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When is enough enough? Reconciling the use of force “coercion/custody” dilemma

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It is a fact of life that police officers use force on a regular basis. Most involves tools, tactics, and techniques that are geared towards meeting operational objectives, without causing death or serious physical injury-but it is force none the less.

You know the drill-an officer has grounds to arrest or detain, and the subject demonstrates by action, word, or deed that he intends to use physical force to resist the officer’s lawful authority. Agency policy varies at this point, but most authorize the immediate use of a reasonable amount of force to overcome the subjects’ resistance-and from a “less lethal” perspective, that force is generally coercive in nature.

Webster1defines coercion as, “restrain or constrain by force-especially by legal authority”. From the strike of the baton to the twist of the wrist, officers since time immemorial have relied on discomfort--and the suspects’ natural desire to abate or avoid the continuation of such discomfort-as a method of convincing those who are resisting to stop doing so.

The application of so called, “pain compliance” techniques literally says it all: pain or compliance.

Consider the intoxicated driver who locks up on the steering wheel, as officers attempt to remove him from the vehicle. Several fruitless tugs later, an officer reaches in and places a well supported thumb against the drivers Mandibular Angle2. Firm pressure is applied, along with loud commands to “stop resisting-let go of the steering wheel-stop resisting and the pain will stop”.

The suspect cries out in response to the discomfort, and in an effort to stop the pain releases his grip. The officer correspondingly reduces the pressure, and escorts the suspect from the vehicle.

This scenario is played out countless times across America each day, and has generally been proven safe and successful. Unfortunately, officers with ever increasing frequency are encountering those who lack the primary factor that makes pain compliance techniques so effective-the ability to feel pain.


People who can take the pain are dramatically different from those who can’t feel it, and officers must be trained to recognize the difference and act accordingly.

Pain tolerance varies greatly from person to person, and is impacted by such things as mental/physical toughness and the motivating factors unique to a particular event.

Likewise, a significant number of the suspects crossing swords with police today have an apparent “mind-body” disconnect, and function in a realm that is void of pain and the ability to respond to it. This phenomenon is often observed with mentally ill subjects, or those under the influence of mind altering substances.

The end result is a police interaction with someone mentally immune to “pain compliance” techniques, but physically affected by the process intended to coercively overcome his resistance. Failing to recognize this paradox and act accordingly has directly contributed to a number of negative outcomes, and remains at the crux of the “when is enough-enough” dilemma.

Consider the discussion following a deadly force encounter, when questions are raised about the number of shots fired. The internal affairs investigator asks, “why did you shoot the suspect nine times”? The officer responds, “because eight didn’t stop the threat I was facing”.

Textbook answer--when facing imminent deadly jeopardy. The primary mission objective was to stop the threat, and it was absolutely appropriate to fire as many rounds as necessary to accomplish that objective. But what is the right answer to the, “how many-how much” question, when the primary objective differs from this.

Consider a mentally deranged/suicidal subject holding a knife to his throat. He is non-assaultive, in a static position, and ignoring the officer’s presence.

If a proper foundation is laid concerning perimeter and contingency plans, the primary mission is not officer defense, but helping the mentally ill subject. If verbal dialogue is unproductive, most agencies will eventually deploy impact rounds such as the 12 gauge “bean bag”.

With that “helping” goal in mind, how many rounds should the officers fire? Two? Ten? One hundred and ten?

Police agencies have exceeded that number in actual encounters, resulting in multiple penetrations, broken bones, and death-all in the name of “helping” the suspect.

How could such a thing occur?

It’s easy to explain.

Officers facing a difficult situation attempt to use, “time-talk-tactics” to solve the problem. Time/talk ultimately fails, and the decision is made to use tactics (impact projectiles) to disarm the subject. The first round is fired and it strikes the subject on the thigh. He doesn’t move, blink, wink, or groan.

Two more rounds hit the thighs and register the same results-no effect.

Several more rounds are directed at the arms, with solid hits having again-no apparent affect. The “lights are on, but no one is home”. The subject clearly isn’t feeling any pain and as such, “pain compliance” isn’t going to get the job done.

With that in mind, how long should a coercive effort continue, when it’s clear that the person can’t feel the pain necessary for the effort to work?

