Sometimes It Comes Down To a Judgment Call

Use of force by a police officer has always been subject to public scrutiny. Usually this public review was limited to local media, concerned community representatives and maybe a departmental civilian review board. Not anymore. Today, a use of force incident will be on YouTube within minutes, the subject of protests tonight and in national headlines tomorrow. This has resulted in a shift when determining whether a use of force is justified, from a legal standpoint to one of public perception. But what does this mean for policing?

In the majority of cases, the use of force by law enforcement is governed by the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Conner, which in part outlined a series of considerations that should be taken into account when reviewing use of force cases:

1) Severity of the crime
2) Whether the subject posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officer(s) or others
3) Whether the subject was actively resisting arrest OR attempting to evade capture

Police GunMore importantly, and something which many members of the public do not understand, is that the Court also stated that the case “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” It is this second standard of viewing from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene which makes it difficult for the public to view use of force situations in a favorable light. The reasons for this are obvious, but often overlooked by critics.

  • Reasonable officer – these two words make it difficult for someone without specific police training to make an informed and knowledgeable decision on what an officer should or should not do in a particular situation. It’s akin to asking the public to determine if a pilot was negligent after his plane crashes following an in-flight emergency.
  • On Scene – unless you were there and witnessed the events first-hand, how can you reasonably review any situation from the required perspective? I know, the answer is video. But this brings us to the third problem.
  • Without 20/20 vision or hindsight – video can be a great tool, and there is no doubt that body cameras and in car video has been beneficial in use of force cases. The problem is it becomes very difficult for viewers to divorce themselves from what the officer knew at the time and what is learned by watching video later.

In closing, I would like to point out that these problems are NOT limited to the media, members of the public or elected officials – law enforcement officers can fall prey as well. It is natural for members of a close knit profession, such as law enforcement , to want to come to the defense of a brother or sister in trouble, but sometimes it is better to reserve judgment until all the facts are known. A fellow officer may have the ability to view the situation as a reasonable officer and may have even been in a similar situation. However, even the most experienced officer has a difficult time objectively commenting on a situation they did not personally witness and can just as easily fall prey to over analyzing video evidence. Support your colleague, stand up for your profession but do not fan the flames with statements without first learning the facts.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell

1 thought on “Sometimes It Comes Down To a Judgment Call

  1. Police need to STOP being prostitutes for the Big Pharma (War on drugs) and for Big Insurance companies (all safety, seat belt, tickets in general when NO harm or damages have been done) . A person has the right to resist a false arrest just as if he or she were being kidnapped by a stranger… It makes no difference if it is a police officer working under color of law to enforce global community feel good safet infractions (unlawfully, when no probable cause exists.. or no damages or harm exists). A person also has the right to defend themselves against any police officer who harms them in any way. a police officer is not to harm anyone, unless the person has just harmed others in the act of… or has committed a CRIME where the person has harmed others, without justifiable cause.

    Remember this one thing. Police are hired by the people to protect the peoples rights from being infringed by others… When police started infringing upon the daily rights of the people under color of law using feel good, fluffty insrance reasons or global community laws to remove the RIGHT to travel (without a supported by many federal cases including the Supreme court…). Keep the police in line and obeying the constitution and they will do fine. otherwise they are an enemy to the people.

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