Use of Force...Myth vs. Reality
Part 1 of a 2-part series
Civilians who judge the reasonableness of your use of force, whether they're
members of the media, of a review board, of a prosecutor's staff, or of a jury,
are likely to bring a welter of highly distorted beliefs to the process because
they've undergone thousands of hours of "training" based on fantasy rather than
the "seething ferocity and violence" of street-level reality.
The perpetrators and victims of these misconceptions "do not understand or
appreciate the physics and dynamics of how force works," says Det. Cmdr.
Jeffry Johnson of the Long Beach (CA) PD, author of a recent insightful report
on force mythology. This "can lead to serious problems" because the same
real-life force incidents that are viewed by law enforcement as perfectly
reasonable may be seen by many gullible but influential civilians as
unreasonable and excessive, "particularly in high-profile or video-taped"
"Police officers often forget that most people do not share their experience and
knowledge of how force works," Johnson writes.
Moreover, as Johnson can testify from harrowing personal experience, otherwise
savvy officers themselves sometimes unwittingly buy in to some of the common
civilian delusions. And this can lead to potentially dangerous expectations,
confusion, and loss of confidence in the midst of life-threatening
What's needed, Johnson believes, is for the policing profession to work more
diligently to educate the public--and itself--about force truths, while
simultaneously reasserting its rightful role as interpreter and arbiter of what
constitutes reasonable force applications.
Johnson's report, titled "Use of Force and the Hollywood Factor," first appeared
in the Journal of California Law Enforcement. You can read it now in its
entirety on the website of Americans for Effective Law Enforcement:
Twenty-five years ago, public perceptions about LE force were "not a major
issue," Johnson writes, because "few people had seen an actual use-of-force
incident." If a force application was scrutinized, "it was normally done on the
basis of a police report or witness testimony." He told Force Science News,
"People didn't see the starkness and ugliness of force. And it is ugly. There's
no way you can make it pretty."
Beginning with Rodney King, the increasingly ubiquitous video camera has
effectively taken "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," Johnson notes.
This has produced core conflicts between unappetizing street truths and the
sanitized depictions with which people have been indoctrinated since childhood
by movies, TV, and now video games. People "truly believe they understand" how
force works and should look, based on the thousands of fictional versions
they've seen, Johnson explains. "Many also base their ideas of the rules, laws,
policies, and morality that govern police force"
on these same perceptions. But...they're dead wrong.
Johnson identifies 3 predominant Hollywood myths impacting the public view of
THE DEMONSTRATIVE BULLET FALLACY.
In other words, bullets vividly demonstrate when and where they strike a human
target because the subject "will jerk convulsively, go flying through windows
[or] off balconies, or lose limbs, and there will immediately emerge a geyser of
blood spewing forth from his wound.... 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.'"
Johnson experienced this myth first hand as a patrol officer the night he and
his partner were threatened by a shotgun-toting, PCP-fueled hostage taker. "I
was shooting with a .45-cal. Colt revolver, a gun I thought would blow him off
his feet, and nothing happened. I put 4 rounds in him--broke his femur and
penetrated his heart--but there was no movement I could see and no blood. It was
extremely traumatic. I thought the only way I could stop him was to put a round
in his head," which Johnson, a master shooter, managed to do with the last
bullet in his cylinder.
Other officers with similar experiences have told him how startled and stressed
they were when their expectations of instant stopping proved false in the middle
of a gunfight.
On the other hand, officers sometimes react to receiving fire "based on how they
believe the dynamics of the force should work rather than how they actually do."
For example, the Secret Service agent who famously took a .22-cal. bullet for
President Reagan "jerked quite noticeably as he observed the bullet strike him
in the lower torso." Johnson has seen the Demonstrative Bullet myth "even among
armorers and range officers," he told FSN.
In reality, as an FBI report on the subject put it, "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."
Indeed, "the 'stopping power' of a 9mm bullet at muzzle velocity is equal to a
one-pound weight (e.g., a baseball) being dropped from the height of 6 feet,"
Johnson writes. "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.
"[U]nless the bullet destroys or damages the central nervous system (i.e., brain
or upper spinal cord), incapacitation...can take a long time,"easily 10-15
seconds even after a suspect's heart has been destroyed. "[T]he body will rarely
involuntarily move or jerk, and usually there is no...[readily evident] surface
tearing of tissue. Often there is no blood whatsoever....
[A]n officer can easily empty a full 17-round magazine before he or she observes
any indication of incapacitation." With more than one officer shooting, "that
total may reasonably increase exponentially." This contrasts sharply to the
"'one-shot drop' mentality the movies have created."
Too often officers' judgment is questioned when it appears they have fired "too
many rounds" at a suspect, Johnson charges. He recalls the controversial case of
Amadou Diallo, at whom 4 NYPD officers shot 41 rounds, resulting in "serious
rioting, public protest," and criminal charges against the officers. A medical
examiner testified that Diallo was still standing upright when most of the fatal
rounds hit him. "Do you think an understanding of the Demonstrative Bullet
Fallacy might make a difference in the way the public views such incidents?"
