Patrol Officers Can’t Afford to Hesitate

Sometimes concerns beyond the scope of the incident at hand can make an officer hesitate when his or her life or the lives of the innocent public are at risk.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Old timers may remember seven; a newer generation has been weaned on 10. Officers of all ages at least have some familiarity with them: The deadly sins endemic to our profession. For the record, they are: lack of concentration, tombstone courage, not enough rest, taking a bad position, not heeding danger signs, failure to watch the hands of a suspect, relaxing too soon, improper handcuffing, no search or poor search, and dirty or inoperative weapon.

Many of these deadly sins concern physical or tactical missteps.

But there is another fundamental problem, one which the officer can correct far ahead of time. It is the inhibiting mindset.

There’s a distinction to be made here: What I’m jabbering about isn’t mental enervation (lack of concentration). Indeed, it is a matter of concentrating too much on peripherals so that they subordinate priorities at “shoot/don’t shoot” moments of truth.

In other words, sometimes concerns beyond the scope of the incident at hand can make an officer hesitate when his or her life or the lives of the innocent public are at risk.

These inhibiters have been discussed during briefings and de-briefings, have popped up in BS sessions, considered in round tabling, and mentioned by officers I’ve interviewed for “Shots Fired” columns.

What are they? They vary from officer to officer, but here are a few of the more common concerns that can make an officer hesitate:

• The Race of the Suspect
The race card can be played at will and often will be. The news media loves a circus, and can be counted on to make one of any case that has racial connotations. Rounds will be counted, hits will be tallied, and if you’ve exceeded your “Community Allotted Number of Rounds Fired,” you just know there’s going to be hell to pay. I once heard a white cop say, “The first straight, middle-aged white male I see coming out of a bank with a bag of money in one hand and a gun in the other, his ass is mine! No Al Sharptons will be coming out of the woodwork to get camera time on that bad boy!” Even black officers live with concerns of being ostracized as “Uncle Toms” should they suffer the misfortune of shooting a man whose complexion mirrors their own.

But the fact should be that regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, etc., the son of a bitch should be dropped if he poses a life or death threat. And regardless of your own background, you need to remember as much.

• Their Own Religious Beliefs
One West Covina, Calif., police officer was known as a deeply Christian man who on more than one occasion had expressed reservations about having to take a life. Unfortunately, he was confronted by that prospect when a suspect high on PCP tore the mounted shotgun out of his patrol car. The officer did not do what he had to do to protect himself and was killed by a shotgun blast fired from the shotgun he had loaded himself.

Obviously, our actions as officers should be governed by a reverence for human life. But reverence for human life includes our own. Officers who fail to take the necessary actions to save themselves from threats bequeath unnecessary heartaches to loved ones who survive them, and avoidable threats to their peers who may not.
Despite having been involved in six officer-involved shootings, San Diego police officer Phil Bozarth considers himself no less Christian. Reconciling God’s Commandments with his profession has not been difficult for Officer Bozarth.

“There have been some officers who felt extremely bad at having taken a life,” he told me. ”They felt as though they themselves had sinned, that they had violated the word of God. But often their beliefs are colored by the King James version of the Bible that was released in 1611. For whereas older texts say, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ the most recent and widely accepted translations, including the New King James Version, New International Version, and New American Standard Bible say, ‘You shall not murder.’ For Christians in doubt, I would point to Romans 13:1,3,4: "Everyone must submit himself to governing authorities. For there is no authority except that which God has established. … For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.... But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’” It leaves no ambiguity about the Christian officer’s need to occasionally use deadly force.

• In-house Monday Morning Quarterbacking
Within larger agencies, there is no shortage of people who will evaluate an officer-involved shooting: I.A., Homicide, Training Staff, Civil Lit., etc. Remember, “He that tries to please everyone, pleases no one.” Do what you have to do.

• Getting Sued and/or Prosecuted
No officer wants to be part of Rodney King redux. No deputy wants to relive the Amadou Diallo nightmare. But people can get sued for anything, or prosecuted for some politically unviable use of force. As aggravating as it might be to endure such proceedings, spending time in either court is infinitely preferable to spending it in one’s grave. Remember, respect for human life includes our own, and there’s a reason cops say, “It’s better to be tried by 12, than carried by six.”

Why the mindsets? It varies from officer to officer. But one anecdote may be telling.

Around summer 1990, there was a series of five Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy-involved shootings that resulted in the terminations of the primary officers involved in each. That all of the involved deputies eventually got their jobs back and then took stress retirements afterward, making the tragedies worse, was hardly comforting. From all I’d heard, each was a justifiable shooting. In fact, a captain—one who apparently placed more stock in his conscience than his promotability—spoke out in the news media against his deputy’s termination, effectively burning his bridges with the incumbent sheriff with all the efficacy of an arsonist in a paper mill.

Such incidents are, unfortunately, all too common from one city to another and serve as cautionary parables for other officers who can all too readily relate to the fate of the involved officer. As a result, they become literally “gun shy.”

The time to think about these things is long before the incident. Know that any use-of-force incident can be controverted. But usually, justice prevails. Make your peace with these matters before they become realities. This is where audio and video recordings can give you some measure of peace of mind.

Cops don’t have the luxury of getting their minds back into the game. It’d better be there in the first place.

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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