Editor’s Note: This is part II of a three-part series on Law Enforcement in America. Part III will publish tomorrow. You can read part I here.
“But…if he hurries, he’s careless; if he’s deliberate, he’s lazy. He must be first to an accident and infallible with his diagnosis. He must be able to start breathing, stop bleeding, tie splints, and, above all, be sure the victim goes home without a limp. Or expect to be sued.”
-Excerpts from Paul Harvey’s 1970 newspaper article titled, “Policeman.”
Given the benefit of time, and hindsight, I have no doubt that almost all police officers would make the right decision in any given situation.
Hindsight is clearly not a luxury provided in real-time. What is a certainty in real-time is that an officer has to make lightning-quick choices that can have lifelong consequences for multiple families. And the outcomes of such choices hang delicately in the balance.
Shoot or Don’t Shoot
Some of the Police Departments in the area where I worked run a citizen’s academy a couple of times a year. They invite community members, whether those members are passionately pro-police or anti-police activists, to help them understand more about police work and some of the troubles officers face. At times during the course, a Training Officer will run them through a shoot/don’t shoot simulator (it’s cool, by the way) to let them see how they’d respond in situations police routinely find themselves in. The simulation takes place in essentially a large room with huge screens wrapping around you making you really feel like a part of the action.
Suspect pulls a knife and walks toward the acting officer: Acting officer shoots him.
Suspect punches the acting officer and doesn’t seem intent on stopping that behavior: Acting officer shoots him.
“Suspect” quickly grabs for his cell phone while on a traffic stop: Acting officer shoots him.
“Suspect” reaches in his pocket to grab his wallet after being told to keep his hands visible: Acting officer shoots him.
Acting officer responds to a suspicious person who is behaving strangely and attempts to speak to him: The man immediately shoots the acting officer who was unprepared for instant violence by the suspect.
“Suspect” walks toward the acting officer refusing to obey any of his commands: Yep, acting officer shoots him.
The usual results? The participants are usually shocked at their lack of options under intense time pressure. They almost always panic and shoot the suspect — whether rightly or not.
Even the staunchest anti-police activists who lose their minds every time a policeman shoots and kills a gun-wielding suspect would routinely shoot and kill nearly every subject in almost every scenario. Many of those scenarios are not difficult and very few times was the suspect even armed. When they will occasionally choose to take no action they are either killed or they witness many other innocent people being killed.
A quick aside: some people will respond to these results by saying, “well of course this happens, what do you expect, they don’t have the same training officers do.” And, I somewhat agree with that argument. What the public has to understand, though, is one second to make a decision and act on that decision — regardless of your training — still totals one second. Training doesn’t extend your time limit or your available options.
The noteworthy thing to consider in the above training drills is that these participants responded how they did when the worst potential outcome was getting stabbed, shot, or punched on a computer screen via simulation. They would still be going home that night. Their kids would still have their mother or father. Their spouse wouldn’t now be a single parent. Their families and friends would have to mourn for their loss. They wouldn’t have a funeral with their photo perched above the casket. They would suffer no negative consequences from dying in the simulation. But they still shot and killed the suspect.
Why is that?
It’s because human beings have an innate desire for self-preservation. Even when handcuffed by ridiculous legislation, police officers are always going to lean towards self-preservation.
So, if human beings innately desire self-preservation, why don’t some of the suspects, who end up being one-half of a violent encounter with police, lean in that direction as well? It is likely because the innate desire for self-preservation dissipates much more quickly when drugs, alcohol, or mental illness are added into the equation.
Drugs, Alcohol and Mental Illness
I have personally dealt with a number of people who were on drugs such as PCP or methamphetamine. Many of these people hear voices that aren’t there, have visual hallucinations, or will behave erratically with absolutely zero chance of you getting through to them verbally. It is also nearly impossible to use any “empty hand” techniques or “less lethal” items such as tasers, batons, or pepper spray because sometimes those tools just don’t work when subjects have certain chemicals “on-board.”
I’ve seen training videos of people on PCP who grabbed the taser leads after they were hit, pulled them out of their chest, and continued walking down the street oblivious to the fact they’d even been tased. I’ve also seen videos of people on PCP who were shot and they swatted at the bullets like they were bees although they were hit repeatedly with well-placed shots. I was told a story about a policeman acquaintance of mine who was thrown through a wall by a man high on PCP. I’ve also personally felt the strength of someone high on PCP when I’ve attempted to subdue them for an arrest. It sucks.
