Deadly hesitation and de-policing: 2 troubling trends that affected officer safety in 2015

If deadly hesitation and de-policing continue to become more prevalent, some places in this country are in peril of becoming practically lawless

The year 2015 has been a tumultuous one for police. Officers seem to have to respond to a rapid mass murder incident about once every few weeks. The media’s over-inflated coverage of such events, coupled with the conflation of terms like “active shooter,” “active killer,” “mass murder,” and “mass shooting” make it all but impossible to put a definitive number on how many incidents took place this year, but indisputably the issue has been on the front burner for LEOs in the past 12 months.

Officers have witnessed anti-cop rhetoric by politicians and protestors ratcheted up to levels we haven’t seen since the 1970s. Similarly, unprovoked sudden ambush attacks and assaults on our officers harken back to the bad old days of the 70s. There is a serious lack of statistical data on either of those trends, but it’s easy to observe the uptick simply by watching the number of such news headlines compared to years past.

In addition, vital life-saving equipment acquired by departments under the 1033 program has been ordered to be returned to the federal government. At a time when armored vehicles and other important gear is needed more than ever to protect officers and civilians alike, a presidential pronouncement in October gave agencies until April 1st 2016 to send the stuff back or be out of compliance with federal regulations and at risk of losing federal funding.

Indeed, there have been myriad individual events and trends of consequence for law enforcement in 2015, but none have the same potential for far-reaching future implications as the inexorably linked phenomena of officers hesitating to act when action is necessary, and officers disengaging from the practice of proactive policing. Many in the law enforcement universe have dubbed this the ‘Ferguson Effect’ — the consequence of Officer Darren Wilson losing his career (and his life as he knew it) after justifiably using his sidearm to defend himself against a deadly threat on that summer Saturday afternoon on Florissant Street in 2014. Let’s examine each element.

Deadly Hesitation
Following Ferguson, we have seen incidents in which an officer failed to use justifiable force when deadly force was precisely what was required at the time. Some officers are more afraid of being labeled a fascist or a racist than they are of dying at the hands of an assailant. Some are more afraid of becoming the next YouTube sensation. Some are afraid of a lawsuit. We have taken to calling this ‘deadly hesitation’ — cops failing to save themselves from potentially fatal injuries because they fear the aftermath of a deadly force encounter more than they do the incident itself.

For example, in April video surfaced of an Ohio officer backpedaling away from a subject — charged for the fatal shooting of his 25-year-old girlfriend and a person of interest in a second slaying in Kentucky — who was rapidly approaching the officer with one hand in his pocket.

Officer Jesse Kidder later said, “I wanted to be absolutely sure before I used deadly force” and he was lauded for his restraint by his chief and many in the media. But by giving up his position of advantage behind the squad car, backpedaling away from the subject with gun drawn, and falling to the ground (lasing homes and his own leg in the process), Kidder endangered himself and the public had the subject killed him and escaped in the cop’s squad car (which was equipped with a long gun).

There was also the incident in Birmingham (Ala.) in which a cop was pistol whipped (with his own gun) by an assailant. The officer later told CNN, “I hesitated because I didn’t want to be in the media... A lot of officers are being too cautious because of what’s going on in the media.”

Well, he ended up in the media anyway, and he very well could have ended up in the morgue.

In some cities, the practice of proactive policing is in danger of becoming lost to history. Not only are officers reluctant to use force when force is necessary, many — of their own volition and their own admission — have declared an end to approaching unsavory individuals on the street to conduct field interviews and gather investigative information.

Further, this practice of de-policing has even been seen in agency-wide directives. In the North Carolina city of Greensboro, command staff has ordered cops to “no longer initiate traffic stops for minor infractions such as broken headlights or tail lights.” The problem is, traffic stops have a tendency to lead to much more serious investigations that ultimately take dangerous criminals off the street.

What if that had been the policy in Springfield (Mo.) last July, when police found an improvised explosive device in a vehicle stopped for a minor infraction? The device found that day consisted of a containment vessel, an explosive charge, a fuse and a trigger, as well as shrapnel in the form of coins capable of “causing severe injury or death.” And of course we all know that Timothy McVeigh was arrested after Trooper Charlie Hanger stopped a yellow Mercury missing a registration tag. McVeigh was booked on a concealed weapon charge, and when FBI investigators began to focus on him, he was easy to find in a nearby jail cell.

The biggest single step toward de-policing a city happened to America’s largest police force — the vaunted NYPD — as Mayor Bill De Blasio has all but ended the investigative tactic of stop-and-frisk. According to a report, “NYPD statistics show only 4,747 New Yorkers were targeted citywide by the divisive policing tactic in July, August and September — the lowest quarter since numbers were first released in 2002, police officials said.”

Although the policy of stop-and-frisk is unpopular with many in the public, it is completely constitutional in the eyes of the Supreme Court, which declared in the landmark 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio that reasonable suspicion that a suspect was committing a crime — or was about to commit a crime — was enough to justify an investigative stop by police, and that a pat down of the subjects outer clothing was reasonable to ensure the officer’s safety during the contact and field interview.

At this time, overall crime in New York is down 2.4 percent and there has been a three percent decline in the number of shootings, but let’s see what those numbers look like a year from now.

2016: The Year of the Criminal?
Two sides of the same coin, if deadly hesitation and de-policing continue to become more prevalent, some places in this country are in peril of becoming at least more dangerous, if not downright lawless.

As I wrote back in August, “If taking the initiative to put criminals behinds bars puts an officer at risk of landing in court, in jail, or in the grave, the obvious outcome is that cops may just choose to do the minimum...they will become so demotivated that they’ll be hesitant to conduct any self-initiated crime fighting whatsoever.”

Cops who disengage from proactive policing effectively become firefighters — hunkered down, waiting for the next radio call, going out only in a reactive mode, after an event has already taken place. The bad guys will quickly figure this out, and they will be emboldened to commit more crime. They will also have the knowledge that an encounter with a cop may involve an officer who is more fearful of a lawsuit than of a throw-down fight, and may hesitate to act when attacked.

In cities populated by emboldened criminals and demotivated cops, the innocents will be the ones who suffer. Law abiding citizens cannot ‘coexist’ with criminals who are trying to kill, rape, maim, and take from them all that they hold dear — that’s why we have police officers to protect our society. If these troubling trends of deadly hesitation and de-policing continue, a year from now we may be writing about 2016 as the year of the criminal. Let’s not let that happen. 

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