Use of Force and the Reality Faced by Police


The reality faced by police when it comes to use of force is usually missing during public conversations and most news reports regarding law enforcement actions.

Political rhetoric, emotions, and lack of understanding seem to overwhelm facts.

Truth is often determined by the predisposition of the person making the latest claim about cops and how they perform their job.

The vitriolic online media—individual users and the press—hits a crescendo every time police use force that is misunderstood or misapplied, and therefore labeled as racist or heavy handed.

People like hot dogs, but they certainly don’t want to see them made. In the world in which we live, everyone gets a front row seat at the hot dog factory and the dissenting opinions are validated. As a result, proactive policing is on life support in America, and that will increase danger to the public.

The police profession has always been on the hot seat, but the temperature increased following Officer Darren Wilson’s 2014 confrontation and subsequent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Today’s headlines simply mislead the public. As news agencies fight for clicks and viewers, sensationalism is deployed and cops get run over by the online crowd with their limited perspective.

The streets are not filled with uniformed thugs who are untrained and uneducated fascists. However, that makes a good storyline. Even people on the fence are persuaded it’s truthful. After all, the traffic ticket they received last week was “unwarranted.” And their drug-addicted relative told the family he was “roughed up” by the cops following his latest arrest for burglary. So it’s believable if you’re unaware of the sludge in the trenches of law enforcement.

Regardless of the news headlines, there is not a band of cops in every hometown conspiring ways to kill your sons and rape your daughters. Institutional injustice is a lie and I’ve got the facts to back it up!

But as Joe Vargas wrote in Behind the Badge OC, “The loud voices create the illusion of majority opinion and adds to an atmosphere of distrust for police agencies all over the country.”

Vargas, a retired captain of the Anaheim Police Department, continues, “Any honest discussion of police use of force must take into account the setting in which today’s police officer has to police. We do, in fact, live in a society where the use of firearms and violence are a very real part of our communities. Police use of force has to take this setting into account, and thoughtful questions have to be asked.”

Consequently, Vargas asks six probing questions that are frequently ignored when the public is busy excoriating police use of force. His straightforward response to each question, along with my interspersed comments, should enlighten reasonable readers. He also categorized body cam/dash cam video that helps answer the questions before us.

Do police officers get shot and killed?

This is a no-brainer to people in law enforcement, but most citizens are unaware of police fatalities unless it occurs in their city or town.

Moreover, there are plenty of people who wouldn’t think twice of shooting it out with the police. According to data from the National Law Enforcement Memorial, 514 police officers have been killed by gunfire in the last 10 years. This doesn’t include those who have died as a result of a beating, stabbing, or being purposely hit by a vehicle.

Do police officers get shot and injured?

More than you’ll ever know. This occurs frequently and the numbers are in the hundreds. Some suffer life-changing injuries and are permanently disabled. Furthermore, the number of officers assaulted annually is in the tens of thousands. This, by the way, does not include the number of times police officers get shot at, for which there is no accurate data.

How often do police officers really encounter firearms?

Every day, police officers are responding to calls of armed subjects. In the vast majority of these calls, people are taken into custody without the use of deadly force. This is often due to excellent training and good judgment on the part of the officer. Check any police department evidence room and you will find hundreds of firearms that have been seized.

Do police officers encounter individuals with firearms who shouldn’t have them?

An overwhelming majority of police encounters involving people with firearms are illegally in possession of them. Convicted felons, parolees, and others wielding guns are an every day occurrence. You have to ask yourself, why do they have guns in their possession? It is understood if you’re a convicted felon in possession of a firearm it is for no good purpose.

Thousands of dangerous convicted felons are arrested every year for possessing firearms. Thankfully, the majority of these arrests take place with no injuries or harm to anyone.

Furthermore, mental health issues have exacerbated the problem. The volume of people threatening, or committing suicide has dramatically risen over the years. As a result, police officers are frequently placed in “no-win” scenarios.

How many guns are there out there?

Estimates are there are more than 357 million firearms in circulation. There are more guns than there are people in the United States. Most of these responsible people own a firearm for their protection.

But also in the mix are millions of firearms that have been stolen and unrecovered. So, who has them? Mostly people who shouldn’t have them, including drug dealers, gang members, and a host of other bad guys.

Do police officers really get attacked that often?

While the data is almost certainly incomplete, in 2016 there were a reported 58,627 assaults on police officers resulting in 16,677 injuries. It is a rare officer who has not been injured at least several times in their career while taking suspects into custody.

