An unarmed man has been shot and killed by the police. His family is devastated. Bystanders captured the event on cell phone video and shared it on YouTube. The video has over three million views and has been picked up by the national media. The killing has sparked protests all over the country and added fuel to an already scorching national debate about law enforcement’s use of force. The officer was initially placed on leave, then fired, then arrested and criminal prosecuted. The event has far reaching consequences for the officer’s agency and its staff as they have tried to recover. The department’s administration has had to implement new programs aimed at mending relations with the community and avoiding further incidents. The killing then went on to affect every police officer in the country because the public tends to perceive all police officers as one large group as opposed to individuals. Citizens from all over the country saw their local officers as somehow complicit. Although the actual officer involved shot the man because of a mistake of fact (he thought he saw a gun), the repercussions are irreparable for the officer, the dead man and both of their families.
Although that event is fictional, it illustrates actual and all too familiar events published in headlines on a weekly basis. Officers from agencies big and small and from all over the country have become infamous overnight. While issues of race have been in the forefront of the national conversation, so is how the police use force especially in the context of suspects who are either wanted for a minor crime, mentally ill or disabled. To distill the issue even further, it is basically the individual officer’s decision-making processes that are so hotly debated.
Each of the cases in the headlines in the past few years have had their own unique set of challenging circumstances. Without being present on-scene none of us can know with certainty what occurred or how we would have reacted. Second guessing an officer’s decision is mostly forbidden in some law enforcement circles because “we weren’t there.” Perhaps though we could all agree we should still try to learn from those events and then do whatever is in our power to avoid a repeat of past tragedies.
I have noticed trends in the countless viral police videos on the internet. The first trend is that of an incident involving the officer trying to impose their will on a person who will not voluntarily cooperate. The viral video shows the officer contacting someone who for whatever reason won’t comply with their directives. Instead of retreating or regrouping, most of the videos then show the officer continuing to press forward and engaging as they try to exert control over the uncooperative person. Often times the officer is alone without any back-up. The second common trend on viral police videos starts with the officer immersing themselves in a problem that they really don’t have the ability to actually solve. The video shows the officer has been called to fix a problem that has been years in the making such as drug addiction, mental illness, family issues and behavioral problems. Even though it’s a problem that the officer cannot realistically solve, the officer immediately jumps in and immerses themselves in the crisis. They are often alone, operating in a tense circumstance and seem to feel they must make an immediate decision and take definitive action right away.
The Police: The World’s Problem Solvers?
Some would no doubt argue that imposing their will and solving everyone’s problems is exactly what the police are supposed to do. The police, it is argued, are the world’s problem solvers. Plus, taking charge and handling business are two basic tenets of police-work, right? The officers in the videos do not shy away from any challenge and instead they jump in head-first to take on whatever mess they have found themselves wrapped up in. These officers could be referred to as “No-Hesitation Immediate Problem Solvers.” While not hesitating to try to solve a problem is certainly noble, that nobility is often rewarded by the officer being assaulted. The same videos often show things quickly escalating to the point where the officer is killed or kills the suspect. But if these officers were placed in a situation that was largely unwinnable, where they didn’t have the actually ability to solve the problem in the first place, why then were they using force to try to exert their will? If we take a step back and look at the messages we give young police officers during their initial training, we may be able to illuminate the reasons why.
In basic academy instruction and in-field training programs, young officers are taught to dominate most aspects of their interactions with suspects by boldly asserting themselves. They are often left with the message that they can and should attempt to solve every problem. Perhaps we don’t spend enough time teaching them the more difficult concept of knowing when to assert themselves and when not to. While a “can-do attitude” is an admirable and essential quality of an officer, such an attitude must be tempered by the knowledge that there are in fact things we cannot do. A “ready to take on the world” demeanor is a wonderful quality in an officer but again it must come with the realistic awareness that they, in fact, cannot take on the world. So many online police videos show officers quickly inserting themselves in the fray of whatever crisis has developed and then them trying to rapidly control it. While a swift decision or overwhelming violence of action is sometimes the very best answer to a problem, there are just as many times when it is not. Recruits and seasoned officers alike must be trained and re-trained to know when backing off or re-maneuvering would be the best option. Of course, there will be times when officers will always find themselves under attack or unable to postpone taking action but in every other circumstance perhaps another approach would save lives, both officer and suspect alike.
