Throughout the past few months, the topics of policing, racial relations, and rules regarding law enforcement use of force have taken center stage in what have often been emotional and contentious debates. On many occasions, the conversation has been hijacked by opportunists looking to self-promote and media personalities seeking ratings. I won’t attempt to dive deeply into the issues as they are complex and much too important to attempt to dissect in a simple blog post. In this piece, I am not making any judgments regarding the most recent occurrences that have been played out in the press. However, I would like to mention a few things to keep in mind when entering into conversations regarding the recent incidents in Missouri, New York, and Cleveland or even if addressing the issues in a broader sense. Here are some things I hope everyone will try to remember:
- When police use force, we can’t assume race or economic is a factor
This has been an unfortunate leap many have taken, partially because some media outlets have linked the two together. The fact of the matter is that stories dealing with race relations get more attention than some that do not. Was race a factor in Ferguson, New York, or Cleveland? I don’t know, but I’m not going to assume so. As a law enforcement officer, I was involved in several physical altercations and I can honestly say the last thing on my mind was the other person’s skin color. Call me selfish, but I was much more concerned about doing my job well which, in my mind anyway, included staying alive.
Are there racist cops? Absolutely. The same way there are racist computer programmers, airline pilots, and politicians. Should racism be tolerated? Of course not. But, I’m not going to assume race is a factor even if racial tensions exist in particular town or neighborhood. Police officers are human beings and every officer and incident needs to be evaluated objectively.
- Police use of force rules are widely misunderstood
Officers and agents are trained to abide by a use of force model, or continuum, that calls for the officer to escalate force only if necessary. In most models, an officer’s mere presence is the first step followed by verbal direction, hand control techniques, non-lethal means (pepper spray, Taser, blunt impacts), and lethal force. An officer or agent can leap over one or more steps if the situation calls for it. If the officer believes that there is an imminent threat to life (the officer’s or another’s), lethal force may be used.
There are many, many misconceptions about the use of force, but allow me to focus on one. The use of a firearm is always lethal force. One of my pet peeves is the Hollywood depictions of an officer shooting an aggressor in the leg or arm as a means to stop him. This is pure fiction. Even if you ignore the fact the femoral artery runs through the leg and the brachial artery runs through the arm, bullets don’t often follow a straight path once they enter the body. Bullets bounce around, they mushroom, and they leave fragments that cause severe damage. The argument that an officer should have shot a person in a non-lethal way is invalid. Can you imagine the following interaction between a lawyer and an officer involved in a shooting?
Lawyer: “Officer, did you intend to kill Mr. Smith.”
Officer: “No, I shot him in the leg.”
Lawyer: “So lethal force was not necessary?”
Officer: “No, that’s why I shot him in the leg.”
Lawyer: “You shot a bullet into Mr. Smith and didn’t think that it might kill him?”
It seems ridiculous because it is just that. The officer would probably be prosecuted in criminal court and certainly be sued. Just as ridiculous is the argument that an officer should have used non-lethal means if being confronted aggressively with a knife or other dangerous weapon. Pepper spray, Tasers, and batons have a very limited range and are sometimes ineffective. I have personally seen demonstrations where an attacker with a knife can reach an officer standing over 20 feet away before the officer can react appropriately. These things happen in the blink of an eye and the speed and chaotic nature of assaults should be considered.
One last consideration regarding use of force – EVERY encounter an officer has involves a weapon because the officer is carrying one. Every time an officer goes to the ground and has to wrestle a suspect, the suspect’s hand is only inches away from a gun. All it takes is for an officer to lose consciousness or to be at a severe tactical or physical disadvantage for a suspect to obtain that weapon.
3. Video clips and sound bites are not thoughtful analysis
A few months ago a short video clip emerged from a gay rights parade in Pittsburgh. The clip showed an officer punching a female participant in the parade and gave no other context. Immediately, some individuals and entities latched on to the clip and claimed it was an example of police brutality. Several days later, information came out that prior to the officer punching her the woman had attacked a parade protester and then had kicked the officer in the groin when he attempted to take her into custody for the assault. None of that was shown on the video clip that had gone viral in a matter of hours. This is an example of why it is so important to reserve judgment before all of the facts are available.
A Simple Test When Debating This Topic
Whether or not the individual you are talking with believes the police are evil; or that a particular race, socioeconomic group, or ethnicity is to blame; or members of a specific political party are at fault, just ask the person the question: “All of them?” If the person responds in the affirmative then you may be wasting your breath, but don’t give up. Words can be polarizing, but they can also reverse the tide.
Have any thoughts? Leave a comment!
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
Watch for my new book, BOLT ACTION REMEDY, in 2017!
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology