Updated: Apr 10
January 21, 2023
Over the last several years, police use of force has been a hot-button topic. Much of this has been spurred by the 24/7 news cycle, camera phones, body cams, and of course, social media. Police have been using force to subdue resistive suspects since the beginning of the profession. In over 20 years of working in the criminal justice system in multiple aspects, from state corrections officer, to police and field training officer with two departments, to working in prison ministry and reentry, one thing I can definitively say is that use of force is both ugly and necessary at times. It never looks pretty on camera. You can't take someone down to the ground, use a chokehold, strike someone with open hands or a baton, or shoot them and make it look pretty.
With the advent of social media and the pervasive presence of phone cameras, it is inevitable that uses of force will be caught on video. I don't care how justified it was, someone will have a problem with it and spread it on social media with hateful rhetoric, and it will spread like wildfire. The media participates in fanning the flames of hatred toward police, and politicians begin sweating the optics and weighing the impact on their re-election campaigns (yes, they are always thinking about that). We should include prosecutors, especially activist ones, who are also elected officials, in that group. Departments also worry about lawsuits.
To be sure, there are excessive uses of force, but that is a subjective and debatable term that seems to fluctuate based on who you ask and the political whims of the times. College professors, legal scholars, so called "use of force experts", the media, defense lawyers, community activists, and local administrations all have an opinion. Oftentimes, these opinions are based in a lack of real-world experience, meaning they've never been in a fight, let alone a life and death situation, in their entire lives. They oftentimes don't coincide with state academy training or regulations or best practices that have been honed through centuries of experience. You see, each of those groups have their own agenda. Who do they not ask? Police officers. The very people who use it during their careers. They don't ask, "What techniques have been most effective?" "What's it like to have to make a life and death decision in milliseconds?" "What rules and tools do you think would allow you to effectively subdue someone, maintain your safety, and most effectively ensure the suspect's safety, as well?" You see, the real experts are on the streets. They know what works and what doesn't. They know what's risky and dangerous and what isn't. Guess what? They rarely have an agenda beyond arresting the suspect and going home safely. No, instead, armchair quarterbacks on social media, who know nothing about the use of force continuum or techniques that work and why, have become the new "experts." Everyone in the news and on social media now fancies themselves experts on everything. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard people say ridiculous things like, "Why couldn't the just shoot him in the leg?" "The officer is white and the suspect is black, so it must be racism." "He should've used the taser (as though that's the appropriate tool at all times)."
Activist prosecutors, defense attorneys, and spineless politicians have begun to prosecute and sue police officers to the point that no one wants to do the job anymore. Gone are the days of proactive policing. Recruitment of new cadets are at an all-time low. Who in their right mind wants to risk all of that for doing their job and making the best decisions they can under extreme pressure? I'm glad I don't have the job anymore. Gone are the days that the suspect was to blame for their own demise. The world is now upside down. And don't get me wrong, there are certainly bad apples out there who have nefarious intentions. They need to be held accountable, and they usually are. The easiest example is George Floyd. You don't kneel on someone's neck while they are begging for their life and not resisting and then sneer at them and taunt them. That's evil. However, that's the exception. Too many good officers are being swept up in this rush to "social justice," whatever that means. No longer are officers given the benefit of the doubt, even though in nearly every circumstance, the use of force would not have happened but for the suspect resisting or fighting or shooting at the police. They are judged by a decision they had to make in the blink of an eye, even though many times they have received little continuing training in unarmed self-defense or shoot/don't shoot scenarios. This is particularly true in smaller and poorer communities that don't have the tax revenue to fund extra training.
All-in-all, police officers do an excellent job in this country, and if you look at the actual facts, they kill relatively few people relative to the number of arrests and in light of the fact they are feloniously assaulted at an extremely high rate. Police shoot and kill about a thousand people every year, but this is out of over 10 million arrests. So called "chokeholds" have been banned, despite them being a very effective and safe tool for subduing a suspect that minimizes risk of injury both to the officer and the suspect. They are used in Judo, and there have been no deaths in Judo competitions from this since 1882. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no such deaths in the UFC, with hundreds of uses per year, due to the rear naked choke either. In fact, I could find almost no cases where a suspect was asphyxiated by anything other than positional asphyxia in any writings I could find on police chokeholds. Positional asphyxia is when a person is placed on their belly while in handcuffs, where they cannot support their own weight. This compresses their diaphragm, especially in heavier people, and is exacerbated when someone kneels on them in this position. Prevention of this is taught in the academy, so someone dying from that is inexcusable, although many of these types of deaths also had multiple contributing factors, like heart disease or asthma. Even punching and kicking can be a legitimate use of force, depending on where in the use of force continuum the level of resistance is.
I guess my point is that we should always strive to use the least amount of force necessary to arrest someone, but they dictate the response by their level of resistance. Punishing good officers for responding in the most effective manner possible to preserve their own safety in these situations is wrong-headed. We need to flip the blame back where it belongs. If this lunacy continues, no one will want to do this job and lawlessness will prevail. Then who will you call for help? I think most of these critics and armchair quarterbacks wouldn't fair so well when the wolves are at their doorsteps.