Deadly force continuum changing officer safety

The use of force is a fluid decision tree that requires instant recognition of threat often in response to another’s intention to do bodily harm and cause mayhem – Sefton 2016

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 23, 2016 Police agencies across the country are changing their use of force policies because of the hue and cry of constituents everywhere over police shootings. Some wrongly believe that street cops should use counseling techniques first to reduce the need for lethal force and – in their view – reduce officer involved shootings.

The clamor for the change in this policy is placing greater onus for limiting lethal force on the street officer. In effect, this is pushing him or her to be an armchair psychologist in addition to the ultimate defender of human rights when life is on the line. There is a growing expectation that crisis intervention, de-escalation techniques will be inserted into the use of force continuum in the officer’s armamentarium.  This adds to the officer’s conundrum on whether to shoot or not to shoot.  In the instant he thinks ‘can this situation be eliminated through dialogue and de-escalation tools?’ he may be killed or maimed. Police Commissioners in Los Angeles are considering a revamping of the use of lethal force by adding de-escalation language that officers might use to reduce the need for lethal force (LA Times, K. Mather).  The policy in Los Angeles dictates that officers be guided by “a reverence for human life” as the critical underpinning for the avoidance of using force.

The use of force continuum requires that officers may only use force when force is being introduced against them. The expectation that the average citizen is going to comply with police officer directives is no longer the case.  People of all sizes and shapes become violent often with little or no provocation. Passive resistance may not be met with a baton strike or taser.  Where as the baton strike and taser may be deployed when active resistance and an aggressive posture are demonstrated or directly administered against a police officer.  The increase in force against police takes just an instant and police officers train for this “oh shit” moment of attack. Too often an officer is caught off guard resulting in injury or death.  As a police officer, we practiced for these moments when on the range or during our night shoot twice a year.  Our range instructor had a special device that measured the time from when you drew your firearm until the first shot was recorded.  The fastest draw each year won a prize like a new knife or a light for your your pistol. Something as routine as a traffic stop can leave an officer dead when the operator may be in hiding or attempting a getaway unbeknownst to the officer.

The need for verbal dialogue is already part of officer training.  It is called “giving commands” and officers-in-training practice it for hours in all academy classes.  It becomes part of the daily behavioral vernacular of most citizen contacts – especially those with noncompliant, resistant or agitated subjects.  Adding verbal de-escalation commands to the use of force protocol will create a greater lag time when that moment of attack occurs or is about to occur.  I understand the need for sensitive dialogue in all potentially violent police-citizen encounters.  I believe it is a safe bet that all police officers are guided by the reverence for human life as the LAPD edict would espouse.

Counseling is not appropriate when the bad guy escalates to a lethal force moment such as when he draws a gun unexpectedly, or is fighting for an officers firearm or when he rushes an officer with a knife attempting to do grave bodily harm.