Photo: Michael Schlosser

Photo: Michael Schlosser

Is the baton a dying tool for law enforcement officers? In a recent survey of Illinois law enforcement officers I conducted and published in the University of Illinois Police Training Institute's journal Law Enforcement Executive Forum, over 90% of the respondents reported they carry O.C. spray and batons, while 70% said they carry TASERs. However, most officers have never used their batons as a striking tool, and most officers have either rarely or never used their baton as a leverage tool or control device. Once a commonly used tool for law enforcement officers, the baton seems to have lost its prominence.

One could easily speculate about the reasons for officers' declining use of the baton. The first thing that comes to mind is the highly publicized Rodney King incident in 1991, which drastically influenced the perceptions of both citizens and officers regarding the use of batons. We might also consider the advent of TASERs as a primary tool for officers. Officers may feel that using the baton, especially as a striking tool, can appear to be excessive force, even in situations where its use is reasonable. And, finally, the YouTube effect, with officers afraid to be the next under scrutiny on social media, can make officers leery of using their batons.

Nevertheless, the baton remains a viable tool for law enforcement officers. With appropriate understanding of the use of force and proper training, officers can confidently add this tool to their arsenals. Officers should be proficient and train with all tools, including empty hand, pepper spray, TASER, and baton, and should not limit themselves by becoming dependent on just one tool. Each tool has its advantages and disadvantages and should be used based on the circumstances.          

Use of Force

Concerning the use of force, the basic tenets were determined by the Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989) and Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985). The force an officer uses must be based on the "objectively reasonable officer" criteria, considering the "officer's perception at that moment" and the "totality of the circumstances." The amount of force employed also "requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake."

In Graham v. Connor, the Court acknowledged that since police officers often have to make split-second decisions, it is unfair to use 20/20 hindsight to evaluate an officer's response. Deadly force can be defined as an action that is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to an officer or someone else. In Tennessee v. Garner, the Supreme Court wrote, "Where the officer has probable cause to believe the suspect poses a threat of serious harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force." In such situations, based on the officer's perception at that moment based on the totality of the circumstances, the officer's goal is to stop the threat: not to "kill" the assailant (though that might occur), but simply to stop the threat. With that in mind, let's discuss the use of the baton in certain situations below.

Active Resister

Batons can be used when someone is actively resisting an officer, who can use the baton as a leverage tool or as a control hold tool. An example of using the baton for leverage could involve an active resister on the ground with his arms underneath his chest so he cannot be handcuffed. If you find yourself in this situation, you can place the baton between one of the resister's arms and his body, rotating the baton toward the head to pry the arm out from under the subject. Then you can control the arm and apply wrist manipulation, using pain compliance to get the subject to put his other hand behind his back.

Another example in which an officer could use the baton for an active resister involves the radial arm lock. To initiate this hold, first work the baton between the resister's arm and body, with the back of the baton placed under your armpit. Then use the same arm to trap the subject's arm and apply pressure, causing pain compliance by activating the radial nerve. You can then work the arm behind the subject's back, using your free arm to keep the subject from turning in toward you.

Aggressive Assailant

Of course, you can also use your baton against an aggressive or attacking assailant. The primary baton targets when under attack are the sub-waist, large muscle groups. Technique is important for best results. Strike with force from your entire body, rotating the hips and driving through the target almost like a baseball swing. This generates more force than just the use of arm motion. Many times, one strike will "drop" the assailant, especially if contact is made to either the common peroneal or femoral nerves in the legs. Remember to always give commands when using the baton, such as "Stop resisting" and "Get down on the ground."

Batons can also be used to drive back an aggressive assailant by thrusting toward the center mass of the assailant with both hands on the baton. This will create space that can allow you, if necessary, to initiate strikes on the sub-waist large muscle groups.

Blocks, often taught using the baton, can be useful. However, keep in mind that "a strike is a block" and "a block is a strike." So, rather than blocking an attack and then striking, you can simply strike whatever is coming at you. For example, if an aggressive assailant is throwing punches, you can strike the attacking arm; if an aggressive assailant is kicking you, you can simply strike the attacking leg.

Deadly Force

The baton may also be used in deadly force situations. In any deadly force situation, it is always recommended, if possible, that you use your handgun. However, if the baton is already in hand, with no time to transition to the handgun, the baton may still be a viable choice. When using the baton in a deadly force situation, there are no limits for a strike on the deadly force assailant, including head strikes.

Fully Prepared

Besides practicing the aforementioned techniques and scenarios, you should practice drawing your baton in preparation for an arrestee. It should become second nature for you to retrieve your baton, as well as other tools on your belt, and you should be prepared to use them in any situation. Today's officers have many options and tools available to them, including empty hands, O.C. spray, TASERs, and batons. It is important that you train with all your tools to make available as many options as possible.

Michael Schlosser, PhD, is the director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute.

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