What is “objective reasonableness?” This 4th Amendment standard is employed every day by law enforcement professionals across the country. This standard, although misunderstood by general public at times, is the keystone that police officers, police departments, defendants, and attorneys tend to argue about when debating an officer’s use of force. Objective reasonableness can be defined as the following:
Considerations for a particular incident where force was used while viewed through the eyes of a reasonable officer in the same set of circumstances with similar training.
Green Bay Police Officer Derek Wicklund’s use of force in a recent incident involving the arrest of a man was considered reasonable by both his police department and the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Cell phone video taken of the unfolding incident and subsequent arrest of Joshua Wenzel left many people questioning Officer Wicklund’s techniques during that arrest after the video was posted to Youtube.
In the video, a large is crowd is visible around Officer Wicklund and at least two other officers. Officer Wicklund is seen assisting one of the officers who was handcuffing a suspect. The video shows the arresting officer placing handcuffs on a suspect and Officer Wicklund standing to the left side of the arrestee and the arresting officer. Wenzel can be seen on the video standing to the right of the arresting officer, facing the officer’s right side. By my estimation, it appeared that Wenzel was less than 3 feet away from the arresting officer’s right side, which was where the arresting officer’s gun was holstered.
At one point, a distraught Wenzel can be heard questioning the officers’ arrest of the man. The video then shows Officer Wicklund push Wenzel backwards, away from the two officers and the arrestee. At that point, Wenzel disappears from the frame of the video for a moment, but he can be heard yelling “f*** you” to the officers in a loud, aggressive and somewhat feral tone of voice. Officer Wicklund then leaves the left side of the arresting officer and moves toward Wenzel where he pushes Wenzel backwards into the street.
Wenzel can be seen raising his arms up and grabbing onto Officer Wicklund before and after Officer Wicklund forces Wenzel to the ground. Wenzel is seen struggling with Officer Wicklund, who then punches Wenzel and subsequently rolls him over onto his back where he is handcuffed. All of this takes place while the video captures several people in the background yelling that Officer Wicklund’s force was not reasonable. One person can be heard saying that the force used was “brutal.”
The public has entrusted their local police departments with certain standards, policies, and practices in addition to local, state, and federal laws. The public does this because many people do not want to do the job of a police officer. In doing that, the public has also created a standard by which officers’ actions and the police department’s investigations of those actions are held accountable. This is the objective reasonableness standard.
Let me preface what I am about to say with this: There is no fight in police work that is considered pretty. The fights in police work do not have a ring, a referee or a bell to signal the end of the fight. There is no win/loss record. There are no rematches. The fights in police work are deadly. The reason I say this is simple.
No matter what the situation is, no matter who the other person is, there is at least one gun in every situation you encounter as a police officer. That gun is on the side of your hip. If you lose a fight or get knocked out, that gun is now up for grabs. As a police officer, you either win the fight or prepare to be killed because that is the reality of a fight in law enforcement.
Having said that, I have not read Officer Wicklund’s narrative of the incident. I have not seen the other three videos that captured the incident. The only video I had access to was the cell phone video circulated online. That video, however limited it is, shows just enough of the incident to leave people questioning things if they have no experience in use of force encounters. It also shows enough to make a sound judgment of the incident, if taken from the eyes of a reasonable officer on the scene with similar training and experience.
Officer Wicklund is standing on the left side of the arresting officer with his back towards a window or wall. This would be an ideal placement for an assist officer in that position. Officer Wicklund placed himself in a position where he could assist the arresting officer while maintaining a visual of the large crowd gathered near them.
When Wenzel approaches the officers and yells at them for arresting the male, Officer Wicklund sees that Wenzel is very close to the gun side of the arresting officer. Considering that the male is angry and is in close proximity to a firearm, Officer Wicklund pushes the male back to get him away from the situation. This only angers Wenzel and he can be heard yelling aggressively at the officers.
We are not able to see what Wenzel does during this time. I don’t know if has his hands near his waistband, in his pockets, balled up in fists or just throwing a 1-finger salute, but we do know that his voice displays extreme anger and aggressiveness. I described it as a feral tone. That type of feral tone is significant because it is a display of rage. Officer Wicklund reacted quickly to not only take control of Wenzel, but to maintain the peace of the crowd as well.
Officer Wicklund can be seen pushing Joshua Wenzel backward towards the street. Wenzel immediately puts his arms up and grabs Officer Wicklund. When Wenzel did that, he crossed a line from passive resistance to aggressive resistance. Officer Wicklund first pushed Wenzel against a car to try to gain control of him. When that didn’t work, he took Wenzel to the ground and tried to take control of him.
Wenzel again puts his hands on Wicklund and continued to struggle. Officer Wicklund appears to punch Wenzel twice before turning him over and handcuffing him. Punches and kicks are normally considered reasonable responses to aggressive resistance and are therefore justified in this particular case.
All of these actions would be reasonable under most use of force policies. The problem we face, however, is that the general public normally does not get exposed to these actions up close like that on a regular basis. As I said before, it is not pretty. It is not supposed to be pretty. It is there to stop aggressive resistance and control arrestees. In this particular case, I would say that it worked.
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Corporal Jacob Eubanks has been a police officer for 13 years. He is a use of force instructor and holds TCOLE licenses as an Instructor and Firearms Instructor. Eubanks is certified as both a 1911 armorer and AR-15/M16 armorer and is currently assigned to criminal investigations.