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Rapid Response: When it’s time to use deadly force, do not hesitate

Know that if you do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons, the criminal justice system should still favor you and your actions, despite hostile press and public sentiment

What Happened: If a subject points a gun at a police officer — much less uncorks rounds in their direction — there is a very real possibility the subject may be shot. This is the obvious conclusion drawn from two separate incidents revealed in recent headlines.

In Georgia, an Emerson police officer initiated a traffic stop. The driver of the vehicle pulled out a gun and pointed it toward the officer. The officer fired. The driver expired.

In Virginia, prosecutors issued a statement that they would not seek charges against two officers involved in a fatal shooting in August. Those cops came under fire from a gunman who shot at least four times at the officers — the assailant died at the scene.

Why it’s Significant: The good news in both of the above incidents is that the cops involved will be okay. In the August shooting, Officer Ryan Bailey was wounded, but according to reports, his injuries are non-life threatening. More good news: the criminal justice system has recognized that these officers acted reasonably and justifiably. And even more good news: These officers did not hesitate to use the force required of them in their moments of confrontation.

There have been several incidents in recent months during which we have seen cops succumb to what we have come to call ‘deadly hesitation’ — failing to do what is necessary to save themselves from potentially fatal injuries. They are unnecessarily putting themselves in danger for fear of what may happen after the incident. Recall that in Birmingham (Ala.) not long ago, a cop was pistol whipped by an assailant, and later told CNN, “I hesitated because I didn’t want to be in the media... A lot of officers are being too cautious because of what’s going on in the media.”

The cops in the above incidents did what needed doing so as to ensure they got to go home to their families after their shift. Even if the attackers in the incidents highlighted above pointed “a black object” at the officers which later proved to be a phone, wallet, or anything else, such behavior can be perceived by an objectively reasonable officer in that instant as a potentially life-threatening.

Top Takeaways: I (and many Police1 columnists) have written on numerous occasions about the concept of deadly hesitation — there are several links below for further reading on the topic. For today, the top takeaways for your consideration are as follows:

1. Know your agency policy and the law. Have a solid grasp on Graham v. Connor and the objectively reasonable standard by which every officer is judged in use of force.
2. Know your training and refine your skills. Remember that when the time to perform arrives, the time to prepare has passed. Ensure that when your day comes, you are ready.
3. Know that if you do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons, the criminal justice system should still favor you and your actions, despite hostile press and public sentiment.

What’s Next: It does not take a clairvoyant to predict that a prosecutor under intense political pressure — after all, most of them are elected and want to remain so — will one day bring trumped up charges against one or more officers in a use-of-force case. But at least in recent days, we’ve seen the system actually work. Keep your faith in that system, for it is the only one we have.

Further Reading:
Don’t ignore an officer’s deadly hesitation to act
A cop’s shoot/no-shoot: When is a ‘good decision’ a ‘deadly hesitation’?
Hesitation in using force: Does it start in training?
How mindset training can help prevent deadly hesitation

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.