Lessons Learned

First and foremost, the recordings reveal that force is ugly. It is not the "one punch, hero wins, bad guy goes down," movie action the public has been conditioned to expect.

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Well, we now have several decades of dashcams and several years of body cams under our belt and we can come to some conclusions that might be helpful in keeping you safe, and maybe even clear up some falsehoods about law enforcement and the use of force. 

Dave Smith (Image: Sequoia Blankenship)Dave Smith (Image: Sequoia Blankenship)

First and foremost, the recordings reveal that force is ugly. Yep, smash mouth, bloody nose, and lump-on-the-head ugly. It is not the "one punch, hero wins, bad guy goes down," movie action the public has been conditioned to expect. Nope, it is bloody, nasty, screaming violence that we can understand the public not understanding.

Unfortunately, too often we find that the media "experts," and even supposed law enforcement representatives, are aghast and imply that some mythical "technique" or "training" exists that would have resolved the situation without all the "brutality" recorded, if only law enforcement were sophisticated enough to use it.

I don't know how anyone who has ever tried to control a violent suspect one on one, or even five on one, could look at these videos and say, "Well here we see police brutality in action; look at the strikes to the suspect's legs or triceps or back!" I always wonder what technique these folks were taught that worked universally.

Baton strikes fail, OC spray fails, TASERs fail, even shooting suspects fails from time to time. One of the most powerful lessons from these recordings is you must be prepared for a control effort to fail, and move to the next option.

Reviewing incident footage also reinforces the common axioms of police work such as, "Watch the hands," "If it feels 'hinky' trust your gut," "In every confrontation there is at least one gun, and we bring it." Too often, the media emphasizes that this or that suspect was unarmed, yet every year we see our brothers and sisters disarmed and killed with their own weapons. My own beloved agency recently lost a young officer, and another wounded, when a subject disarmed the wounded officer. The call was not a particularly intense one, just a subject throwing objects at vehicles.

Which brings up another key lesson: Every call has the potential to be a deadly encounter. Repeatedly as I review deadly force footage I am stunned to see the call was very innocuous, mundane, and seriously routine. You MUST maintain your situational awareness and never…I mean NEVER … let routine detrain you. That is how "routine" kills; it lulls you into a false sense of familiarity, a soothing sense of control, a sense of what the military calls "normalcy bias," where even as things are deteriorating, the responders seem oblivious to the obvious: Things are going south.

I also see in the footage that crime fighters who face ambiguous but deteriorating situations are hesitating. Some are calling this the "Ferguson Effect." I do not care what it is called; it is a glitch in the program that has to be fixed. Hesitation kills. I am aware that when I review a deadly force video I have the advantage of "hindsight bias;" I know the end of the story, but the heroes on the video have the distinct disadvantage of having to live through the crisis going forward in time not knowing how the drama will play out. This is one of the biggest problems with the people watching the videos: they have no skin in the game, not even scars from having been in a similar game, and they have never known the true power of the "pucker factor" that occurs when losing the confrontation may mean death, and not just being voted off the island.

Maybe that is the double-edged sword of these videos. The public is slowly learning that, in the vast majority of these recordings, crime fighters prove their bona fides of courage, honor, and the selfless service that is so essential to maintain a free society. At the same time, this opens law enforcement up for criticism from experts, media, politicians, and activists, who seem to believe that tearing down our civil society is a utopian dream, instead of the dystopia their policies would actually create.

I pray that someday everyone will see what I see when I review these videos—men and women doing the heroic task of maintaining a free and safe society.

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.

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Officer (Ret.)
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