Has anyone ever tossed you something when you weren’t expecting it? You might be very coordinated, even athletic, but when there’s an unexpected airborne object coming your way, you jump, jerk and flinch trying to get ready to catch or avoid the object. The problem is, the person who tossed it KNEW what they were going to do and you did not. Your jerky awkward movements were reactive in nature - trying to make up for lost time. Had you known what was coming, you could have responded appropriately by catching it with smooth, calculated movements. The key words here are – response vs. reaction.
Watching someone, even a police officer, remove their pistol and focus their attention on you can and should be quite unsettling. When it happens, citizens sometimes view us as paranoid, trigger-happy or improperly trained. It is likely, that just the opposite is true.
I’ll make up a scenario we see fairly regularly:
A caller reports a fight, and says that one of the people involved threatened others with a firearm. The officers arrive in the area but the fight is over, and two men are seen walking away from the scene. Their heads are down, not looking at the officers and they appear to change direction to avoid the police. The police officer stops his car, uses it as cover and calls out to the men. The men turn around and see the officer has his gun out, pointed at the ground, half-way between the men and himself. Obviously, the officer couldn’t positively know if either man was the one seen with the gun earlier. So why the showing of force? Why pull a deadly weapon and point it at or near two potentially innocent citizens? (good questions Steve) Thank you.
The justification for such threatening actions has to be divided into two categories: tactical and physiological.
We have determined, and I hope you agree, that getting hurt or killed is not an acceptable consequence of being a police officer. Sure, there are risks, but we do all we can to reduce those risks. We believe officers should be able to defend themselves and others by using necessary force, therefore they need to be trained to respond to threats, not react to them. So tactically speaking we have to teach them not only to recognize known threats but also potential threats, and the only time to prepare is in the first moments of an unfolding and threatening scenario. Early preparation will increase the chances of an appropriate response, but of course “appropriate” is in the eye of the beholder and that can be sometimes controversial.
In the example scenario above, one of the two men are possibly armed. Their suspicious behavior, although not conclusive, adds to the possibility. The responding officers should prepare for a potential threat which is very similar to preparing for a known threat. The police officers must have a mindset of safety and survival. They have to be prepared.
If the example scenario unfolds with the suspect pulling a handgun and pointing it at the officers, they have to be physically and mentally ready to fire. This means, they have to take some steps to prepare – like un-holstering their pistols and taking a defensive position. This is particularly important because if the shooting starts, the officers need to have their guns on target first, and fire first to stop the threat. This can only be done by pre-planning and getting ready to intercept the suspect’s plan. Remember the first paragraph and the object being tossed? The officer’s safety depends on eliminating the reactive, awkward, jerky movements that accompany being startled.
We do not point guns at people simply to gain compliance, to intimidate or to threaten. We ready our weapon and defense systems to answer a potential or known threat. That means pointing weapons in the direction of citizens, some of whom are known threats and some who are potential threats.
A police officer pointing a gun at or toward a potentially innocent citizen is risky, not only for the citizen but also for the officer and agency. If the citizen is innocent, there is a slim chance they will completely understand our rationale. If the citizen is well connected to the community, then politicians or media may get involved and the department will be answering to the public on the matter. A law enforcement agency’s duty to the public is to determine if the officer’s actions were proper under the circumstances and make corrections either by discipline or training. If the officer acted appropriately, a department’s duty to its officers is to stand firm and assure the public that the actions were necessary under the circumstances.
Being a police officer is sometimes difficult. It is the only non-military job for which its members are routinely targeted for murder. Thankfully, over the last 40 years, the number of officers killed annually has dropped significantly. Some of the reasons for this include better protective equipment, improved emergency healthcare, but most importantly and the point of this article is: better tactics and preparation.
So in conclusion, we will continue to focus on safety while we provide service to the community. We will try to act responsibly and appropriately and in the best interests of the citizens we serve. And in a few tense moments for all, we will have to do what we believe is justified while weighing the totality of the circumstances, even if sometimes it’s uncomfortable. And to those people who were potential threats and not known threats, we will dust you off, apologize and ask for your understanding.