Use of force and restraint: What do the numbers tell us?

Cases involving deadly force overshadow the actuality that cops overwhelmingly employ restraint in their use of deadly force

With all due respect to Forrest Gump, life is not like a box of chocolates. For the street cop, life is a lot like an unknown grab bag.

The item inside could be anything — you don’t get to choose when dispatch sends you to a call or when you stumble across something on patrol.

Cops don’t get to pick. Most situations we face are engineered by others. A citizen’s car breaks down. A good person gets victimized by a person with a propensity for violence.  A mentally ill subject is in crisis. Which one of these you are confronted with and are tasked to control is largely dependent on chance and circumstance.

Conflict and De-escalation
This is where theory and reality conflict. Theorists, such as academics and administrative types, including current or retired LEOs, toss out buzzwords about use of force and violent encounters such as de-escalation, crisis communications, proportionality, minimal, and necessary.

Former police officer and current law professor Seth Stoughton said, “Use-of-force training should also emphasize de-escalation and flexible tactics in a way that minimizes the need to rely on force, particularly lethal force.”

This assumes that cops were itching to get into use-of-force incidents. The problem is that the suspect is the driving force in most encounters.

Certainly when time and circumstances permit, based on the nature of the call, it is sound strategy to wait for backup, slow things down, and attempt to calm or dissuade the suspect from taking a violent course of action.

Those are sound tactics which need to be employed when possible.

However, like reaching into the grab bag, we have to deal with the hand we’re dealt.

A professional police officer uses all the tools available to him or her, including violence, to control a situation or subject who is out of control. In a worst case scenario, where the suspect presents a deadly threat, that violence may include lethal force.

According to a 2015 report by the Washington Post, 80 percent of the time police used force, the subject was armed, shooting at police or others, or presented a deadly threat to the officer.

It’s the same case in use of force incidents involving a mentally ill subject. Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) said, “We have to get American police to rethink how they handle encounters with the mentally ill. Training has to change.”

Yet, when we use the statistic engine at the Washington Post’s website to check the numbers, we find that police officers shot and killed 250 subjects identified as “mentally ill” in 2015. Of this 250, the Post identifies 240 as armed subjects. Further examination of the ten “unarmed” subjects in the Post’s report indicate that one was attacking an officer with a tree branch, another was swinging a metal mop handle and another was actively attempting to disarm an officer.

That’s seven individuals whose actions could not be ascertained by news reports attached to the article. One might ask Mr. Wexler exactly how an officer is supposed to deal with an armed and threatening mentally ill person differently than a hyper-violent subject? How are officers supposed to deal with an untold number of subjects who are attempting to commit police-assisted suicide? What tactics should officers utilize when confronted with a man with gun in hand who is threatening them or others? Are Chuck Wexler and PERF suggesting that officers wait to be shot at before returning fire?

It is abundantly clear that PERF, Chuck Wexler, and Seth Stoughton all have perfect vision in hindsight after these incidents transpire, but are short on tactics and suggestions other than officers should attempt to deescalate.

Legal Standards on Use of Force
While teaching use of force for my agency in-service two times a week, I routinely ask the question, “In the course of your career, have you ever had the legal right to shoot a subject and chose not to?”

The majority of the class, especially the veteran officers, lift their hands. This mirrors a preliminary study published in the F.B.I. Bulletin Restraint in the Use of Deadly Force: A Preliminary Study (June, 2012) by Pinizzotto, Davis, Bohrer, and Infanti, which indicated that, “…70 percent responded that they had been involved in at least one situation where they could have discharged their firearm in the performance of their duties but chose not to fire.” Interestingly, this study also reported that, “…officers in the sample used restraint 93 percent of the time when not legally mandated to do so.”

Yet, despite these facts and the Department of Justice report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Contacts Between Police and the Public (October, 2011) which stated “…force is only used or threatened by police in 1.4 percent of the incidents …down from 1.6 percent in 2008,” we have PERF and professor Stoughton clamoring for restricting our officers on use of force more than the law allows. Why? Clearly the facts on police shootings and other researched based statistics on use of force don’t support this.

Maybe researchers Pinizzotto, Davis, Bohrer, and Infanti have it right when they ask, “If officers risk their personal safety by using restraint in deadly force, why has this phenomenon largely gone unnoticed in the media and research?” and then put forth the notion, “In regard to the media, cases involving deadly force overshadow the actuality that police officers overwhelmingly employ restraint in their use of deadly force. Perhaps, this media focus on the use of deadly force helps create the misconception that police officers use deadly force more often than they actually do.”

What is alarming is that the mainstream national media is not interested in the facts on police use of force. What is egregious is that police administrators, chiefs, PERF, or former LEOs ignore the facts as well. Really motivates you to reach in that grab bag, doesn’t it?

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