Jeff Quail co-authored this article.
"Go ahead, shoot me!" Over the last ten years, one would be hard pressed to find an officer that has not heard this emanating from a suspect that is taunting him or her, confident that the officer will not pull the trigger. Lately there has been some scrutiny in what appears to be a growing trend by officers not to use force, even when they are completely justified in doing so. What has not been looked at, however, is the effect that this failure to use force is having on the bad guys that encounter the police. There appears to be an increasing number of individuals that show little or no reluctance to assault police officers. These criminals believe that officers will not respond with force simply because the officers fear that a lawsuit will follow if they do.
"Litigaphobia," the irrational and excessive fear of litigation, first recognized as affecting physicians and psychotherapists, subsequently causing them to practice defensive medicine, has now found its way to police and correctional officers. This new paradigm has resulted in officers being overly cautious about using force, even when completely justified. Exacerbating this situation is the systemic fear of litigation from the agencies employing the officers, leading the officers to feel that they will be "hung out to dry" in an effort to protect the agencies' own interests.
The reluctance by officers to respond with force when required to can lead to catastrophic outcomes resulting in death or serious injury to the officer or innocent parties. Non-action can even engender litigation, criminal and/or regulatory charges, all resulting in the quintessential "Catch-22"--you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.
Given that the bad guys have now succeeded in adding yet another issue that causes our reaction time to slow even further, litigaphobia is the genesis for what can be referred to as "Criminal Complacency" (CC). CC occurs when the bad guys become emboldened by the knowledge that the police are too afraid of lawsuits to use force justified by the incident.
In a recent Winnipeg Free Press article entitled "Officers Enduring More Attacks," reporter Mike McIntyre identifies 240 documented cases of assaults against Winnipeg police officers last year. This number does not sound as profound until you remove administrative officers that do not work the street from Winnipeg's total force. You are then left with approximately 600 officers, which equates to a disturbing 40% that are being assaulted.
Even justice officials are noticing the increase in assault cases against officers. "This is completely unacceptable and, unfortunately, becoming more and more prevalent" says Judge Richard Chartier. His comments came after having just sentenced a woman for assaulting a police officer who was trying to take her to jail after fearing she would pass out and freeze to death last winter.
There have been several police shootings where the suspects' action left no option for officers but to respond with deadly force, even though it was obvious that the malefactors would not win. Later investigations revealed no signs of mental history or psychosis. Many times these actions are labeled "suicide by cop," even though there was nothing other than the person's actions in that specific incident to indicate that they were suicidal. In these cases, CC may be the unexplained factor in their behavior.
CC can present itself anywhere along the use of force continuum.
If you speak to retired or senior officers with over 20 years of service, they will tell you that it was rare for a suspect to swear, belittle, or argue with police. They had been accustomed to, with few exceptions, people that were compliant. Speak with an officer with less than five years on the job, and you will find a dramatic contrast. They will tell you that they routinely encounter suspects that verbally assault officers.
Spitting, shoving, grabbing, and even punching officers is becoming commonplace. Armed with the knowledge that the officer is reluctant to physically back up his commands, the criminal element seizes the initiative and strikes first. More often than not, the officer's unwillingness to use the force necessary gives the bad guy the advantage.
This hesitation has spawned this new phenomenon--suspects that are dumbfounded when the officer does use force to defend themselves or control the subject. Arrestees frequently say things like, "They're not allowed to touch me!" or, "I pushed an officer before and nothing happened." The bottom line is that criminals have become complacent enough in their belief to think that the officers will not respond with force. Would these same individuals walk up to an outlaw motorcycle gang member and assault them, thinking that there would be no reprisal?
Suicide by cop, recognized in scientific journals since 1985, explains most irrational acts that result in the death of some despondent and/or criminal types. However, there are a number of cases that do not seem to fit into either the homicide or suicide by cop model. These cases involve individuals who arm themselves with an edged or impact weapon and create a stand-off situation with police. They taunt police with the weapon, sometimes advancing on the officers to the point of having the officers respond with gunfire.
In the resulting investigations, no evidence is found to suggest that the suspect was suicidal, or had expressed a desire to kill a police officer. Instead, the suspect taunts the officers, edging closer and closer until the officers feel their lives are in jeopardy and respond accordingly. Suspects who have survived these situations related that they did not think the officers would shoot, or that they were just trying to scare the officers away.
Ultimately, police must respond appropriately when they feel that their life or the life of another is in danger. Officers cannot try to be psychologists and attempt to determine if the suspects' actions are a display of criminal complacency, suicide by cop, or mental instability, as this can put them and others in harm's way. They need only form the reasonable belief that the threat is real and that force is necessary to stop it.
If you, or any officer that you know of, has witnessed an example(s) of Criminal Complacency, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is the first step in an attempt to quantify data in support of this new phenomenon.