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Excelling in use of force analysis: How to conduct a tactical critique

Tactical critiques are extremely valuable — the challenge is understanding the nuances between a tactical critique and a force reasonableness analysis

portland police arrest

AP Photo/Paula Bronstein, File

In the highly scrutinized realm of law enforcement use of force — where the Supreme Court brilliantly noted that officers are often placed in tense, uncertain, rapidly evolving situations — there is no shortage of line officers, supervisors, command staff, politicians, attorneys and more who are willing to offer scathing reviews of an officer’s decisions and actions. These “tactical critiques” are necessary for accountability and public trust.

However, these opinions are not often well-received. They come off as “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” because many confuse tactical critiques with force reasonableness analysis. With than in mind, let’s review the essential elements of a tactical critique with recommendations on when they should be done, who should be part of the process, and how the insights gained can be incorporated into training to improve performance continuously.

When should a tactical critique be done?

Ideally, it should become the culture within an organization to conduct tactical critiques of use of force incidents regularly. While the exact timing may vary among situations, these critiques should be done soon after the details of the incident become known. Professional sports organizations consistently review footage of their previous game to analyze strengths and weaknesses to be addressed. When tactical critiques become a standard procedure, officers’ buy-in dramatically improves. It becomes less of an admonition of performance and more of a tool for growth and accountability.

Who should conduct a tactical critique?

The most effective tactical critiques are usually a collaborative effort. Front-line supervisors, trainers, other subject matter experts and even individuals outside the organization can provide insight when conducting the analysis. Furthermore, the officers involved in the incident can often give valuable information and assessments of their actions. This collaborative approach can yield a comprehensive review of the incident.

Areas of review in a tactical critique

A tactical critique includes an evaluation of the decisions and choices made by the officer at the time. This can consist of how the officers approached a scene, positioned themselves, the type or lack of verbal directions they gave if they called and waited for backup, and how they utilized time, distance and cover available. An honest assessment of whether de-escalation attempts were used or feasible during the event should be included.

In addition, a tactical critique can involve scrutinizing the type of force chosen by the officer, with an evaluation of the appropriateness and effectiveness of that force option. Once these issues have been considered, roll call conversations, video reviews and scenario-based training are all means to apply the lessons learned and increase staff knowledge.

Example of a tactical critique: Armed robbery suspect fights officers

This is an example of how a tactical critique may look using accompanying video footage as a guide. This is not an actual tactical critique because several other pieces of evidence are unavailable to explain why certain decisions were made. But this will reflect the principles and thought patterns of the process. After watching the following video, we will run through a tactical critique.

I want to start with a brief force reasonableness analysis. Using Graham v. Connor as a guide, I will look at the severity of the crime.

The information available is that the officers were investigating a robbery in which at least one of the male subjects was armed with a gun. In any jurisdiction, this type of crime is a serious felony.

Next, I look at whether an officer would reasonably believe this subject was a threat to their safety or that of others. The answer to this is yes due to the presence of a gun and the nature of the crime in question.

Third, was the suspect actively resisting or evading arrest? The answer again is yes, as the subject briefly grappled with the officers and then ran away on foot.

To deal with the situation, the officers issued verbal commands, pointed their handguns at the subject, used empty-hand techniques to establish control, and pursued on foot briefly before tackling the suspect to the ground and eventually applying handcuffs to the subject and taking him into custody. Considering all these circumstances, the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable.

Now, for a tactical critique of the incident.

Early in the video, the first officer stands out in the open waving rapidly for an additional officer. A point of conversation could involve asking if there was a better spot in which the officer could maintain an acceptable field of view of the inside while standing by a position of cover. Furthermore, was there such a sense of urgency that the officer could not have taken an extra minute to coordinate with his backing officer or, even more ideal, wait for another one or two officers? The answer to those questions may be no, but they are worth exploring. If additional officers had been available to enter the gas station or assist with a perimeter, a foot pursuit of a man with a handgun in his waistband that ended next to a city street may have been avoided.

In addition, coordination between the officers could have allowed one or more officers to hold a position of lethal cover while an officer could have approached with handcuffs ready and without one of his hands being occupied with a firearm during the initial physical struggle. The inherent danger of fighting with someone while holding a gun in one hand is evident.

Again, these are all questions worth exploring to improve performance in future situations for these officers and other officers not involved in this incident. This is not to “Monday Morning Quarterback,” but is merely a mechanism to achieve higher performance. Ultimately, these officers were objectively reasonable in their actions and successfully arrested a felony suspect.

Tactical critique vs. force reasonableness analysis

Tactical critiques are extremely valuable. The challenge is understanding the nuances between a tactical critique and a force reasonableness analysis. While a tactical critique is riddled with 20/20 hindsight, a force analysis should evaluate objective reasonableness based on the officer’s perception at the time while considering the unique totality of the circumstances of the individual incident. Human performance factors under stress, lighting conditions, environmental factors, reaction times, number of people involved and a near-endless list of other potentially relevant factors could factor into the analysis.

Many people, including various courts, appear to push the Supreme Court’s warming against using 20/20 hindsight. This is especially true when discussing the emerging topic of officer-induced jeopardy.

As with most topics, court decisions are dynamic and subject to evolution, particularly as societal values and perspectives change. Tactical critiques should be paramount to a law enforcement organization’s culture. They will promote accountability and continuous improvement and prepare officers to face stressful encounters.

Tyson Kilbey has more than 25 years of experience in law enforcement, consisting of three years as a hotel security supervisor and 22 years as a deputy sheriff for the Johnson County (Kansas) Sheriff’s Office. He has worked in the detention, patrol and training divisions, SWAT and accident investigation units. He is currently a captain of the Training Unit for the Sheriff’s Office.

Tyson authored “Personal Defense Mastery,” a follow-up to his first book “Fundamental Handgun Mastery.” Tyson is a Jiu-Jitsu black belt under UFC Pioneer Royce Gracie. He has numerous defensive tactics and firearms certifications and has received multiple awards in competitive shooting and grappling. He is the Match Director for the Brandon Collins Memorial Shootout, a shooting competition named in honor of a deputy who died in the line of duty. Proceeds from the match go to charitable causes.