If you do a search for “Police Brutality” on YouTube, you’ll come up with over 40,000 video links. Some of the videos have been viewed over a million times. In a world where cellphone cameras are always close at hand, Little Brother is always watching. Videos like the Rodney King beating, or last year’s pepper-spraying of non-violent protestors at UC Davis, create a perception of wildly inappropriate force being used in situations. While there are exceptions, that is definitely not the rule.
The truth of the matter is that police officers are trained to evaluate situations and respond with reasonable control tactics when making an arrest in order to keep the peace and protect the public – including protecting the person being arrested. The point is to find a response that balances the situation. It roughly breaks down to five different levels.
Level 1: Cooperative Person In all situations, the police will have their hands above their waists and their weapons ready, just as a precaution. They will stand at a safe distance from the subject and give them verbal commands of what to do. When talking, they will use their hands, as those movements tend to calm the subject. When dealing with a cooperative person, a single officer making an arrest will ask the subject to stand with their arms behind their back, feet wide, and lean forward. The officer then approaches from behind to handcuff the person. Handcuffs are always double-locked, to prevent them from tightening further since that could hurt the subject. When two officers are present, they will use a technique called Principle of Mass. While still talking to the subject in a reasonable voice, each officer will take one arm and guide it to behind the back. A strong presence can keep the situation from escalating to a higher level.
Level 2: Passive Resistance This could mean the subject is not responding to commands, or they may go limp on the ground. The Principle of Mass could be used to physically move the subject’s arms behind their back to cuff them, rather than just using commands as with the cooperative person.
A subject’s verbal response to the officers does not change the level of control tactics used in the arrest. A cooperative person could still be swearing up a storm, but as long as they physically cooperate, the officer ignores their words. It’s not what they say, it’s what they do.
Level 3: Active Resistance This is any kind of physical resistance such as a person trying to prevent the officer from restraining their arms, walking or running away from an officer, or even rolling up a window when sitting in a car while an officer is talking to them. (That is not a wise move; the officer would be within his rights to break the window, though they usually get a supervisor’s permission before that’s done.) With active resistance, an officer could use physical force such as take-down moves and control holds. They’re also taught to us pressure points on the body to force the subject to comply.
I volunteered to experience that. Our professor, Mike Schlosser, had me lie on the floor with my hands under my body. He gave me the verbal order to put out my right hand, and after I refused to comply he used a pressure point in my neck. My hand was out within two seconds. The pain is intense while the pressure is applied, but dissipates quickly once released. I did, though, feel woozy for several minutes afterward.
Level 4: Aggressive Assailant This would be if the arrestee came at the officer with an empty-handed attack – no weapons involved – and it includes shoving, grabbing, punching, kneeing, or spitting at the officer. Along with physical restraint techniques and the pressure points, this could be when an officer would use their Taser or pepper spray. More on those two options later.
Police officers prefer to keep a subject standing rather than wrestling with them on the ground. The officer has a forty-pound belt around their waist that’s filled with their weapons. While wrestling, the subject could get their hands on one or more of those weapons and use them against the officer.
Level 5: Deadly Force This level is reached when the officer is at threat of great bodily harm, or they see that someone else is threatened. The goal is to stop the deadly force threat, and that could mean using their gun. Officers can’t take a chance with lesser methods in most deadly force situation.
These levels aren’t carved in stone – they’re guidelines, not rules. A cooperative person could be treated as a deadly force situation if they have a gun or knife in their hands. When the courts review a deadly force encounter, what they’re looking for is:
- Was the action reasonable and necessary
- Was the officer being reasonable
- What were the totality of the circumstances. This includes environment, if person was intoxicated, the surroundings, were bystanders in the vicinity, was backup available or unavailable.
- The officer’s perceptions at the moment.
Hindsight doesn’t count, and the courts understand that, as Professor Schlosser put it, “stuff happens fast.”
Along with their batons, there are two other non-lethal weapons the police use.
