Standard use of force and officer safety training catch phrases used throughout law enforcement include being “mentally and physically alert”, being and acting “actively”, “dynamically”, “proactively”, “flexible”, “fluidly” and “unpredictably”. We tell responders not to be reactive, not to be rigid, and not to get locked in. We tell them to think outside the box. At the same time we are telling students all of this, many agencies and academies are also telling their officers to follow a use of force continuum. What is flexible, dynamic, or proactive about the continuum model?
The force continuum does serve a useful purpose, particularly for new officers who may not fully understand the terms “objective”, “reasonable”, and “necessary” as applied to a use of force incident, much less understand it as determined by court precedent (reference Graham v. Connor). The continuum gives them a clean visual representation of the force progression. It compartmentalizes everything very nicely, something many people can appreciate on its own merit.
The continuum model also breaks a dynamically moving and thinking situation down into nice bite size “if/then” pieces. “If” the subject does this, “then” you are allowed to do that. Not before, and not until the subject does something bad, are you allowed to progress past the current checkpoint. Even if the subject communicates what they are going to do, and you can see them preparing to do it, you may not, cannot, and will not respond until they escalate. This is an extremely simple example of a reactive response. There is nothing proactive about this, nor is there any room for anything remotely proactive to take place.
If/then code is exactly how computers are programmed. “If” you press this button, “then” the software on your computer is to execute a certain response. A soda machine makes an easy example: if you press the Cola button, then you expect to get Cola. If you don’t get Cola, and you pressed the Cola button, something obviously went wrong. Is it any wonder that some habitually violent offenders seem to know what buttons to press to get a specific response? Most are hardly police use of force experts; they have simply picked up on the canned and programmed responses they have repeatedly received during previous police interactions. Surprisingly, some are actually self-trained police use of force “experts.” They may even know your use of force policy better than you do.
By breaking dynamic use of force into simple if/then terminology, we have taken the thinking away from the responder on the street, and simultaneously placed all of the liability on them. We have taken the thinking away from the individual on scene, the people in the situation, the very people who can most likely determine what they need on scene far better than a policy maker in a conference room 10 years or more in the past. Anyone want to run a brand new 10-year-old computer or matching software with lives hanging in the balance? A fresh copy of Windows 2000 doesn’t sound very good to me.
By handing officers preprogrammed responses, we have turned thinking, feeling, perceptive professionals into mediocre copies of computers. Computers do their jobs reasonably well. They don’t think, they don’t feel, they don’t stress. They also don’t see, they don’t hear, and they don’t communicate effectively. They either do their job or they lock up, and some lock up far more frequently than others. Sadly, there are many instances of police use of force incidents where that is exactly the outcome. It either worked or they locked up. People make lousy computers, and are far more likely to lock up when attempting to emulate a computer program under stress in a life-threatening situation.
By using rigid, structured rules in a rigid, structured environment, many officers lock into a very rigid thinking pattern. When immersed in that environment, it does not matter how many times you tell them to think outside the box, it simply won’t happen. When combined with excessive- force concerns, as well as the legal and professional implications of excessive-force complaints, many officers simply stop thinking past this rigid but “safe” if/then sliding scale. Even when a situation clearly justifies the use of a different tactic or a different force option, they do not even think to move outside of this ingrained mental process.
A mental conditioning response is what we strive for in training, but this is the exact opposite of the conditioned response we want to see. Training officers not to think about a use of force, to simply react by rote to a stimulus, is a bad training response. By training officers not to think about their actions past their checkpoints, by over simplifying the use of force and removing thinking from their responsibility, we are hurting our officers. We are hurting their ability to think at all, much less to think outside the box. The first weapon that must be engaged is the brain!
When applied in the real world, continued use of the force continuum model puts responders at a serious disadvantage in a setting where they are the only people following any rules. It is very difficult to win a no rules fight if you are the only one following strict rules on actions and conduct. Violent line-of-duty deaths, including ambush attacks, highlight this glaring issue very clearly. Does this mean law enforcement should have no rules to follow in a use of force? Certainly not, but it does mean that there is a lot of room for improvement. There are other force option models and representations available that are much more applicable to real world encounters than the continuum model.
A police officer is required to become an expert on the use of force. Officers must understand the implications, ramifications, rulings, etc. They will learn to grasp the definitions and precedents related to the terms “objective”, “reasonable”, and “necessary”. If they do not, they will not be effective in any duty related use of force. Assuming that a trained and experienced professional can competently understand and perform these duties and functions, why are they being chained to a continuum in order to make them behave? If police cannot perform their duties, and they do not behave, then they need to be re-trained or fired, not chained down.
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Jeff Pierce is LET’s Tactical Contributor. He has extensive training and 13 years direct law enforcement, military, and emergency response experience including tactical operations, counter terrorism, WMD and critical incident response. Jeff has served as a federal tactical officer including entry team, precision marksman team, team leader, team commander, range master and lead instructor. Jeff founded Double Diamond Tactical in 2006 to further help responders and law abiding citizens receive safe and effective training. D2Tac has trained all levels of civilian, military, and law enforcement personnel since 2005. Come visit us at www.D2Tac.com.