Excessive Use of Force--The Evil Flashlight

If you think your agency has a problem, fix it--don't scapegoat it


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 TASERĀ®? 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!)

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