When use-of-force policies go too far

Ever since the first officer pinned a badge on his chest, police use of force has been a hot button issue. Often what civilians see as excessive use of force really isn't; anyone who has ever tried to subdue a violent and uncooperative subject or combative addict can attest that appearances can be deceiving. It's not always as black and white as it seems.

That's not to say that there isn't such a thing as excessive force. I've witnessed it myself and it's something no decent officer should ever condone or ignore. There is such a thing as taking the governance of force too far. When departmental policy endangers officers and hinders them from properly doing their jobs, then maybe it's time to rethink.

That's what Seattle officers believe has happened to them. Seattle's current use-of-force policy grew out of an agreement adopted by the city and Eric Holder's Justice Dept., following complaints of excessive force by the Seattle department. Officers believe that the new policy prevents them from doing their jobs and restricts their abilities to protect themselves, while opening civilians as well as officers to unnecessary liability and risk.

Civil rights advocates cheered the policy change, but police soon found that they were unable to complete their missions without exposure to unnecessary injury. And while I applaud the adaptation of a use-of-force policy—I believe every department should have one in place to cover themselves from a liability point of view—sometimes these regulations are constructed by people who have no clue what it's like to have to react in a split second.

At the time of this writing, over 120 members of the Seattle PD have filed suit against their agency, their city, mayor and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder because they believe their own government is making it more difficult for them to do their jobs without placing their lives at risk.

We've all seen takedowns that constitute overkill. It's particularly egregious when dozens of officers, like those who become involved in a vehicle chase, jump on one lone guy to cuff him—that's where a supervisor needs to step in and control the scene. It doesn't take 14 people to put the cuffs on one suspect; civilians watching at home or at the scene can understandably misinterpret the presence of so many officers in such a takedown as excessive. While that's bad for the department's public relations, officer and civilian safety must come first. 

I've reviewed the Seattle PD's use-of-force policy. On its face, the policy seems reasonable...until one starts looking at all of the criteria officers must consider before deciding how much force is appropriate. Believe me when I say they are complicated. I don't see how any officer, based on those regulations, could adequately manage to assess the threat level in the short amount of time he or she has available in these situations.

Many years ago officers trained hard to ingrain in us automatic responses to danger. We had to make accurate, rapid judgments to prevent loss of innocent life or endanger ourselves. That hasn't changed, but officers in Seattle are now required to make snap judgments based upon 10 pages of regulations (plus several outside links to additional material). At this rate, Seattle will lead the nation in officer losses, and that's one record no department wants to claim.