For some agencies, the answer is found in the deadly force analogy outlined above. Plain and simple, use the tool as many times as necessary to get the job done. That’s simple enough, but Albert Einstein once stated that, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”3.. This one dimensional focus on coercive compliance has not served law enforcement well, and contemporary thinkers are looking for a better way.


The first step towards addressing this issue is recognize that in cases involving “mind body disconnect”, the focus must be on custody as opposed to compliance. Commander Mike Ault with the Las Vegas Metro Police Department has been talking about this for several years, and people are finally beginning to listen.

The two primary areas where “overexposure” has been an issue are impact projectiles and electronic control devices:

• The impact projectile analogy outlined above has manifested itself on a number of occasions. Subjects shot time after time after time, when it is abundantly clear that the “pain” message simply isn’t getting through. Unfortunately, repeated hits with impact projectiles WILL eventually take their toll. In the end, it is hard to find logic in beating a mentally deranged subject to death with “bean bags”, when your primary mission objective was to help him. With that in mind, when is “enough-enough” with impact rounds? In overly simplistic terms, the officer should engage the subject with the initial and if necessary follow-up rounds, while continuously evaluating their effects. The officer should discontinue their use if it becomes readily apparent that the rounds are ineffective, and move to alternative resolution options with the exception of the following two scenarios:

1. The subject is involved in destructive behavior such as self mutilation. In cases such as this, the need to stop the mutilation strongly suggests that fire should be continued, and focused directly on the arm that holds the weapon involved. The risk of injury from continued impacts delivered to the arms of a man “feeling no pain”, are less than allowing the man to fatally injure himself via the mutilation.

2. The rounds are needed to prevent behavior that will likely escalate to the use of deadly force. In such cases it is reasonable to continue to deliver impact rounds-even though they do not appear to be causing the suspect to surrender-if they deter him from taking steps that will likely cause the officers to use deadly force. An example might include a subject armed with an axe, who is barricaded under a stairwell. Officers are unable to exit the area, and the “bean bag” rounds deter him as he tries to crawl out towards the officers. Continued fire risks impact injury. Not deterring his exit will likely have a fatal outcome. The “least-worst” thing to do is prevent the fatal outcome, attempt to remove the weapon from his grasp by directing fire towards the appendage, and continuously considering alternative measures.

• The vast majority of police agencies nationwide have adopted the philosophy that multi/long duration runs with electronic control devices should be avoided, absent extenuating circumstances that justify such use. The International Association of Chiefs of Police model policy on the use of such devices states that, “upon firing the device, the officer shall energize the subject the least number of times and no longer than necessary to accomplish the legitimate operational objective”.

With that in mind, a number of agencies have directed their officers to handcuff suspects “under power"-when safe and practical to do so-as opposed to running cycle after cycle in hopes of coercing the subject into compliance. This process is geared towards breaking the “coercion/compliance” paradigm, and focuses on using the tool primarily to facilitate custody.

This requires practical training exercises, to ensure that officers can work through the mechanics before having to do so in the operational realm. The effort has proven successful, and officers from numerous agencies have found the “secure under power” mentality generally safe and effective.


The use of force less than deadly4continues to dramatically enhance the skill sets of contemporary police agencies, as they strive to balance the need to stop subject behavior with the potential for injury outcome.

Along with acquiring the tools, it is important that agencies look beyond them as an end unto themselves, and focus on the overall operational and mission objectives. This includes recognizing that there are numerous situations in which such tools should be used, and numerous others in which they should not-or where their use should be discontinued upon recognizing that they are not moving the problem towards positive resolution.

One critical aspect of this effort involves changing the way officers think, and viewing the tools and techniques with a primary focus on facilitating custody, as opposed to coercing compliance.

1.Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Addition, Simon and Schuster, New York
2.Siddle, Bruce K., PPCT Defensive Tactics Instructor Manual Series A, 1994, Millstadt, Il.
4.Graham v. Conner, 490 U.S. 386, 104 L.Ed. 2d 443, 109 S. Ct. 1865 (1989)

Steve Ijames was an original member of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) board of directors, and the course developer/lead instructor for the NTOA and IACP less lethal “train the trainer” programs, addressing impact projectiles, chemical agents, and noise flash diversionary devices. Steve has provided such training across the United States and in 31 foreign countries, and frequently provides litigation consultation when the use of such tools are called into question.
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