How the Ala. attack on a cop is an alarm bell about 'deadly hesitation'

When force is necessary to ensure an officer’s safety, officers must use it — without hesitation — regardless of the perceived ramifications of the aftermath

Last week, a plainclothes Birmingham police officer was disarmed and pistol-whipped by a 34-year-old convicted felon — whose record includes an attempted-murder charge, as well as convictions for robbery and assault — while bystanders snapped pictures. 

While recovering from his injuries — which could easily have been fatal — the Birmingham officer told CNN, “I hesitated because I didn’t want to be in the media...” 

This cop — who even today remains anonymous out of fear for the safety of his family — is a victim of what has become known among police professionals as “deadly hesitation” or “the Ferguson effect.” Not only is this troubling trend an officer safety issue, it has far-reaching ramifications for our society as a whole. 

Bad Guys Have Stolen the Narrative
Because a small but vocal minority of people have so severely hijacked public discourse about police use of force, some police officers are now more fearful of life after a deadly-force encounter than losing their life in the incident itself. 

Officers are more afraid of being labeled a fascist or a racist — or some combination thereof — than they are of dying at the hands of an assailant.

Don’t believe it? Look no further than Birmingham, where the bludgeoned officer told CNN, “A lot of officers are being too cautious because of what’s going on in the media.” 

This is unacceptable. We cannot allow our officers to travel down the dark tunnel of pre-incident self-doubt about the legal battle after a deadly-force incident. 

So, what do we do about it? Consider these 10 steps: 

1. We must recognize that deadly hesitation comes from a lack of confidence. It may be an officer’s lack of confidence in their own training, or a lack of confidence that the organization will support them in the aftermath of an incident. Either way, in order to renew cops’ confidence, police supervisors, trainers, and leaders must take immediate action. 

2. Academy instructors must ensure that officers have the combat skills they need to survive a full-on physical assault. Confidence comes from experience. No officer should be put on the street in doubt of their own skills — ever. 

3. The training cadre must ensure that their cops are so well-versed in case law related to use of force that they’re unafraid to make a split-second decision to defend themselves or others against perceived risk of death or great bodily injury. 

4. Front-line supervisors and in-service trainers must regularly remind officers at roll call about Graham v. Connor. Officers must be reminded that police use of force is judged as being objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at that time — not known to an after-the-fact 20/20-hindsight observer in the press or the public. 

5. Supervisors and trainers must remind officers that they cannot be summoned to appear in court if they’re dead. The message must be: “Think now of the here and now. Tomorrow is the time to deal with tomorrow.” 

6. Higher up the chain of command, police leaders must double down on investing in training resources (read: time, money, and commitment) of officers on the how the 4th Amendment, the 8th Amendment, and the 14th Amendment are interwoven into the agency’s policies and procedures. 

7. Those leaders must steadfastly state to their officers: “If something happens, we will follow policy, investigate the incident, and you will be treated fairly throughout the process. I will not be one of those so-called ‘leaders’ who will throw you under the bus.” Those police leaders have to mean it absolutely. Confidence cascades from the top down — not the other way around.

8. The bad guys have stolen the narrative, and we need to seize it back. Police officers’ actions in deadly-force incidents are almost universally exemplary. Agencies need to be out front and talking to citizens about that at every possible opportunity. 

9. We can no longer hide behind “no comment.” Those words should be permanently banned from our vernacular and replaced by, “While many facts of this case remain unknown, and some things we do know may change upon further investigation, here’s what we can tell you about _______.”

10. Police agencies must develop formal programs through which we regularly educate individuals — and their primary influencers — on police use of force. Using scenario-based, force-on-force training created by in-service / academy instructors has proven time and again to be effective in helping police critics better understand the incidents for which they criticize the police.

We’re at a very important moment in history, my brothers and sisters. What we do in the coming weeks and months will have a tremendous bearing on how the sheep are protected from the wolves for many years to come. 

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