Helping Yourself Out in Matters of Force

If there's ever a time for you to start thinking like a sergeant, a detective, and a lawyer, it's when you've just knocked some suspect on his ass.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

I'm not going to tell you when or how to use force. When it comes to the prospect of using force, I assume that 1) you'll act accordingly, 2) your partner will act accordingly, or 3) you're so willfully ignorant that there's damn little anybody can do to help you.

But while I am giving you the benefit of the doubt, I am not going to assume that you know how to cover the bases—not to mention cover your ass—in the aftermath of a use-of-force incident.

Having spent most of my career as a patrol supervisor, I've been witness to just how many things can go wrong even for experienced officers. And for those who are just starting out in law enforcement, the odds of having something other than a suspect bite them in the ass increase dramatically.

An irony of the profession is that the earlier you are in the game, the greater the likelihood that you'll find yourself involved with force incidents, as opposed to later in your career when you'll be better able to justify your actions. This is understandable. You're younger, more energetic, more anxious to catch bad guys, and perhaps lacking in some of the silver-tongued graces that most cops acquire over the course of their careers.

Yet if there's ever a time for you to start thinking like a sergeant, a detective, and a lawyer, it's when you've just knocked some suspect on his ass.

When it comes to using force, I'll assume that the other guy had it coming. Unfortunately, there are others who are not so predisposed. Much like Rorschach's ink blots, they'll see what they want, and they're the ones you have to convince as to the propriety of your actions.

That's why if you anticipate a use-of-force incident, do everything in your power to get it on tape as it evolves. Note the emphasis on "evolves." Too often, cameras catch only a portion of the force deployed, and not the circumstances that precipitated it. Documented footage will illustrate the mindset of the people you deal with, any orders they chose to ignore, and why the force is necessary.

Fortunately, many patrol units today have in-car camera systems. Whether you're on a traffic or pedestrian stop, it's important to get in the habit of keeping the other parties within view of the camera. Also, make sure that the camera is activated. Some systems are set to activate only when rotators are going. If you're only using your amber to the rear, you may have to manually start the camera.

Make sure that you're getting audio, too. Repeated commands for compliance work to your advantage. At no time should your concerns about getting objective documentation of an incident delay your decision to use the force in question. The greater priority is to get home in one piece; sometimes you just can't have everything as nice and tidy as you'd like them.

If you have the luxury of a handheld camera, have a fellow officer use it. They're particularly handy, and not just for tracking a force problem as it moves from one area to the next. A panoramic 360-degree sweep in the immediate aftermath of the force will show who was actually present at the scene, and who wasn't.

As far as those who are there, you need to identify those witnesses. The greater the degree of force—or the greater the volatility of the situation—the greater the need to do so. You need to do this not just to corroborate your version of events, but to lock in the stories of those present before their statements can be choreographed by some attorney.

At the same time, you need to be able to prevent idiots who weren't present from coming forward to say they were and offering an alternate version of events (I'm looking at you, Al Sharpton).

Keep a pocket recorder on you to record all interviews you conduct. Once I responded to a force incident where I immediately ascended the stairs of an apartment complex to get an overview of the situation. Two prisoners were seated on an upstairs landing, handcuffed and sweaty, but none the worse for wear. I asked for their stories, which pretty much mirrored that given to me by the involved deputies. I then went back downstairs, retrieved my video camera from the trunk, and returned for an on-camera interview of the subjects.

One guy's version remained the same. But the other guy suddenly reported that the female deputy did Cynthia Rothcock kicks to his head as the other deputy held him down. I asked him why he hadn't told me this in the first place. In a very earnest manner he said that he had, then looked at the camera and accused me of trying to change the story.

"Nope," I said, pulling a micro-cassette recorder out of my pocket to show him that I'd tape recorded our initial conversation. His on-camera response was even more sincere when he spontaneously said, "Oh, f__k—I'm screwed!" (Sidenote: At the time, the Colts Commission people were vigorously monitoring our use of force incidents. One of them stopped by the station and, upon viewing this video, laughed, and said, "This is just the sort of thing we need to see more of." I'm afraid that remains pretty much the case).

In addition to audio and visual documentation of the incident, research other types of documentation that will support your contentions: prior RAPS, photographs of any injuries, doctor's medical treatment (which should indicate that the injuries are consistent with what would normally be expected given the degree of force used).

Finally, have one supervisor review all paperwork for inconsistencies. Review all paperwork yourself to cross reference first and supplemental reports that are pertinent to the case. Check for inconsistencies. There will be some. One guy may have seen you strike the guy twice; another might say four times. You might know better. Ideally, you should be the most credible person when it comes to saying what you did, and why.

By making sure that such precautions are undertaken, you can help make sure that the only one whose ass gets kicked is the guy who has it coming.

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