THE CODE OF THE WEST.
"From the earliest days of filmmaking, Hollywood has instilled in us that there
is an unwritten code that all good guys must live by," Johnson writes.
"The code may not always make much sense in the real world, but it has created
an implied expectation for real law enforcement." He cites 9 examples related to
--Good guys never have the advantage. "[F]ate places them in hopeless, outgunned
situations from which they ultimately triumph." With this mind, how can an
officer reasonably strike, pepper spray, or shoot an unarmed suspect?
--Good guys are always outnumbered. "The image of the lone hero facing numerous
villains is pervasive in the movies. The real-life spectacle of numerous
officers standing over a suspect, attempting to control him (e.g., Rodney King)
just feels wrong, based on this standard."
--Good guys are never the aggressor. Yet in real life, "officers must often be
the aggressors to maintain control."
--Good guys never shoot first or throw the first punch. In real life, an officer
"must anticipate a suspect's actions" and not wait until "incapacitated by a
bullet or knocked unconscious by a punch." To effectively control a volatile
situation, an officer may need to take down, electronically neutralize, or even
shoot a suspect before the subject has shown any physical aggression. "[T]his
will always look bad to untrained"
--Good guys will always outlast bad guys in a fight. Actually, an officer has
only "a short time--maybe a couple of minutes--to gain control of a suspect
before the officer's energy is spent, placing him or her at a dangerous
disadvantage." Officers in a protracted struggle may need to use "increasing
levels of force...the closer they get to their fatigue threshold." Once that
threshold is reached or passed without the resisting suspect being restrained,
"the officer may easily be overcome, then injured or killed."
--Good guys never shoot a person in the back. "This may be the best-known and
most oft-quoted Code of the West...proof that the shooting was unjustifiable and
unreasonable." Yet there are "a myriad of scenarios in which an officer is
perfectly justified in shooting a suspect in the back,"
including the situation in which a suspect presents a frontal threat to an
officer then turns to run away just as the officer reacts.
"The reality is a gunshot wound to the back only proves where the bullet struck.
It provides no more evidence of culpability than does a gunshot wound to the
front, side, big toe, or anywhere else," Johnson declares.
VIOLENT POLICE - VIOLENT BUSINESS.
This final myth has officers flying "from call to call shooting and beating
people" and causes one to "wonder how Hollywood cops ever get caught up on their
paperwork," Johnson writes.
"The fact is, [real] police rarely use force." Statistically, law officers "do
not use force 99.9639%" of their calls for service. Further, in only a fraction
of all cases where force is used--about 0.2%--do officers use deadly force. "And
it is still true that the vast majority of officers (even in major cities) never
fire their weapons on duty.
"The fact that law enforcement uses force so sparingly should be highlighted as
a sign of success," Johnson argues. "Yet if Hollywood, the nightly news, and
some vocal activists are to be believed, one would think the police shoot and
beat people as often as they start up their black and whites."
Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at
Minnesota State University-Mankato, discusses the damaging impact of myths on
officers' physical, emotional, and legal survival in his Force Science seminars,
and he concurs with Johnson's conclusions about the dangers of the Hollywood
"It is not an exaggeration," he told FSN, "to say that many officers receive
more training from Hollywood by a thousand-fold than they do from any force
instructor. To cite just one consequence, the dangerous tactic of holding your
handgun up beside your head while searching a building or making entry--the
so-called Hollywood high-guard--is not taught by any academy I know of in this
country. But cops do it because they're been 'instructed' to by TV and movies.
"Some officers have been so convinced of their invulnerability by Hollywood
depictions by that they've been unwilling to do the realistic training necessary
for their survival in a showdown." And, as Cmdr. Johnson points out, even the
most dedicated officers are at risk in the legal arena after a use of force
because many of the civilians who are in position to judge their actions believe
they know much more about officer-involved shootings than they actually do,
thanks to Hollywood brainwashing."
Lewinski explains that one of FSRC's important goals is to educate the public
about the true dynamics of force encounters. In Johnson's opinion, that's a goal
LE itself also needs to be more proactive in pushing.
Police managers can no longer afford to "allow the untrained, often misinformed
public to be the final judge of what constitutes reasonable police force,
particularly in high-profile incidents, without insisting on even a rudimentary
understanding of force dynamics," he insists. Nor can they afford to continue
allowing "the community to maintain unreasonable and conflicting expectations of
its law enforcement officers."
He addresses some strategies for action in Part 2 of this 2-part series.
[Our thanks to Wayne Schmidt, executive director of Americans for Effective Law
Enforcement, for tipping us to Cmdr. Johnson's provocative report.]
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Force Science News #68
March 26, 2007
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