Excessive Use of Force--The Evil Flashlight

When I was at the sheriff's department, our sheriff got the bright idea of buying us all flashlights. This was way before the media and citizenry were all excited about people being hit with police flashlights. We're talking about a time when flashlights were seen as a tool for illumination, not a primary--or even secondary--non-lethal weapon.

Back in the day, many coppers carried what we used to refer to as "Sportsman" flashlights. These were consumer market, chrome plated lights, usually using D sized batteries, and carrying a glass lens and a standard flashlight bulb. The lens and bulb would break if you looked at the light sideways, and the tube of the flashlight's body was so thin that it would dent if it rolled off your lap onto a carpeted floor. The standard configuration seemed to be three or four cells, although I once had a partner that had what must have been a six or seven cell light.

The lights were pretty fragile, since they were intended to be put into a tackle-box or a glove compartment, and brought out once in a while to find your tent in a darkened campsite, or other such low-impact activity. Mostly they weren't intended to be banged around on a nightly basis by working cops, and they especially weren't built for hitting anyone.

Some officers taped up the barrel of their light, since the shiny chrome was pretty bad tactically, and I even knew an old-timer from a big city department (to remain nameless, although you know it as the birthplace of the automobile assembly line) who wrapped his light with solder, then taped it. He said it gave it "balance", which I think in today's parlance could be loosely translated as "weaponizing" it.

About this time we started to see the introduction into law enforcement of flashlights made of aircraft aluminum. They were called Kel-Lites®, and they were sweet! Much sturdier, and even black in color, which of course made them "tactical." No more electrical tape.

Now most of these lights were actually lighter in weight than the Sportsman variety with all the solder and tape added. However, they quickly got a reputation for being used as an impact weapon. And, even though coppers had probably always used their lights as weapons when the need arose, something about the new lights fed into the public's negative perception of the light when used in this way.

Anyway, we all had to purchase our own lights, and we used to whine about that, since we might go through several Sportsman lights a year, and the new police flashlights were kind of expensive. Our sheriff got the bright idea of buying us lights, and he rationalized that he could kill two birds with one stone, by buying us lights that were less likely to cause citizen complaints of excessive force.

This was in the days before the small, tactical lights that we have now, so "low-impact" light choices were limited. However, he persevered, and we ended up with four cell, grey and red plastic flashlights from Radio Shack™ (cost per unit was literally a dollar).

They lasted about two days, then came apart under the normal wear and tear of policing. Finally, the department went out and bought the rechargeable variety of a more standard police light.

The moral of this story is that the tools need to fit the job, and decisions should not be made based on false presumptions. And there are no shortcuts.

I thought of this saga a few weeks ago when I heard that a large west coast police agency was getting rid of their flashlights, exchanging them for a new, small, tactical variety that had been designed especially for them.

As I understand it, this came about because a couple of years ago, some officers from this department got videotaped by a news crew, allegedly striking a suspect with their flashlights. This of course led to a public outcry, and lots of media heat. The chief announced that they would do away with the flashlights, and a large flashlight manufacturer undertook to design a new, improved light, that was less likely to be used as a weapon. Two years later, the new light was ready, and announced to the world.

Now let's get a couple of things straight: I did not investigate the incident in question--all I know I read in the press; I don't know the officers involved, or the chief; I haven't had the opportunity to look at the new flashlight or to evaluate it, and I don't know if it's better or not. It probably is.

That's not what this is about.

There are really two problems here. First, depending on whose numbers you rely upon, there are between three-quarters of a million and a million police officers in the U.S. They have untold millions of interactions with individuals every year. An incredibly small number of those interactions result in force being used, and an even smaller number of those incidents involve anything that could remotely be called excessive force. A few times a year, somebody gets their picture taken while using force, and that picture--or video--is flashed all over the media, played over and over again ad nauseam, while being viewed by millions of people who have no idea what they're really seeing. When that viewing is passed through the preconceived notions of those who already have an axe to grind with the police, or are just looking to increase advertising rates, that particular use of force will take on mythic proportions, a la "Rodney King." If the incident involves a weapon or use of force tool, then that often becomes the focus of the firestorm.

I do not for a minute think that an occasional incident on the national media is indicative of a systemic problem of excessive use of force within a given department. Might there be a bad apple or two? Of course. If you take three-quarters of a million of anything, you'll find some bad ones. That does not mean that the entire barrel is bad, or the whole orchard.

The second, and related, issue is that blaming the weapon is the easy way out, and is way too often the political answer to the question.

There's an old saying, "It's a poor workman that blames his tools." In other words, if you can't drive a nail without bending it, don't blame the hammer.

If we do accept the premise that there is a problem with use of force at a given agency, blaming the agencies' weapons or tools is not the answer. Yet, that is often the standard, knee-jerk response when there is a high profile incident. Some examples:

  • Officers fire multiple rounds during a confrontation with a suspect that turns out to be unarmed? Take away the high capacity weapons!
  • Officers hit someone with a flashlight? Take away the flashlights!
  • Someone dies after an arrest involving pepper spray? Take away the pepper spray!
  • A pursuit-related crash occurs? Stop police pursuits!
  • An in-custody death occurs following the use of a TASER®? Take away the TASERs!

Look--I think it's great that new equipment gets invented if that equipment fulfills a need, and that is reportedly what happened in that west coast agency. If the new flashlight works better, and helps to enhance officer safety, then I'm all for it.

However, blaming our equipment for our problems is not now, and never will be the answer. The answer is better risk management through proper implementation of policy, good and thorough training, and on-going supervision.

It's almost insulting to tell the public, or the officers, that the solution to either groups' perceived problems is a piece of equipment.

Stay safe, and wear your vest! (and Buckle Up!)