Whether you work in Los Angeles, Miami, Cincinnati, or any other city, you've seen videotapes of police use-of-force incidents. Typically these images cause raging controversies on television news, radio talk shows, the front page of the papers, and often in both civil and criminal courts.
The general public does not like use-of-force incidents, and the public certainly does not like to actually see them occur. Most police confrontations do not make for pleasant dinnertime viewing, regardless of what tactics are used and regardless of whether the force is justified.
Use of force by police naturally upsets onlookers across the street as well as viewers of the six o'clock news. William Geller has written that, conditioned by fictional media depictions of sanitized violence on one hand and fantastic movie "megaviolence" on the other, most people have no frame of reference other than personal emotions to evaluate an incident. The average viewer has little or no experience with real violence and the chaos that typically surrounds it.
As law enforcement officers, we hold a unique position in society because we are permitted by law to use physical force to compel others to do our bidding. Charles Silberman has observed that we intervene in a variety of urgent, unpredictable situations, and our mission is to keep the peace or to restore it. This awesome power must be wielded sparingly in a democratic society. Terry Cooper says the public rightly holds public administrators, including police officials, responsive to public preferences and demands. When officers use force they must do so to control a situation, not to punish an offender.
You may moan about the public not understanding your job and the pressures you face, and you may well be right about that. But moaning about it does not alter the reality that the court of public opinion is a major force when we have an incident.
Each of us knows that while protecting and serving society, our personal goal is to go home safely at the end of each shift. The public does not generally appreciate the split-second decisions we must make, with limited information, while outnumbered, in some smelly alley, in the dark.
In his recent book, "Understanding Police Use of Force," Howard Rahtz notes that we learn early in our careers that in a force situation we may use only the degree of force that is "reasonable." That sounds simple enough, but applying that standard in practice is difficult.
Fifteen years ago, in the Graham case (Graham v. Connor, 1989), the U.S. Supreme Court gave us the following helpful words to guide us: "The 'reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge's chambers, violates the Fourth Amendment. The calculus of reasonableness must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments-in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving-about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation."
It is clearly in the public interest, as well as in our own personal and professional interests, that we do our jobs in a reasonable fashion. Although multiple studies have shown that police officers generally put people in jail without a use-of-force incident in literally 99 percent of all arrests, that still means there will be an incident one percent of the time.
When these incidents happen, you must be physically and psychologically ready, and you need to prevail and end the incident quickly. Any confrontation that is not effectively controlled may degenerate into a deadly one. The bystanders across the street are already shocked and horrified by what they are witnessing. The longer it goes on, the more shocked and horrified they will be. And you will see those people in administrative hearings, civil court, criminal court, or all three. So end it quickly.
The Unblinking Eye
Incidents involving use of force may be viewed from many perspectives: the officers on the scene, officers with the same policy and training who were not on the scene, officers in other jurisdictions who do not have similar policy and training, police management, and the public all apply their own life experiences to the situation.
And after a use-of-force incident is captured on tape, politicians, special interest groups, the media, and countless others will all loudly voice their opinion. But no videotape will ever show the perspective of the officer who is in the heat of battle. So you have to be able to explain and defend your actions as reasonable.
The 1991 Rodney King videotape, which was shot from a balcony across the street from the action, is a profound example of what the camera doesn't see and what the media chooses not to show. Even today, few people have seen the entire video, and fewer still have any perspective on how policy, training, equipment, and tactics drove the decisions of the officers on that videotape. But nearly everyone has a personal reaction to the Rodney King incident. The case is still argued by the public and the police, and it will be for some years to come.
We have an obligation to do our jobs as safely and professionally as possible. This is why proper training is essential to our personal and career survival.