Deadly hesitancy: A three-pronged approach to resolving this officer safety issue
Equally as important as avoiding excessive force, is the ability to avoid being overly hesitant to use control measures when they are necessary
A lot of time and attention is given to a law enforcement officer’s ability to make prudent decisions regarding the use of force. Police administrators and trainers must do everything possible to provide officers with the tools and training to make ethical decisions to prevent excessive and unlawful force. Furthermore, officers themselves must continuously strive to make reasonable and lawful decisions on force situations.
Equally as important as avoiding excessive force, is the ability to avoid being overly hesitant to use control measures when the situation clearly dictates its necessity.
I have been asked by law enforcement trainers how to effectively deal with officers who are reluctant to use force when use of force is the appropriate response. Possible reasons for this hesitancy include lack of confidence, politics, fear of scrutiny (both internally and externally), and the fear of litigation.
If the hesitancy is a result of political, administrative, or legal scrutiny, the solution is not only increased education but also continuous and open communication to build understanding and encourage ongoing dialogue. If the hesitancy is because of a lack of confidence, then part of the answer can be found in training.
The following strategy is my three-pronged approach to use to train officers who have demonstrated a hesitancy to act in use of force situations. The first two prongs aim to increase the officer's reaction time, while the third prong addresses the hesitation itself.
1. Obtaining the position of advantage
Most of the time, officers are at a built-in disadvantage due to the reactionary nature of use of force situations. Therefore, officers must train to constantly gravitate to the position of advantage in every interaction. This buys time for the officer to respond to threats.
For example, if an officer learns to place a barrier between themselves and the person they are interacting with (i.e., part of a patrol car, part of a desk, etc.), this will create time for the officer to respond to an attack as the subject must move beyond the barrier.
The position of advantage does not just include the officer's physical location in relation to the subject. It also consists of the officer’s hand position while speaking to the subject and whether the officer’s hands are free from extraneous objects that may slow down the time it takes for them to deploy a tool such as a TASER.
Teaching officers to gain the position of advantage in all scenarios habitually is a step in the right direction to increase their reaction time to potential threats.
2. Recognizing pre-attack indicators
With the same goal of increasing reaction time, officers must develop the ability to identify pre-attack signs.
With the voluminous amount of footage available of use of force incidents, it is clear that pre-attack indicators precede many incidents of violence. Common behaviors such as target glances, the “thousand-yard stare,” looking around excessively, stretching and verbal defiance are all possible pre-attack indicators that officers must not only be aware of but prepared to address. Merely increasing the reactionary gap between the officer and the subject or verbally addressing the behavior can often be enough to give the officer the time they need to respond appropriately.
3. Training to proficiency
The final phase of the strategy involves training officers to a level of skill in all of their use of force tools that allows them to use them confidently, effectively and appropriately. This is a requirement because for officers to act decisively and without hesitancy, they must develop the ability to perform their skills reflexively. This objective requires both vigilance and consistency. Every skill the officer develops not only requires a level of competency that allows them to perform under stressful conditions, but also requires ongoing practice because each skill is perishable.
I suggest training in physical defensive tactics and use of force tools in two phases to address this. Step one is competency in performing the physical move or tool deployment with no extenuating circumstances. In other words, time should be dedicated to physically practicing the technical application of a takedown, or deploying a TASER, or shooting a gun at a paper qualification target.
Once enough repetitions have been performed to reach an acceptable level of competency, training should move to phase two: performance under stress inoculation. Applying defensive tactics skills against a resistant “bad guy” in force on force scenarios is widely considered a best practice in defensive tactics training and for a good reason. It improves confidence and decision-making abilities under stress. For TASERs, this can be accomplished with a protective suit, and for firearms, this can be accomplished with Airsoft or Simunition guns and protective gear.
Some have complained that scenario training is flawed because officers do not react the same way in scenarios as they do in actual incidents. There may be some truth to this; however, skilled trainers must work to build scenarios in ways that replicate realistic situations. To add realism and enhance the decision-making dynamic, some scenarios should be crafted where no force should be used. Furthermore, to make force on force scenarios productive, they should be winnable, have clear training objectives and be conducted safely to avoid unnecessary training injuries.
This three-pronged approach is the strategy I would employ in meeting the need to address hesitancy among officers in use of force incidents. Specific adaptations would have to be made among different agencies based on their own policies. Further adjustments should be made based on individual officers’ skillsets and abilities. Finally, police trainers must be at the top of their game to accomplish these objectives and help officers achieve this proficiency level. It is a critical mission from which all of us can benefit. Train hard and be safe!