The subjects who are on drugs or who are taking a complete mental vacation from reality aren’t, at that moment, the same people they were in their high school or college graduation photo. At that moment, they likely are not the same person you grew up with or the same person you went to school or church with. At that moment, they are compromised and they are unpredictable. And, if drugs are the reason for their senseless behavior, their behavior is their own choosing when they decided to consume that substance.
Police officers rarely have the opportunity (or ability, if drugs are involved) to slow the situation down and reason with the subject. Nor are officers typically afforded the time to diagnose whether the subject wants to kill himself, an innocent bystander, or the officer. It is difficult when seconds are all you have to diagnose whether the subject is intoxicated, schizophrenic, bipolar, or suffering from an undiagnosed mental disorder. It can even be extremely difficult to tell the difference between a subject who is in diabetic shock versus someone who is intoxicated on alcohol. Many situations are fast-moving and require quick, precise actions. Time is usually not on an officer’s side.
Either Move or Get Hit
If someone throws an object at you, you don’t have time to consider all the different options before acting. It’s simple: You either move or you get hit. If someone pulls out a knife and takes three-four quick steps towards you, the absolute most you can do as an officer is quickly yell something at the person and pull out your pistol. If the suspect takes a couple more steps, your time to decide has expired and you’re left with either firing your pistol or being stabbed. You don’t have time to risk a failed taser deployment and then go to “plan B.” Choosing a taser at that point could easily amount to choosing death. In the absence of time, there is also an absence of choice in how you handle a threat.
Action is quicker than reaction.
We learned in the Police Academy that a “normal” human being can cover 21 feet of distance in under one second. One second.
So, if the knife-wielding suspect starts toward you from 21 feet away, then you have one whole second to decide which headline you want to be attached to your face on the evening news later that day: your rookie cop photo with a couple of dates and a hyphen in-between or the one calling you an overzealous racist.
Half a second.
Time is flying by and a thousand thoughts stream through your mind in slow motion. The suspect is approaching fast. Do you pull your taser and hope for one perfect shot (knowing it frequently can be ineffective)? Do you chance-spray him with pepper spray and hope it stops him? Do you turn tail and run and let him stab a bystander to death so you can later be charged with Dereliction of Duty? WHAT DO YOU DO? Decide.
Decision made. Shots fired. Suspect neutralized. The end. Or not…
A crowd gathers, you are snatched up by your superiors and evacuated from the scene. They seize your weapon as evidence. The Prosecutor arrives. The Prosecutor vows to thoroughly investigate your “questionable” choice to shoot the suspect. You are questioned. Your body cam footage is pulled. Then your dashcam footage. Those videos are then mysteriously leaked and later pieced into clips that make you look guilty of murder. Your city burns. Your family goes into hiding. The local news leaks your address and now your family is in immediate danger and your house is destroyed. After months of waiting for news, you find you have been cleared of the shooting, but your days as a Police Officer have ended, as you now bear a “scarlet letter” and are unable to be re-hired by any police department.
You had a single second to make a decision that will affect lives for generations. Not only yours, but the suspect’s as well. And all of it happened because your survival instinct kicked in and without the benefit of time you had to make a choice. It wasn’t because you disliked or even knew the person you shot. It wasn’t because you don’t like certain minorities or you are a racist. It wasn’t because “All Cops Are Bad.”
It was because you love life. It was because you swore to protect the citizens of the community in which you work. It was because you had to choose life versus death for yourself. Nowhere in the oath you swear as a policeman does it say, “And, if required, I will martyr myself so the public isn’t outraged.” The suspect made a choice for himself or herself and you made the choice for you. You would rather have sat down with the suspect like a social worker and helped him get the treatment he needs. You’ve done that dozens of times before.
This time that just couldn’t be done. This time you had but a second to decide, and you did. And the reality is, regardless of a person’s political leanings or upbringing, at that moment they’d have likely made that same decision. And they know it.
This is part II of a three-part series on Law Enforcement in America. Part III will publish tomorrow. You can read part I here.