As many Americans sought refuge from their holiday visitors on social media this week, a video surfaced out of New York City that shows an NYPD officer holding five advancing attackers at bay using his baton and some extremely effective push kicks. The footage, which was recorded on a cell phone and then uploaded to Twitter, has been praised by many as an expert demonstration in the use of force — though, despite the officer’s level head and solid form, that may not be a completely fair way to characterize the situation.
Kudos to this NY cop on his performance. His situation is a reminder to New Yorkers & their political leaders that NYC’s decline in the 70s & 80s began in the subways. The quality-of-life declines & warning signs are all there for it to happen once again. https://t.co/9ElS54V4NM pic.twitter.com/68DKn5NKKX
— Bill Bratton (@CommissBratton) December 25, 2018
Officer Syed Ali, a U.S. Army combat veteran with past deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan found himself squaring off with the five homeless men after he was approached by a woman at his post in an East Broadway subway station. The woman told him that five men had been harassing her, and as the only officer on the scene, Ali instructed her to move on and he would engage the men, who, according to Ali, were clearly intoxicated.
From there, the situation escalated to the point where Ali drew his baton and began ordering the men to keep their distance from him. As they closed with him, Ali used push kicks (a lower body strike commonly used by mixed martial arts fighters to prevent an opponent’s advance) and his collapsible baton to keep them at bay, until one of the men finally fell down onto the subway tracks. From there, Officer Ali immediately radios to have the power to the third rail shut down to protect the man.
Soon, all five men were placed in custody, and Officer Ali received some well deserved praise from high-ranking leaders around the city:
What extraordinary professionalism and bravery by NYPD Officer Syed Ali. Attacking our men and women in uniform won’t ever be tolerated. The NYPD is upping its presence at this station and others to ensure officers have the support they need. https://t.co/rWEAf48DEk
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) December 25, 2018
There’s no denying that Officer Ali demonstrated incredible bravery and rationale in the face of a situation that could have easily gotten out of control — and while this set of circumstances worked out for the best, it can be dangerous to hold up Ali’s story as an example of what officers can and should do in similar circumstances. Officer Ali clearly maintained his composure and had positive control of the situation throughout, but every situation a police officer encounters is different — and not all can be resolved with a baton and some well landed push kicks.
The situation Officer Ali found himself in could have gone in a very different direction, and if it had, Ali would almost certainly have had to draw his service firearm and use it to defend his life and the lives of others in the subway. Had one of those men been armed, for instance, this altercation would have unfolded in a very different fashion. Based on Officer Ali’s calmness in the face of danger, it seems reasonable to assess that he was comfortable with the level of force he needed to offer in order to manage that specific situation.
There’s no denying that Officer Ali carried himself with exceptional professionalism and poise in this encounter, but be wary of holding it up as an example of how all officers should approach all situations. Like the “why don’t you just shoot him in the leg” argument, a distanced perspective of physical conflict can lead to a confused understanding of how they play out — and the stakes at hand.
Officers train to shoot center-mass, for instance, because it may be years between situations that call for using your service pistol in the line of duty. Police officers, by and large, are human beings that have to contend with things like adrenaline, nerves, and fear during a life or death encounters. When an officer draws his or her weapon, they are not only serving as an extension of the law, they’re fighting for their lives. That’s the element of these encounters that often gets lost in the media coverage that comes after these incidents. Firing at the chest gives you the best likelihood of hitting your target and, just as importantly, not hitting things that aren’t your target.
Officer Ali carried himself extremely well throughout this altercation, and it deserves to be held as an excellent example of how some situations can be managed — just as long as we remember that some is not all.