5 discussions to have about police use of force

Concepts to review and questions to answer during roll call and police training


In addition to being an unprecedented and tumultuous year, 2020 was also a year for the law enforcement profession to reflect, learn, evaluate and ultimately adapt to societal demands for police reform. 

Throughout this process, I identified five discussions around police use of force every officer should participate in on a regular basis. 

In this article, I identify these concepts as well as offer discussion questions that can be used by supervisors and lead officers during roll call and other training sessions. In a complex and highly charged climate regarding police use of force, reviewing these topics is critical.

The concept of unconscious competence of skill performance is critical for law enforcement officers to understand.
The concept of unconscious competence of skill performance is critical for law enforcement officers to understand. (Police1)

1. Video evidence does not tell the entire story

Too many civilians and police officers believe that video of a use of force incident is enough to make a judgment about the reasonableness of the force used. This is not the case. Anyone who reviews the video of an incident is at a tremendous tactical advantage to the officer on the scene.

Viewing the video alone does not take into account what the officer knew going into the situation. The officer is forced to make split-second decisions in real-time with whatever information they have available to them.

Furthermore, because our eyes do not process and perceive threats in the same way a camera does, the video does not offer the same perspective as the officer during the encounter.

Video evidence is a valuable piece of the overall investigation, but judgments made based on video evidence alone are never enough to understand the situation entirely.

Discussion opener: What critical details of an incident can be missing from video evidence?

2. Complete investigations are required in all cases

Along the same lines as the first concept, no one piece of evidence is enough to make an informed judgment about a use of force incident.

To use a sports analogy, if someone was told that a running back gained one yard on the last play, it would not be uncommon for that person to think that it was not a very good run. However, if after reviewing the play, it is discovered that the last play was fourth down and inches to the end zone, there were three seconds left in the game, and the team was down by six, then suddenly that one-yard gain becomes an excellent play.

The fallout from incomplete use of force investigations has been seen in law enforcement time and time again. A complete understanding of an incident requires a full investigation.

Discussion opener: As an investigator, what pieces of evidence would you need to gain a complete understanding of an incident?

3. Officers must be trained to unconscious competence

The concept of unconscious competence of skill performance is critical for law enforcement officers to understand.

Basically, for a skill to be useful, particularly during the stress of a use of force incident, it must be developed to a point at which an officer can perform it with little cognitive thought. Anything less than this will likely result in an officer being unable to perform when it matters the most.

While it is incumbent on agencies to provide quality training to their officers to attain unconscious competence, it is equally essential for officers to assess their own skills and seek out training opportunities to improve their performance.

Discussion opener: After conducting a critical self-assessment, are there any skills that you as an officer need to develop further to perform effectively under stress?

4. Mental rehearsal is imperative

A lot has been written about the value of mental rehearsal, and it would be difficult to find an experienced officer who would not attest to its value.

Mental rehearsal is basically a complement to training and a way to speed up an officer’s response to situations and remain composed in incidents by giving their mind practice runs to resolve stressful encounters successfully.

High-level athletes consistently use mental rehearsal and visualization techniques to their advantage. Police officers should always use visualization techniques and mental rehearsal in all aspects of their job performance.

Discussion opener: What are some examples of mental rehearsal or visualization that can be done during a patrol shift?

5. Before, during and after use of force incidents are critical times

To truly prepare for a use of force encounter, officers must be aware of the best practices leading up to the event, during the situation and once the scene is contained.

Prior to the event, officers should be well-versed on pre-attack indicators, appropriate levels of situational awareness, and advantageous and vulnerable positions.

During the event, officers should be skilled and in both physical performance and sound decision-making.

After the event, officers should have a deep understanding of medical considerations and the ability to properly document the situation.

Discussion opener: What are some pre-attack indicators that officers should be mindful of? What are some positions of advantage, as well as areas of vulnerability, in your patrol district? What are the appropriate after-actions measures that should be taken subsequent to a use of force incident?

All officers should know and understand these concepts and train accordingly. Continually evaluating and understanding how to handle use of force encounters should be a priority for all law enforcement officers now and in the future. Train hard and be safe!

NEXT: After use of force: 5 essential steps to include in training

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