Use of Force and The Hollywood Factor By Jeffry L. Johnson The Heart of the Problem What is the difference between reasonable police force and excessive force? Who decides where one ends and the other begins? How objective is the standard? What influences impact that standard? This article will examine conflicting views of reasonable force, identify and isolate particular factors that have created and perpetuated this growing conflict, specifically between police and community members. It will also attempt to identify how police managers can make that standard more objective, fair and understandable to both officers as well as civilians, particularly those civilians who directly make and influence judgments of officer conduct in force incidents. THE STANDARD We know that California law, like most states, allows officers to use reasonable force when attempting to apprehend a suspect. The US Supreme Court has further defined the reasonableness standard for all states in Graham v. Connor. This 1989 landmark case mandated that the determination of objective reasonableness must be judged from the perspective of the officer on the scene, allowing for the fact that force situations often call for split-second decisions, and must be reviewed without regard to the officers underlying intent or motivation. The Court expressly understood and stated that not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judges chambers, is unreasonable in the final analysis if we are judging it through the eyes of the officer at the scene. Translation? No Monday morning quarterbacking should be allowed. The truth is, we do see Monday morning quarterbacking, particularly in high profile or video taped force incidents. To some degree there has to be. When we are talking about inflicting injury or even taking someones life, of course individual officers and police agencies need to be willing to submit to scrutiny. However, the scrutiny must be fair, and based upon an objective standard. Our officersand our communitiesneed to be able to count on the rules being consistent, and that they wont change or vary if the incident happens to be a high profile one. WHO DECIDES? There are many individuals at various levels that have input into the decision of what is reasonable force. Many are civilians with no law enforcement experience. They may be members of civilian review boards, civil service boards, district attorney offices, attorney general, justice department or part of numerous other outside agencies. They may be civilian administrators, elected officials, politicians, judges, attorneys, members of a grand jury, trial jury, or other entities. And this does not include community activists, special interest groups, and members of the media that impact public opinion and may in turn influence official rulings on force incidents. Some of these people will have had training and experience in the use of force, but manyprobably mostwill not. Some will depend upon police force experts to explain and clarify the legal, policy and procedural issues, tactics, equipment, and force option training, as well as the psychological factors that influence force incidents. Yet some of them will have limitedif anyresources to clarify the force incidents they are reviewing. This can be a big problem. Police officers often forget that most people do not share their experience and knowledge of how force works. Even sworn officers sometimes become somewhat hazy on practical force principles if they have been removed from it for a long time, if for example they assume management or administrative roles. This can present a problem as well if they are the ones passing judgment on officer force incidents. Police managers need to periodically remind themselves of the unique dynamics involved in every use of force incident. Further, they must ensure that those civilians who have little or no experience in such matters, yet who are in positions to judge are educated so their concept of reasonableness will be fair and consistent. We all must be aware of the factors that influence reasonableness, and strive to consistently read from the same page of music. If we do not, our officers and our agencies will continue to face unfair scrutiny that will tarnish our reputations and negatively impact our profession. WHY SO CRITICAL? The following quote by Federal District Court Judge John Davies, the judge who presided over the Rodney King officers second trial, helps to illustrate the problem. Where an officers initial use of force is provoked and lawful, the line between a legal arrest and an unlawful deprivation of civil rights within the aggravated assault guidelines is relatively thin. The line between reasonable force and a criminal excessive force beating is thin indeed. There is no middle ground, no buffer zone. Its either reasonable or criminal. One extra baton strike, shove or control hold can make the difference between an officer doing his job and being sent to prison. The diagram below may help illustrate the problem. This being the case, how critical is it that the standard is defined and objective? FORCE _______Reasonable________|_________Criminal___________→ You may recall that in the Rodney King officers federal (second) trial, Sergeant Stacy Koon and Officer Lawrence Powell were found guilty, subsequent to the LA Riots that ultimately cost over a billion dollars, resulted in the deaths of 58 people, and as many as 2,000 injuries. Judge Davies ruled in his sentencing memorandum5 that, of the total fifty-plus baton strikes, only about the last six (or so) inflicted by Officer Powell were unreasonable, and therefore excessive. The judge further ruled that Rodney Kings head injuries, facial fractures, as well as his fibula (leg) fracture were all part of a reasonable use of force. It only became unreasonable when Officer Powell failed to stop striking him toward the very end of the tape, when it was judged that King had stopped resisting. This incident went from reasonable to criminal in the blink of an eye. Yet many might disagree on that conclusion. Some may claim the whole incident was excessive from the outset. Interestingly however, the five-second clip of video that was played incessantly on the news for weeks after the event, upsetting so many people and contributing to the rioting and social unrest, was a portion of the incident that was subsequently ruled reasonable and justified by Judge Davies. This leads us to the conclusion that the