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Stoning the Gatekeepers

stoneGuest blogger Fred T. Leland, Jr. is the Founder and Principal Trainer of LESC: Law Enforcement & Security Consulting and a Lieutenant with the Walpole (MA) Police Department. This article originally appeared at . Lt. Leland’s wisdom and experience are evident in his blog. I highly recommend it.

Police Use of Deadly Force: Should There be a Different Standard For Cops?

“From the tiny town of Colrain at the Vermont border to the siren-pierced streets of Boston, state and local police have shot and killed 73 people across Massachusetts over the last 12 years. The deadliest year was 2013, when 12 people were killed. Every completed killing investigation found the police were justified, in using deadly force; only three of the cases were presented to a grand jury or judicial inquest to determine if a crime was committed.”

I read an interesting article today titled: Clearing the cops: Do district attorneys rubber-stamp police use of deadly force? In the article it talks about how in a high number of the deadly force cases, and that the facts of what took place are not so clear and far more, murky and that the stories that police give just don’t add up. How much do these statements show how little the writer actually understands about how adaptive, dynamic and deadly encounters unfold? The so called facts laid out so neatly are not so clear, and even far murkier to the police officer actually in the encounter. And the stories often do not add up because of how we decide and process information that creates memory distortions and critical incident amnesia in those involved in violent encounters.

Human decision making we know is not entirely a rational process. The brain is a multiprocessor that requires both short-term and long-term memory. Expertise counts and perceptual information is not processed simultaneously. Stressors (like adaptive dynamic and potentially violent encounters) will impede it and training, the right kind (experiential) and ongoing will improve it. But it is never perfect even in good conditions like the classroom.

There are three factors present in human decision making. The first factor is rational decision-making, a logical and methodical process. The second factor is emotional decision-making “shortcuts” outlooks, biases, prejudices & paradigms also known as heuristics. Heuristics refers to experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery that give a solution which is not guaranteed to be optimal. Where an exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution via mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision. Examples of this method include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, stereotyping, or common sense. And the third factor in decision making is perceptional or how the information is received. The truth is not enough, we must also believe it! In contrast what we believe to be true in the heat of the moment may indeed not be true despite our belief otherwise.

There is a lot of research in this area of decision making to include, police specific, decisions that is worth taking a look at and studying if one is serious about understanding the complex nature of decision making under pressure. It would most certainly be nice if someone writing these pieces would do some sound research and discuss all the factors that combine and effect violent encounters. You know books like Dave Grossman On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace and On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society or even books on how decisions under pressure are made and how we should lead and training police officersso that they are better prepared.

The article also discusses police transparency and training which anyone who has been a cop for any length of time knows just is not up to snuff and that we in this profession could do better. It also mentions the dangers of policing:

“Police work is dangerous business. Since 2002, there have been three Massachusetts police officers killed in the line of duty: Collier at MIT, Woburn officer Maguire, and Springfield Police Officer Kevin Ambrose, who was shot and killed in 2012 while responding to a domestic disturbance. In each case, the officer was either caught off guard or engaged in a shootout. But in many of the cases in which police have used deadly force, the situation often starts with a minor incident or confrontation and escalates. Officials inside and outside of law enforcement say there is often both time and space to diffuse a situation using proper equipment and training.”

This can be true but not in the sense that a single process, policy or procedure or checklist can remedy a solution like a carpenter putting a door on a hinge by following a blueprint. No! It is nowhere near that easy! When you are dealing with adaptive and dynamic challenges (use of force situations), there is no obvious answer to the question “What is going on here?” Trying to define the problem at hand is a contentious act in itself. Managing this ambiguity requires courage, tenacity, and an experimental mind-set: you try things out, see what happens, and make changes accordingly. With an adaptive and dynamic encounter the circumstances and how they are unfolding dictate we use options not by the book solutions that look good on paper but show very little effectiveness in actual situations. Adaptive and dynamic encounters require continuous learning via observation-orientation-decision and action (The Boyd Cycle). So it is important to be able to distinguish technical problems (those with known solutions) from those that are adaptive (no known solutions) when reviewing police use of force cases. The street and real life isn’t the classroom nor is it anything like the sterile environment of the court room where plenty of time, no risk and 20/20 hindsight leave plenty of time for second guessing decisions and scrutinizing mistakes that now with no emotion, no pushes, no shoves, no punches or kicks, no weapons shown nor bullets flying…make perfect sense.

Should there be a different standard for cops?

“We privilege police officers to use force in a different manner than we might individual citizens,” says Reinstein, the former ACLU official. “Deadly force comes with its own standard. There is an inherent danger in being a police officer. That has some bearing on this. But that doesn’t mean that they’re exempt from the law or exempt from review or from the justice system.”

