Police Use of Force – Are We Losing the PR Battle?

Explaining police use of force to those who have never been cops is challenging. Because of endless negative videos, it’s starting to get more difficult than ever.


I responded to a public dirt road one evening where a neighbor was blocking access because of a personal dispute.

“Look, sir,” I explained to the person blocking the road, “you give me no choice, your neighbor has every right to get to his home, you can’t block the road. If you continue, I will have to arrest you.”

His response? “Go ahead and arrest me.”

While all this is going on, I’m asked by my dispatcher when I will clear the scene; I had other calls waiting. One was a burglary with a possible suspect in the area.

I calculated the time it will take me to arrest, transport and process him, tow his car, survey the contents and run the usual checks; it would tie me up for the next two hours. The aggrieved neighbor loudly insisted that I make the arrest and let him get on with his life.

So I return to the person blocking the road and said, ” Sir, I’m asking you as kindly as I know how, please move your car. I don’t want to arrest you. I have other calls more important than this. There are people who need me. I don’t have time for this B.S. You are about to get a criminal record. Your life is about to change for the worse. If I arrest and if you resist me, you are going to regret it. Please. Move your car. Now.  Go home and think this over. Call a lawyer.

We stared at each other for about 30 seconds. He moved his car.  I responded to the next caller who wanted to know why the hell he had to wait thirty minutes for me to get there.

I could go on endlessly about the times I waited someone out versus the times I made a quick decision to use force.  I can cite examples where either choice backfired.

“This is an impossible job,” I said to myself. “I get to babysit grown people acting like buttholes.”

unbridled ignorance

(U.S. Air Force photo by Steve Kotecki)

Too Much Force? 

All of this goes through my mind when I review the latest use of force case (below) where multiple officers appear to use an unreasonable amount of violence because the suspect would not sit down. I remind myself that I wasn’t there, I don’t know all the facts, I’m not going to second guess, yet the nation views the video and is repulsed.

Yea, all he had to do was to sit down; a reasonable request. All he had to do was comply. But now it’s a moot point, the nation probably thinks the officers acted very inappropriately.

(LET file photo submitted by reader)

Mesa, Arizona

From The Crime Report: “The Mesa, Az., Police Department released more video that provides some insight into what led police officers to punch and knee an unarmed man late last month, the Arizona Republic reports. The incident has captured national attention and led local leaders to call for reform of use-of-force policies. An investigation is under way, and three police officers and a sergeant are on administrative leave. Police Chief Ramon Batista provided local news outlets with surveillance camera footage from the apartment complex where four officers beat 33-year-old Robert Johnson on May 23. The incident began when a woman called police to say that her ex-boyfriend, Erik Reyes, 20, tried to break into her apartment with his friend, Johnson. Police arrested Johnson on suspicion of disorderly conduct and hindering police. Reyes was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct and suspicion of possessing drug paraphernalia.”

As the three officers approach Johnson, he is talking on a cell phone and leaning against a railing. Police search his pockets and then ask him to sit down on the floor against the wall. Johnson questions why he needs to sit down and leans his back against the wall with his legs extended. Police repeatedly ask Johnson to sit down, but he refuses. The four officers close in on Johnson and an officer knees him twice in the stomach and punches him six times in the face. As Johnson is being hit, someone says, “Sit your ass down motherf–ker.” The incident got the chief’s attention May 30, when Andre Miller, a pastor at New Beginnings Christian Church, met with Batista to tell him about the surveillance video footage. The chief changed the department’s use-of-force policy to prevent officers from striking suspects’ face, head and neck “unless there is active aggression being exhibited by an individual toward the officer.”

I saw the clip on the national news endless times along with tens of millions of others. I believe most viewers thought the cops were wrong.

Are We Using Too Much Force?

I just wrote, “Police-Justice Public Relations Suck,” where I assert that we must do a better job of telling our story.

What’s the story? Proactively publicizing what cops do right. We are mostly good people doing a dangerous job effectively and compassionately per data from the US Department of Justice.

But I responded to recent inquiries via social media and other forums about policing, and many who are not ostensibly anti-cop are asking some hard questions.

Yes, I understand that passions are inflamed on both sides, and that many cops believe that there is a cultural and literal war on police. Some on the other side believe that cops are violent thugs.

But when those in the middle start asking legitimate questions about force, and when the latest video pops up portraying cops going overboard, we start running into significant PR problems.


(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Basic Nathan H. Barbour)

Back to Public Relations

Sooner or later, the Department of Justice and governors are going to figure out that events like these are hurting respect for law enforcement. As stated, it’s not the cop haters. Average citizens are beginning to question why so many videos are showing cops beating the crap out of someone not resisting.

Yes, police use of force is often necessary and at times, the only option at our disposal. Use of force can save lives. The judicious and quick use of force can be in everyone’s best interest.

But it needs to be explained in a way that laypeople understand. That means clear and concise articles and video.

One example is from the National Narcotics Officers Association Coalition regarding the realities of police shootings. The article is a reasonable attempt to set the record straight as to lethal violence.

How many times have we explained to people that you can’t shoot the suspect in the leg during a running gun battle?

“All he had was a knife,” others state. “The officer wasn’t in any danger. Why was it necessary to shoot him.”

How many training videos have we seen where the officer wasn’t ready or took too much time and paid a horrific price?

There are times where force is not only necessary, it may even be compassionate, like the time I “rescued” a disturbed, elderly woman from the D.C. beltway (after she kicked me three times). I got a complaint from a witness that I used too much force against a little old lady. All I did was to take her into custody for her own safety but she was screaming for help and insisting that I was hurting her (I did not; I tried my best not to do inflict any physical or psychological harm).

Today, that event would be on every news program in the country regardless as to how careful I was. The average person would probably question my decision because they weren’t there, they don’t know the circumstances, and all they saw was an elderly woman claiming (screaming) that I was doing her harm. I would have suffered a massive amount of criticism while doing nothing wrong.

Look, we simply need to do a much better job of explaining police use of force. Most cops do everything possible not to use violence but when that choice is made, at times it has to be done swiftly and decisively. Officers and others get hurt when sufficient force isn’t used or is not used in a timely fashion.

We have all viewed the recent video of the officer following a suspect on foot who wouldn’t stop walking with the officer close behind. The suspect whirled around quickly and shot the officer.

Are We Losing The PR Battle?

There should be a national repository for training videos and real-life scenarios. Show the public everything. Put it all on YouTube and every social media platform available. Put the media and community leaders in the same set of circumstances (i.e., shoot-don’t shoot simulations) and see if they make the right decisions.

We need to make sure that people understand when force is necessary and why.

But when average people normally supportive of cops start asking uncomfortable questions about the perceived use of unnecessary force, we lose.

Either we educate and challenge the public or educate and challenge ourselves, but there are simply too many videos of cops who “look” like they are doing wrong.

We simply can’t let things continue as they are. Either we in law enforcement question the use of force or we educate the public about the use of force, or both.

For the first time, I’m beginning to believe that we could lose the public relations battle for the hearts and minds of average people. That would be a tragedy.

Do we at times need to question our use of force? Is the problem partially ours? Are we sufficiently self-policing ourselves? Lord knows, we are not perfect.

A pro-police friend suggested that officers were not in control of their emotions after watching the Mesa video. He asked whether this was a growing problem. “Leonard, we are seeing too many of these videos. What’s going on?”

Other friends in law enforcement are getting the same questions.

We need to take a hard look at ourselves and our public relations challenges or both. This can’t continue without it hurting the profession. We simply need to do better.

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Former advisor to presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. You can contact me at [email protected].