According to statistics collected by the FBI, 118 law enforcement officers were killed in line-of-duty incidents in 2016. Of these, 66 law enforcement officers died as a result of felonious acts, and 52 officers died in accidents.

Circumstances: At the time the 66 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed:
  • 17 were ambushed (entrapment/premeditation);
  • 13 were answering disturbance calls (seven were domestic disturbance calls);
  • nine were investigating suspicious persons/circumstances;
  • six were engaged in tactical situations;
  • five were performing investigative activities (such as surveillances, searches, or interviews);
  • four were conducting traffic pursuits/stops;
  • three were investigating drug-related matters;
  • three were victims of unprovoked attacks;
  • one was answering a burglary in progress call or pursuing a burglary suspect(s);
  • one was answering a robbery in progress call or pursuing a robbery suspect(s); and
  • four were attempting other arrests.

Weapons: Offenders used firearms to kill 62 of the 66 victim officers. Of these 62 officers, 37 were slain with handguns, 24 with rifles, and one with a shotgun. Four officers were killed with vehicles used as weapons.

Regions: Thirty of the felonious deaths occurred in the South, 17 in the West, 13 in the Midwest, four in the Northeast, and two in Puerto Rico.

Suspects: Law enforcement agencies identified 59 alleged assailants in connection with the felonious line-of-duty deaths.

Forty-five of the assailants had prior criminal arrests, and 14 of the offenders were under judicial supervision at the times of the felonious incidents.

On a personal note, I’ve had multiple surgeries related to on the job injuries. The operations have included my right knee three times and right shoulder. Moreover, I’ve suffered broken ribs, sprained ankles and been stitched up twice. Furthermore, I’ve had gauze pads applied to scrapes and wounds on several occasions. Yet with this, I was fortunate to make it to a service retirement. Sadly, I can tell stories of many who didn’t.

How dangerous can an unarmed person be?

I love this naive question. As Vargas puts it, “Unarmed does not mean not dangerous. You have to admit, anyone who would fight a uniformed police officer has got to be a special kind of crazy. That being said, every officer brings a gun to a fist fight. If they lose the fight, they potentially lose their gun.”

Police officers train to win. If they tie, they can die!

While police officers are occasionally killed by “unarmed” suspects simply using their hands, or bashing the officers head against a blunt object, correctional officers are a different story. A majority of their line of duty deaths come from inmates simply beating them to death.

How many people get shot every day?

The CDC reported that in 2015, a total of 12,979 were killed by firearms. This doesn’t include suicides. In addition, on average 76,554 have been shot and injured over the last five years. That’s a lot of shooting going on.

It seems every week police departments are releasing video of officers taking gunfire. That’s the real world that police officers have to face every day.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed that when judging police use of force cases, you have to consider the reasonableness of the officer’s behavior. This has been the law of the land for decades now in Graham vs. Connor.

The movement to change the standard in California to merely necessary use of force ignores reality. It creates a standard where police officers would be judged after the fact rather than on what they have to process in just fractions of a second. It is dishonest.

And think about this. Who defines the term “necessary?” I assure you it will not be the police. We’ll hear from Monday morning quarterbacks and pundits who’ve never encountered someone wanting to commit great bodily injury to them?

Furthermore, if the liberal California legislature succeeds in their quest, it will have a domino effect throughout the country.

Sure, there are rare cases where officers’ reactions are so unreasonable they are criminal. That was evident in the South Carolina shooting of Walter Scott. Former officer Michael Slager is now serving over 20 years in prison and a large monetary settlement has been reached with the victim’s family. That is definitely a case that needed to heard by a jury and judged according to the evidence presented.

Yet lost in the conversation is the civil and criminal remedies in place for police officers who step over the line. The problem is the line is being moved. People who’ve never worn a shield have no idea what “reasonable” looks like in the face of real danger. After all, no suspect has actually jumped off a video game screen and “butt-stroked” the unsuspecting gamer with the barrel of a gun. Nor have rounds fired by the same video-criminal every drawn blood from the body of the hands holding the joystick.

The world is, of course, imperfect. It is policed by ordinary men and women trying to do an extraordinary job. But the duty is becoming increasingly unrealistic. The expectations from a critical public are exceeding reasonable officer-safety standards. These are principles being discarded out of fear of scorn and a public flogging.

In summation Vargas said, “No discussion about police use of force can take place without acknowledging the very real risks police officers encounter every day. It is a reality many just can’t or won’t acknowledge.”

– Jim McNeff, editor-in-chief, Law Enforcement Today

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