Staff Views
L.E. Forum

The Judicious Use of Force:

Managing Occupational Risk and Public Perception

By Thomas J. Aveni

Staff Member, PPSC

"Perception is Reality"

Few issues generate more public interest towards the law enforcement community than news stories and events stemming from allegations that police used excessive force to effect an arrest. This issue is arguably more inflammatory than allegations of police corruption. If that notion doesn't seem to resonate with you, ask yourself when you last saw people rioting over a police corruption allegation. In contrast, civil unrest is quite commonplace in response to the perception that police have used force excessively.

If there is a silver lining embedded within this troubling issue, it can best be summed up in this manner;

  1. The perception that excessive force has been used is generally just that, perception.

  2. Perception is a malleable issue. It can be managed, if not controlled.

  3. Managing this issue will involve simple, logical but systematic utilization of existing resources.

  4. The most under-utilized asset in this effort is commonly the agency's training staff.

Let's first discuss the issue of perception in more detail. Though it's conspicuously doubtful that we'll be able to change everyone's perceptions of how police enforce laws, we can reasonably expect to influence most people.

It's been said that contemporary policing must rely more on the utilization of information than upon coercion. If information is power, as we've often been told, then disinformation might well be just as powerful. There are people and organizations whose purpose appears antithetical to that of the law enforcement establishment. That issue in itself isn't very negotiable, so we needn't waste time or effort concerning ourselves with it. However, we shouldn't concede advantage to those who would undermine our public trust through deliberate disinformation. We literally sit atop mountains of information potent enough to counter most of what our harshest critics allege about us.

If your agency has been compiling use-of-force statistics, have they been utilized for anything more than internal auditing? These statistics generally reflect the lopsided disparity between the number of arrests we effect, and those few that involve the use of force. Fewer still are those incidents that involve the use of so-called, "injuring force." In all recent studies recently observed, it appears that the perception of race-based disparities in force usage has no basis in fact. OK, you know all of this, but does the average citizen that you serve? More than likely not. We've often unwittingly contributed to the perception that police comprise a secretive subculture, reluctant to cooperate with any effort at external oversight. Using information proactively might actually serve to attenuate misconceptions of police.

Our Perception of Reality

 The contemporary police trainer, quite commonly, is a vastly underutilized resource. His or her depth of understanding of salient issues far exceeds the level of knowledge held by his/her recent training predecessors. Professional police training organizations have truly uplifted standards, and greatly enhanced the dissemination of once closely held information. If you haven't already fully tapped into this resource, you may wish to waste little more time in doing so.

In risk management parlance, problems are assessed by weighing their severity against their frequency. The police use of deadly force is relatively infrequent, but its repercussions are severe. Conversely, the use of handcuffs and/or aerosol subject restraints is relatively frequent, but with consequences that are much less severe. Recent civil litigation (Davis v. Mason Co.) suggests that merely training officers to achieve competence in the mechanical components of force application (firearms, baton, aerosol, etc.) isn't in itself adequate. There is a growing expectation that police have also acquired the ability to discern when, and to what extent, force can be used reasonably. Here we have a perceptual convergence between what standards both the public and judiciary might hold us to.

In response to rising expectations, the most proactive training we see at this juncture is training that is task oriented. Traditionally, training geared towards achieving competency in use-of-force related tasks has merely dealt with the mechanical aspects of force application. Preparing officers to use force judiciously is best addressed within the context in which force-related issues are decided. Scenario-based training should be task-related training, and task-related training will vary according to the officers individual assignment.

What can you reasonably expect to achieve with this undertaking? Naturally results will vary, and will generally be dependent upon resource allocation and the degree of competency your officers begin this endeavor with. There are a number of glaring (and embarrassing) deficiencies endemic to law enforcement training that we might finally address. We've known that most of the felonious deaths of police occur at night, and that many of the most questionable police shootings of suspects occur at night, yet we've done little if anything constructive to address the problem. We continue to train almost exclusively under daylight conditions. We know that an average of 40% of those officers feloniously slain every year are either in plain clothes assignments or were off duty at the time they were slain, and yet we do little to properly address concealed-carry firearms training. There's much, much more of course, and yet within your training staff lies a wealth of indigenous solutions.

In changing how the public perceives our methodology and objectivity, consider exercising one additional option. In an effort to foster a sense of openness, and better understanding, allow members of the public and media to observe certain aspects of your agency's training. The most innocuous method for doing this is to allow community activists and journalists an opportunity to indulge in a few scenarios served-up from a video-based firearms training system (such as with FATS, Range 2000, PRISM, CAPS, etc.). Turn down the lighting (literally), and expose the uninitiated to how quickly and decisively deadly force decisions must be made by police.

Managing image and substance needn't require competing strategies and resources. Effectively managing one (substance) might well assist in addressing the other (image).