public may not always perceive and evaluate force the same way law enforcement and the justice system do. Why is this? It can lead to serious problems when it is members of this same public who are the politicians, board members, administrators or elected officials evaluating police force incidents. In truth, there are actually some very specific influences that have created this divide. Identifying and understanding them may help explain why we see things differently and how we can correct the problem. POLICING IN THE VIDEO AGE What causes many in law enforcement to view a force incident as reasonable, yet many civilians to see the same incident as unreasonable? This was not a major issue even twenty-five years ago because, except for the participants and a limited number of civilian eye-witnesses, few people had seen an actual use of force incident. If an incident was scrutinized, it was normally done on the basis of a police report or witness testimony. The introduction and ready availability of the video camera to the general public has had an immeasurable impact on police use of force. It effectively took the force incident off the cold, sterile pages of the police report and brought all of its seething ferocity and violence into the living rooms of the general public. It has also polarized law enforcement from much of the community, because each group often comes to a different conclusion on the reasonableness of a video taped force incident. Why is this? THE HOLLYWOOD FACTOR The Hollywood Factor may be defined as the influence the media, i.e., television and the movies have played on the public perception of what constitutes reasonable force. It can be divided into three sub-categories: the Demonstrative Bullet Fallacy, the Code of the West, and the Violent Police Violent Business misconceptions. Every person who has reached the age of majority in this country has witnessed literally thousands of force incidents. They have not only observed numerous police fights and skirmishes of various kinds, they have also seen countless officer involved shootings and homicides. The problem is, none of it was real. It was all filmed by people who have little or no experience in police force situations. That is to say they do not understand or appreciate the physics and dynamics of how force works. What does a real fight look like? How do people react to the impact of police weapons? What is the physical effect of a gunshot wound? What is it like to be in the shoes of a police officer having to use force in the course of his job? Experience shows that real life is very different from the movies. This doesnt mean that the viewing public does not truly believe they understand how it works and how it looks based on what theyve seen on movie and TV screens. Many also base their ideas of the rules, laws, policies and morality that govern police force based on what Hollywood has shown them. This is often erroneous as well. This is a critical issue that has led to a great deal of public misunderstanding in its perception of force incidents. The Demonstrative Bullet Fallacy Ever since Dirty Harry came along with his .44 Magnum hand-cannon, when someone gets shot on TV or the movies (and dont forget video games) two things immediately happen: 1) the victim will jerk convulsively, go flying through windows, off balconies, or lose limbs, and 2) there will immediately emerge a geyser of blood spewing forth from his wound, leaving no doubt that this person has been shot, and pinpointing exactly where the bullet has struck. This depiction has become progressively more severe and graphic each year in order to maintain the publics interest and ensure box office profits. It definitely adds to the dramatic effect, and it is obvious why Hollywood perpetuates and amplifies it, but it is not reality. This concept is reinforced by various firearm and shooting magazines that discuss and propagate the idea of handgun knockdown power and one-shot stopping power. The truth is, the whole idea of handgun knockdown power is a myth. It simply doesnt work that way. The Federal Bureau of Investigation Firearms Training Unit published a concise yet insightful report that speaks directly to this issue. A bullet simply cannot knock a man down. If it had the energy to do so, then equal energy would be applied against the shooter and he too would be knocked down. This is simple physics, and has been known for hundreds of years. The amount of energy deposited in the body by a bullet is approximately equivalent to being hit with a baseball. Tissue damage is the only physical link to incapacitation within the desired time frame, i.e., instantaneously. The report cites previous studies that have calculated bullet velocities and impact power, concluding that the stopping power of a 9mm bullet at muzzle velocity is equal to a one-pound weight (e.g., baseball) being dropped from the height of six feet. A .45 ACP bullet impact would equal that same object dropped from 11.4 feet. That is a far cry from what Hollywood would have us believe, and actually flies in the face of what even many in law enforcement have come to mistakenly believe. For example, recall the President Reagan assassination attempt in 1981. The shooter, John Hinkley was firing a .22 cal. Handgun. The courageous Secret Service agent who took a bullet for the president jerked quite noticeably as he observed the bullet strike him in the lower torso. Yet President Reagan, who was struck by the same type of bullet, also in the torso, but didnt know someone was shooting at him, wasnt even aware hed been hit until minutes after it happened. Often even experienced officers react based on how they believe the dynamics of the force should work rather than how they actually do. In other words, even cops are not exempt from the Hollywood Factor. The FBI report also emphasizes that unless the bullet destroys or damages the central nervous system (i.e., brain or upper spinal cord), incapacitation of the subject can take a long time, particularly if one is engaged in a firefight. Failing a hit to the central nervous system, massive bleeding from holes in the heart or major blood vessels of the torso, causing circulatory collapse is the only other way to force incapacitation upon an adversary, and this takes time. For example, there is sufficient oxygen within the brain to support full, voluntary action for 10-15 seconds after the heart has been destroyed. Wanna kill these ads? We can help!