I am a cop but I am doing my best to keep my bias out of my thinking here and I still believe there has to be a different standard for cops and that answer seems obvious to me. Cops are not out there stalking people to use force on, like a violent predator or a person who loses emotional control in a domestic disturbance or road rage incident and now seeks to do harm. No police officers are doing the opposite and trying to prevent these types of incidents from occurring at their best and stopping them from continuing when prevention efforts have failed. In the vast majority of use of force cases, cops are sent into emotional and high stress situations where uncertainty and disorder reign in and their effort to deescalate and regain control are . In these efforts most people between 98 & 99% end up resolved peacefully by cops using sound tactics and persuasion techniques. In a very small percentage of all police contacts millions a year police use force (all levels) in 1-2 percent of the cases and deadly force is used in only about 10 percent of all these cases where use of force is used. In simple terms police use of deadly force is very rare!

Now having said that yes all use of force cases must be investigated fairly and impartially so we continually develop and maintain the trust our communities have given us. At the same time we need to get real about what cops do and why they do it. I have been a cop just now starting my 28th year and most of the cops I have met 99% of them get into the police business to help others and to be frank that is what most of them do!

About 3-5% of what cops do is arrest bad guys and writes tickets. Obviously these statistics vary somewhat depending on where the cop works but statistically per capita the stats generally land in this area. The rest of the time cops work to solve problems in their communities whatever they might be and every town or city is unique although they share many of the same type of problems that lead to crime and poor quality of life. That’s the reality of policing despite what we see on TV! We cops are partly responsible for this image as well as we measure police effectiveness in much the same way counting numbers of arrests and tickets and the badass macho things we do instead of taking into consideration all the intangible things we do carrying out our duties. I know they are not as sexy (to us cops or to them community member) but they do make a big difference! Just not big news.

It is important to keep in mind for those judging harshly the police, involved in deadly force cases that the essence of conflict is a struggle between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, trying to impose itself on the other. Conflict is thus a process of continuous mutual adaptation, of give and take, move and counter move. It is critical to keep in mind that the adversary is not an inanimate object to be acted upon but an independent and animate force with its own objectives and plans. While we cops try to impose our will on the adversary, he resists us and seeks to impose his own will on us. Appreciating this dynamic interplay between opposing human wills is essential to understanding the fundamental nature of conflict. These types of encounters will always entail risk and are time sensitive and evolving rapidly. The human dimension which is influenced by; training, education, experience, maturity, emotion, prejudice, discipline, fatigue, temperament, etc. All these factors and more prohibits an officer from obtaining accurate information in a timely manner and circumstances gravitate towards disorder making accurate decisions very, very difficult. Therefore mistakes will happen and often do happen when police use force. Officers attempt to reduce the effects of these factors by seeking better, timelier, and more accurate information but that is not always possible because talking too much time can cost people their lives. These factors are always present, always interact with one another, and always affect the outcome. Any attempt at removing or ignoring these factors while judging police use of force is just clearly unfair.

The thing about police use of force that troubling to me as a cop (and I have spent a life time living it, studying it, training others in it police and community members) is that it seems to be they only thing the media be it news, television, or the movies or even radio and print wants to harp on which helps to paint cops as rouge bullies who want to hurt or kill someone. This is known as the Hollywood Factor It just plain is not true!!! Have we had rouge cops and bullies? YES WE HAVE! And they should be dealt with to the full extent of the law! But not every cop wants to shoot someone and quite frankly it’s been my experience most cops would rather HUG YOU than HURT YOU! TALK TO YOU than SHOOT YOU! REASON WITH YOU rather than WRESTLE WITH YOU! PAT YOU ON THE BACK than PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE! Unless of course you’re the type of person who wants to do them or someone else serious harm then they will be forced, in fact duty bound, despite all their efforts to avoid it, to do what is necessary dictated by the behavior and actions of someone failing to comply with decent human behavior who uses violence as his tool to live on his own terms. Force is never pretty but it is on rare occasion both reasonable and necessary.

Police yes we have our problems and yes we can get better at what we do. But mostly we are people just like everyone else who wants to be the best they can be with what they do while making a difference in their communities. Cops are people who see problems as challenges, even grave ones and are willing to take responsibility and they are those who love people but never shy away from danger in their efforts to protect and serve. Next time you want to judge a cop and I am OK with judging him but do me a favor and stop and think about the mistakes you have made in situations with much less trying circumstances. Just for a second think and ask yourself how I would perform handling an adaptive and dynamic challenge that entails someone working not with me but against me in a decision that is centered on life and death. Then make the decision on the standard you would want to be judged by; just like everyone else or should there be special standards that takes into consideration the special conditions you work in? What is the difference between reasonable police force and excessive force? Who decides where one ends and the other begins? In the end police are judged by the people they protect .Are you willing to do your research and make that standard more objective, fair and understandable to those who directly make and influence judgments of officer conduct in force incidents? My hope is this short piece helps you do so.



Add a Comment
  1. Chief, thanks for sharing this important topic! Lou

  2. Chief i want to thank you for sharing this piece with your followers. It is indeed both an important and at the same time neglected topic. The people we serve need to know more about why we do what we do and we cops need to be teaching them it!

  3. I could not agree with you any more Fred and your post does an outstanding job of getting that word out. I hope the modest audience that reads it here will share it with others. Keep up the great work!

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