Use of Force - A Sergeant's Perspective
“Use of force”, three words that have become the center of debates across the country in this time of heavy scrutiny, and second guessing of law enforcement actions. They are also three words that are an everyday reality and part of the job that goes along with being a law enforcement officer.
Every day we go to work not knowing what each day will bring. The unknown is part of the excitement that propels some of us forward in our day to day interaction with the public; the unknown. Although most of us are prepared for the ever changing variables in most given scenarios, we never know how truly prepared we are until our mettle is tested in the heat of the moment.
This includes not only how we escalate and deescalate a situation, it begins from the moment we are sent on a call for service. Our attitude towards the call and the callers is one big variable. Are we anxious and nervous, are we arrogant and cocky; both of these have the potential to result in a misunderstanding between us and the public. Do we have these attitudes when we arrive, or is this how the public perceives us?
Attitudes aside, let’s examine what happens once we are on the scene of a dispatched call, or one that we come across ourselves. How do we present ourselves? Is the uniform neat? Does the Officer appear to be a professional who cares? Appearance; like it or not, is also a big part of the job. I have been told by my father, who was a NY Police Sergeant and had 34 years on the job, that your appearance matters. People are sizing you up the moment you arrive. It can help alleviate the fears of a victim, if they see an Officer who appears to know how to handle him or herself on the streets. If you look like you know what you are doing, and your stuff is in order; the criminals might think twice to try and pull one over on you, or to fight you. Again, this isn’t always the case, but it helps.
However, when the criminal has sized you up and decides that he is going to run, fight, or both; you need to be prepared to use the appropriate level of force needed to neutralize the threat. This is where things get dicey.
With the recent events in Ferguson, MO, and Staten Island, NY; law enforcement, and in particular “use of force” tactics have come under attack in the media, and by politicians and talking heads across the country. As we know, each incident involving “use of force” is unique unto itself, and therefore a blanketed solution is by design, a failed solution.
However, this will not stop politicians and appointed staff members of departments across the country from giving into the public hysteria; which will undoubtedly result in new laws being written, new department policies being written, and old laws and policies either being rewritten or scrapped entirely. Like it or not, it is happening, and it will continue to happen. Whether we want to admit it or not, not all change is bad, but we should approach it with some apprehension and trepidation. Not to do so, would be foolish, and against our better judgment as the inquisitive investigators that we are by nature.
Although I have not been a Police Officer that long compared to some of my colleagues, in my short tenure, I have used every tool on my belt at one time or another. Each time was the result of a scenario where an escalation or de-escalation in a “use of force” was needed. Like you, I now look at some tools on my duty belt as mere paper weights, and wonder why I even carry that particular item anymore. But I soon come to my senses and remember that there has been a time when each of these tools was needed, and because they were applied correctly according to the policies and procedures of the department, and because they were used within the correct legal context, my actions were justified.
My advice to all law enforcement officers out there regarding today’s heated political climate is this; utilize the tools in your arsenal. This doesn’t just include the items on your duty belt. Familiarize yourself with the ever changing and evolving laws and departmental policies and procedures that govern our actions in the field. Remember your attitude, and how you present yourself to the people you encounter on the street. Most importantly, work on your writing and documentation skills. This includes our newest accoutrement, the TASER body worn camera. These cameras, like the in car cameras and inevitable legislative and judicial changes that will be brought about from these recent incidents, will not be going away any time soon. Use this to your advantage, to show why you did what you did. This will go hand in hand with helping to justify your actions when it is deemed necessary to escalate and de-escalate a situation.
Although the public will never fully understand what we face in the streets every day, we can perhaps offer them a window into the all too often ugly and disparaging world that we deal with, through our reports and our videos. You will always have the naysayers and nonbelievers, but that’s par for the course; and they are actually very few.
The pendulum is being pushed too far in one direction at the moment because of hasty political decisions. Do not fall victim to this or its cousin, the guillotine, in today’s climate. When in doubt, call a supervisor, and if needs be, call your FOP legal representation.
Remember that the number one mission for every Officer out there is to go home in one piece at the end of each tour of duty. In closing, do not shy away from using your tools when the situation arises, but at the same time be mindful of what the world has become, and where it is going.
Take these things that they have placed upon you, meant to be shackles to impede your ability to enforce the law; and instead, make them the keys to your unimpeded path to enforce the law with uninhibited vigor and vivacity.
Sgt. Michael Rooney
New Orleans Police Department