Roots of the reactive posture: Culture

Overreaction prompts officers to fire fifty rounds at unarmed suspects — under-reaction leaves officers brutalized or dead


By Daniel Modell, Lieutenant, New York City Police Department, and
Russell Jung, Sergeant, New York City Police Department

“Action is faster than reaction” is a fundamental axiom of tactics. Curiously, if you poll police officers about whether they conceive of themselves as actors or reactors, they answer — with little variation — “reactors.”

If the axiom carries any value, that answer is alarming. Tactically, it means that police officers see themselves as — and therefore are — disadvantaged. The issue therefore merits substantive inquiry. Why do police officers tend toward a reactive posture when it is disadvantageous to do so? That inquiry is crucial, particularly at the extremes of the spectrum. Overreaction prompts officers to fire fifty rounds at unarmed suspects — under-reaction leaves officers brutalized or dead. Both are responses to the same fundamental pathology: panic. Panic rests in not knowing what to do. 

To a significant degree, then, training is the culprit. To the same degree, training is also the solution. Here, we propose to explore the assumptions, practices and conditions that buttress the tendency toward the reactive posture. 

Cinematic Drama
In the movie “Tombstone,” the villain — Johnny Ringo — challenges protagonist Wyatt Earp to a gunfight. Earp is a fine marksman, but not so fast as Ringo. 

Knowing this, Doc Holliday — fastest gun in the west — unbeknownst to his friend Wyatt Earp, shows up in Earp’s stead to square off with the villain. As a shadowy figure approaches, assumed to be Wyatt Earp, Johnny Ringo says, “Well, I didn’t think you had it in you.” 

The shadowy figure reveals himself dramatically: it is Doc Holliday. 

“I’m your huckleberry,” Doc says in a famous line. Verbal jousting follows. They square off to fight. “Say when,” Doc says. By “say when” he means to challenge Johnny Ringo to draw first. 

The moment makes for riveting drama. After all, fattening drama is the point. 

Tactically, of course, it is madness. 

In a real world violent encounter, it is absurd to cede the first move to an adversary knowingly and as a matter of course. Nevertheless, countless movies and television shows, multiplied across decades by an industry whose lifeblood is entertainment, ground the tacit assumption that the good guy never strikes first — indeed, the good guy often prompts the bad guy to strike first. 

Real-World Ramifications
The trope shapes a mindset — all the more dangerous because it flits about the subconscious, unexamined and unchallenged. Good guys don’t act first. This unexamined premise frames a reactive posture.

Pre-conscious assumptions about “fairness” in violent encounters, inherited largely from athletic competitions such as boxing and Mixed Martial Arts, reinforce a reactive posture in real world encounters. 

“Ultimate Fighting” is often advertised as the closest thing to the “street” possible. In Meditations on Violence, Rory Miller demolishes the preconception that martial arts and real world violence share a mutual connection and applicability.

Competitions are steeped in ritual and rule; the streets in chaos and lawlessness. Competitors warm up before a match. The street affords no such luxury. Competitive fights transpire through fixed limits of time and space (ring, octagon; three minutes, five minutes). 

The street abhors limits. Competitors rest between rounds as corner men give advice and work cuts to stop bleeding. Adversaries can only wish for these things in the street as they navigate a mix of adrenalin, chaos and terror. 

Referees recite and enforce rules — and stop fights when serious injury seems imminent. The street has no referee. 

Competitions are flanked by prohibitions: no rabbit punches, no kidney punches, no sucker punches, no groin strikes, no biting, no eye gouges — that is, all the preferred tactics employed by street predators against their “prey.” The street brooks no prohibitions. Despite the violence, a sense of honor and fair play underwrites these competitions. Dishonor and desperation underwrite the street. Competitions are steeped in ritual and rule; the streets in chaos and lawlessness.

Competitions nevertheless shape a mindset about what the “fight” is supposed to look like: mano-a-mano, skill against skill, size is proportional, and force employed is of a type. 

These unexamined assumptions about “fairness” serve to frame criticisms finding expression in questions such as:

“Why were there so many police officers there for just one person?” (The unstated presupposition is: “That’s not fair, many against one!”) 

“Why did the police officer use a baton? Even though he was struggling, the person didn’t have a weapon.” (The unstated presupposition is: “That’s not fair, one has a weapon, the other doesn’t!”) 

Fairness assumes a defined framework of rules jointly accepted. Real-world violence carries no commonly accepted framework of rules — only the predatory drive to destroy. 

To talk of “fairness” in real world encounters by way of unexamined assumptions inherited from a radically different context is a category error — an error that, in practice, often swamps the capacity for meaningful tactical evaluation.

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