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How to Evaluate a Force Decision

by Rory Miller, April 16, 2012

Fighting is ugly. Killing is ugly. Getting involved in any force incident is dangerous and it hurts. Violence affects humans at a very deep emotional level, and when we see or hear of an act of violence most people are sickened or outraged. And our default assumption is that anything that sickens or angers us so much must be wrong.

I can’t agree. If you have ever watched films of orcas tearing and eating lumps of flesh out of a living whale, if you have seen a coyote tear up a rabbit, or watched a cat torture a mouse you know on some level that, sickening or not, violence is natural. Violence is real. I cannot believe that something that has underpinned all of life for all of evolutionary history is automatically and inherently wrong.

To declare that violence is wrong, or to mouth the (breathtakingly, obviously, stupid and wrong) platitude that ‘violence never solved anything’ or to declare that ‘violence is the last resort of the ignorant’ are simply tactics. And they are tactics designed to manage your feelings, not to solve problems. Further, if enough people say the words, we can use social pressure to keep anyone from talking about violence. And then we can raise a generation in complete ignorance of one of the fundamental aspects of Life. They will be completely unprepared for many challenges, but we’ll all feel better. Sure.

When our feelings are involved, we don’t think. Limbic system trumps the neo-cortex. If you are outraged or sickened (or elated or angry or afraid or…) you are not thinking.

And thinking is what gets problems solved.So let’s think for a minute. I’m not asking much. Just to the end of this article, let’s forget outrage and blame and talk about a few things.

How to Evaluate a Force Decision

1) Know the rules. The basics of self-defense law, going all the way back to English Common Law, can be summed up: “You may use the minimum force you believe is reasonably necessary to safely resolve the situation.”

  • ‘May’—not required, though officers have a duty to act and may be required to go in, no citizen is under a legal obligation to defend self or third party. Moral obligation is another story.
  • ‘Minimum Force’—The least impact on the other person’s life. Kill only if injuring won’t work, injure only if pain won’t work, pain only if pushing or holding won’t work, verbal if that will work, and no force at all is best.
  • ‘Reasonably necessary’—Do you need to do this at all? Can you leave? Would another reasonable person also believe there was no choice?

That’s not enough, of course. You need to know the particular statutes of the relevant state, the exact wording of the stand-your-ground law or castle doctrine, if that is relevant. If you are trying to evaluate an officer’s use of force, you must also know the policy and procedure the officer was working under.

2) Know the facts. This gets hard, especially when emotions are high. It gets even harder when your emotions are being manipulated. Tabloids have much higher circulations than science magazines and popularized science has a greater readership than hard science. “Science is boring,” you say? Exactly, so what sells is excitement, not fact.

Read the articles for facts. If the suspect said “X” you do not know “X.” The fact is ‘subject said.’ What are the facts? One demagogue after a local police-involved shooting declared that the person who was shot needed an ambulance, not the police, and an ambulance was never sent. No matter how publicly said or how widely reported, saying does not make it so. An ambulance was dispatched, and the crew refused to go within a hundred yards of the subject until the officers could make the scene safe.
In many cases, you can read pages of reporting and count the actual relevant facts on one hand.

What are the relevant facts? The things that you, as a reasonable person, would use to gauge danger in a similar situation. Was one of the people involved armed, bigger, healthier? Showing signs of an altered mental state? Were there multiple threats? Was one of the parties surprised? Were escape routes cut off? Was one of the people injured or about to lose consciousness?

This is one of the areas where martial artists tend to overestimate their understanding and experience. Multiple opponents may be primarily a geometry problem in a nice clean studio with training partners who wish you no harm. It is an emotional and very physical problem when your adrenaline kicks in and visibility is reduced and every incoming attack not only hurts far more than training but also injures, hampering your movement.
Unless you were there at the scene, you will never know all the facts. Unless you were there actually under attack or actually initiating the action to take the other guy down, you will never know the facts as the involved people knew them. Smells and sounds and touch and even emotions affect perception and decisions.

We can never be sure, and that is part of being human.

3) You kind of need to know the process. This isn’t necessarily related to understanding or evaluating the force decision itself, but it is important, when the follow-up ‘feels’ wrong. Part of having an emotional reaction to anything, not just violence, is a need to do something immediately. Right this second.

When you want immediate justice and it doesn’t appear to be happening, it is very easy to think that justice, through some dark conspiracy, is being avoided. That’s rare. One of the benefits of deciding that a profession should handle force issues in our society is that it concentrates experience. By concentrating experience, it allows the professionals to be less emotional and more rational… but our limbic system wants everyone else to be just as emotional (and irrational) as we are. Be grateful that most professionals are cold. When they get emotional that’s when they start making mistakes and people get unnecessarily hurt.

Justice or Vengeance?

The judicial system is not set up, in the United States, for either justice or vengeance. Vengeance would be to satisfy the emotions of the victim or the society by punishment. Vengeance is emotional, and cares very little about whether the right person is punished or if the punishment fits the crime.

Justice is harder to define, but stems from each person getting what they deserve based on their individual actions. It concentrates a huge amount of power in the hands of those who get to decide what others deserve.

Our system, from its very inception, centered around making sure that individuals would be protected as much as possible from arbitrary exercises of state power. Why proof beyond a reasonable doubt? Or the ‘fair and speedy trial’ clause? Or automatic appeals for capital cases? Because our system believes that letting some criminals walk is not as dangerous to our country as letting the State crush individuals.

So when emotions are triggered and the wheels of justice are grinding a little too slowly for you, maybe this is why. And maybe what you want on a deep level is not even justice but vengeance and maybe it is easy to forget for a minute that in your cry for swift justice you are actively seeking to overturn civil liberties and protections.

That’s big picture stuff. On a smaller scale, sometimes arrests aren’t made immediately because it can ruin the investigation. The arrest, not the crime, starts the clock for the ‘fair and speedy’ trial. It is almost always better to investigate before you arrest, if you don’t believe the suspect will flee.

Officers Receive Extra Protection

It can seem that officers under investigation are given extra protections than citizens. That’s true. But that stems from two facts:

  • First officers are required, at times, to engage in force incidents. That is part of the job. Tactically, that means that many of the techniques for avoiding force are unavailable, like leaving. So there are things a citizen would have to explain that an officer will not.
  • Secondly, an officer under investigation is likely being investigated by his or her employer. They must be afforded not only the protections a citizen gets, but the highest standards of treatment dictated by labor law as well.

For years, I was authorized and expected to use force when necessary in the name of and for the service of the people of my jurisdiction. Those people have an absolute right to know what I did and to scrutinize each and every decision. But all people who use force have the right that those force incidents be judged by fact and not emotion. That the people judging know what they are judging, that they have both the facts and understand the rules before crying for blood and punishment.

Force incidents can sicken and enrage and those are two emotions that do not work well with either justice or liberty.

Rory Miller has served for seventeen years in corrections as an officer and sergeant working maximum security, booking and mental health; leading a tactical team; and teaching subjects ranging from Defensive Tactics and Use of Force to First Aid and Crisis Communications with the Mentally Ill.


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