actions before she can follow through on at least one, potentially more, knife slashes or penetration—either of which could have extremely serious, potentially deadly results?
Second, what happens when bullets are fired into the air? They come down. Where? Exactly. What does an officer say during an investigation when he or she is asked about their consideration of backdrop or injury or death caused by their gunfire to innocent bystanders, who in the case of an errant round fired into the air may be far away from the actual scene?
Then there’s Fox News host Juan Williams whose bio spans a mix of work in politics, TV, radio and print media. When asked for his thoughts on what he felt could have been done to diffuse the situation without using deadly force, part of his response was, “…maybe, you know, run at the person and try to disarm them, I don’t know.”
OK, let’s take a look at that.
Knives and other edged weapons are very often underestimated for their level of danger and their effectiveness in causing serious injury and/or death. In the blink of an eye, a slash to the body can slice a tendon, dissect a muscle, sever a major blood vessel, and cause extraordinary bleeding. A slice to the forearm can render a hand—perhaps your gun hand—useless. A slash to the neck or inner groin can quickly prove fatal. A slash to the face can not only cause severe damage to flesh but can cause extraordinary bleeding that can eliminate your ability to see, even if your eyes haven’t been directly contacted. A penetrating blow, if strategically placed in the side—assuming, of course, the officer is wearing a ballistic vest—can penetrate a vital organ at a surprisingly shallow depth.
Consider also the dynamics of an encounter with a suspect armed with a knife. What are the odds that person is going to keep still while you move in to grab their weapon? ZERO. That knife is going to be flailed around and moving at lightning speed. Depending on the knife, it could be inflicting damage from every direction it is swung or thrust. Think about dealing with an extremely agitated rattlesnake that’s ready to attack you. Is it reasonable to expect that you would simply grab it by the neck as it lashes out at you?
The best defenses against edged weapons are distance and barriers. To suggest that an officer knowingly and unnecessarily would move in on a person with a knife driven by the thought that they can grab it is tactically unsound and dangerous. As is often the case, an untrained person, in this case Juan Williams, criticized police for their actions but gave no insight into realistic, tactically feasible alternatives.
Many are pushing claims that officers should have “deescalated” without providing ANY thought on what that would look like, how that would work—or NOT work—and the urgency, complexity and life-threatening nature of the situation. As we’ve discussed before, they’re tossing out the word deescalate with no understanding of what that really means and when it may or may not apply. Deescalation is a goal. A desired end. And there are many ways to get there. It is not a magical tactic. There is no one tried-and-true recipe for deescalating a situation and the reality is, there are some situations that can’t be deescalated.
Perhaps one of the most prevalent “suggestions” being shared is that the officer could have/should have shot the knife out of the attacker’s hand or shot the attacker in the arm or leg. The number of reasons that thinking is not realistic literally go on and on and on. Far too many to cover here. However, renown firearms expert Ron Avery once summed them all up when he suggested that those who feel these are reasonable expectations be put in a cage with a hungry lion and told they can only shoot it in the leg.
Understand that we’re not saying people shouldn’t ask questions. They should, particularly when it involves the loss of life. The problem lies in the fact that so many times people aren’t asking those questions with an honest interest in learning the true answers. No. They’re asking them because they believe they know the answers already. They believe they know what it’s like to be a police officer suddenly thrust into an extremely violent, explosively chaotic situation where their safety and the safety of others is in great peril. They think that the way violent encounters play out on TV and in the movies is absolutely accurate. They seem to think that if they can “imagine” shooting a weapon out of someone’s hand, something like that can actually be done. When something like doesn’t happen and someone does end up being shot by the police, they immediately conclude that the police did something wrong or didn’t pursue alternative approaches to deadly force, regardless of the realities of the circumstances. That thinking is dangerous and irresponsible.
Yes. Ask questions. But when you do, seek answers from people who actually know about the realities of police work. Avoid being prematurely persuaded by those who rush to act as armchair critics and spout uninformed opinions as to how situations should be handled. Dealing with threatening people and dangerous encounters is complicated and the decisions made about how to navigate them can be complex. Pointing a finger at a freeze-framed video image from a force encounter being shown on a screen in the protected setting of a TV studio or a living room is far different than actually being there. We all must always remember that.
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