Pepper Spray This is used for pain compliance – causing pain until the subject complies. It is made from the essence of chili peppers. On the pepper hotness scale, pepper spray is rated between one million and five million units. By contrast, the hottest natural pepper comes in at around 400,000 units. Pepper spray comes in 3 different forms – stream, mist, and foam. Each of these have their drawbacks. The stream is deflected easily so it could hit a bystander or another cop. The mist forms a cloud that will affect anyone in the general area. And if you spray a person with the foam, they might scrape it off their faces and throw it back at the officer.
In training, officers are pepper sprayed and then they have to exercise, run an obstacle course, and do target shooting. The point is to teach them that they can still function should they get sprayed. It’s also a caution for them that the person they’re trying to subdue might fight through the pain of the spray.
Tasers The Taser shoots 50 thousand volts into a subject for 5 seconds, which sounds like a huge amount of electricity. However, the amperage of the jolt is very low: 0.0036 amps. In contrast, a Christmas light is 1 amp, and a wall outlet is 16 amps. When the Taser probes hit major muscle groups, the shock will disrupt muscle activity and cause pain, but not cause any permanent damage. It will not cause a heart attack if a person has a pacemaker, and officers can grab and restrain the subject while they’re being tased – the shock isn’t transferred to the officers. Proper procedure, though, is not to use a Taser on the elderly, children, or anyone with an injury.
Before an officer can use a Taser, they have to go through being tased themselves. For our class, an officer came in and allowed the professor to tase him. Two other instructors held the officer while Professor Schlosser tased him from behind, which is the preferred way to do it because of the large muscle groups there. He went rigid when the probes hit him, and then the two instructors carefully lowered him face down onto the mat.
A Taser fires two probes that are connected to the Taser with very thin wire. The usual effective distance for firing is between 7 and 15 feet, while the maximum distance is 35 feet. The top probe is sent out straight while the bottom probe fires at an 8 degree angle. The Taser is more effective with a spread between the probes that hopefully will affect two muscle groups for maximum effectiveness. The probes are effective through two inches of clothing, and they do break the skin. After tasing the officer, Professor Schlosser used pliers to withdraw the probes and then dressed the wounds, as an officer would do in the field.
Tasers are a good tool when used properly, but the good decisions don’t make the evening news. There is an anti-Taser sentiment among the public, mostly based on a few instances, such as the person in Florida who was disrupting a meeting and was then tased by a security guard (not a police officer). That man uttered the now-immortal line, “Don’t tase me, bro.” However, there are people alive today because of Tasers. When police confront a suicidal person armed with a gun or a knife, it qualifies as a deadly force situation. The person could just as easily turn the gun or the knife on the officers. However, the Taser can be used to incapacitate the person long enough for the officers to disarm and restrain them.
Verbal Judo A professor reviewing arrest information back in the 1990’s noticed that some officers hardly ever had to use force while others had to use it constantly. He analyzed the arrests and found that the difference was in the way the officers talked to the arrestee. From this, he created what is known as Verbal Judo, and it is a technique that is now taught to officers around the nation. (The professor was actually scheduled to start training the LAPD in these techniques a few days after the Rodney King incident. If it had been taught earlier, that incident might not have taken place.)
The purpose of the technique is to de-escalate the situation. The course is taught over an intensive two days. It breaks down into five steps.
- Ask. Treat the person nice; 85% of people will comply when they are asked to do something nicely.
- Set Context. Explain to the person why you are making a request or placing them under arrest.
- Present them with options, both good and bad, based on their behavior.
- Confirm. If they are still refusing to cooperate, an officer might ask, “Is there any way to get you to comply with this?”
- ACT (either disengage or escalate)
The officer wants to make things sound like a minor deal when talking with the suspect. Keep things small and contained. The officer may say this will just take a few minutes to get this matter cleared up. In interrogations the officer may use deflection phrases, such as “I want to make sure that I understand you.” This underlines to the arrestee that the officer is listening to them.
Verbal judo can help cut down on situations where force must be used. But if force is used, the officers have been trained to use it correctly and judiciously to match the situation.