It took me several years of being a police officer to realize that I was totally unequipped and incapable of solving everyone’s problems. Regardless of anyone’s expectations, my problem-solving abilities were restrained by the resources available to me, laws, the support of the victim, the support of my agency and the public, the sanity and sobriety of the suspect, etc. In the academy, I was taught cops are “one part psychologist, one part marriage counselor, one part warrior,” and on and on. The truth is, however, I was actually none of those things. I was instead a police officer, with all the strengths and limitations that specific occupation gave me. As a new officer, I don’t think it really occurred to me there were some problems that I just could not solve. I was blissfully unaware that some of the issues presented to me on calls for service were issues I simply could not fix. Without that self-awareness, I felt some sense that I should, and even must, take an affirmative action to solve everyone’s problems. Thankfully I got to learn from other officers that we couldn’t solve everyone’s problems and sometimes the best thing we could do was to do nothing at all.
I can still remember my first incident when the Incident Commander announced we were going to disengage and walk away. The Incident Commander explained that because there was no acceptable way to solve the tactical dilemma we had been presented, we were going to leave. The call was for an armed suicidal man alone in his own home and refusing to come out. He hadn’t committed a crime, but I couldn’t believe that we, the police, the supposed solvers of the world’s problems, would not stay indefinitely on-scene and fix the problem. I thought we must save him from himself. Looking back, it is easy to see the wisdom that commander had. He realized it was a no-win situation because the risk of action outweighed the benefit of action. Forcing entry could have easily produced a violent confrontation with the man we were supposedly there to save.
Choosing When To Fight
The Incident Commander I just mentioned realized that based on the resources he had, and the laws under which he had to operate there was no way to win….so he chose not to fight. In the sixth century, Sun Tzu wrote in his master work, The Art of War, that “The winning army realizes the condition for victory first then fights. The losing army fights first then seeks victory.” The lesson of that phrase is simple to understand but not always as easy to put into practice. It means that when facing an adversary, we must have the right conditions to win before we agree to engage. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t defend ourselves when under sudden attack. Instead Sun Tzu was illustrating the fact that none of us, even a military genius like him, can win every fight. If even Sun Tzu knew there were fights he should avoid because he would lose then certainly we are in good company if we follow his lead.
Of course, anything taken to an extreme can be foolish. Paralyzing hesitation, cowardice, and laziness all have no part in the mind of a police officer. But there is a chasm between those traits and that of the thinking police officer who is willing to not engage when appropriate. Perhaps seeing our police power and influence in the proper context, with full appreciation of our limitations, may lead to better decision making. It’s a notion that every officer at all ranks in an organization must appreciate. The chief must know that his or her officers are bound by the limitations of human performance and will act far from perfect. The first-line supervisor on the street must realize when it’s time to tactically withdraw from an unwinnable scenario. And perhaps most importantly, the solo beat officer must recognize those fights not worth fighting and those situations where the juice simply isn’t worth the squeeze.
While a “No-Hesitation Immediate Problem Solver” jumps into every fray, the thinking, calculating and cunning officer does not. Refusing to engage, or delaying action long enough, until he has the right conditions to win isn’t weak. On the contrary, it’s a powerful position. It is worthwhile to take a step back and look at the tremendous power we have as a profession. Individual police officers carry a belt full of weapons and their vehicles are stocked with assault rifles and other tactical gear. Unlike any other profession in the world they themselves have the legal power to decide to shoot another human being realizing it may very well kill them. Police Supervisors can call up SWAT Teams, armored vehicles and air support. With the benefit of mutual aid they can amass a small army of officers if the situation called for it. Incident Commanders can set all those resources to bear on a situation with the simple push of a radio button. What incredible power! So, the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. We have the great responsibility to know when and under what conditions to apply that power. That power exists to sit in reserve until called up to assist us in enforcing a law or protecting someone’s safety. We are simply a means to an end, not an end in and of ourselves. We exist as a profession to carry out the will of the public we serve.
When it comes to the way law enforcement uses force, our profession will change, either voluntarily or otherwise. The report entitled “Re-Engineering Training on Police Use of Force by the Police Executive Research Foundation (2015), spelled out their intention to not just improve the way the police use force, but to completely “re-engineer” it. Some of the principles in the report were undoubtedly controversial and difficult to implement. There were others, however, such as using time, distance and cover, that present an important counter-balance to the No Hesitation Immediate Problem Solver mentality. That report, along with the “National Consensus Policy and Discussion Paper on Use of Force”, are important reading for law enforcement professionals. Whether one agrees with the content or not, each report contains at least some recommendations that can help save lives, both cops and citizens alike.
I believe as a profession, law enforcement would be best served by doing away with The No Hesitation Immediate Problem Solver mentality. It should be replaced with a careful and calculating mentality that can help officers navigate the highly litigious and precarious era they operate within.
A version of this article was first published in the Spring 2018 edition of The Tactical Edge, a publication of the National Tactical Officer’s Association.