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Keys to Winning with Use of Force: A Four-Step Plan

Written by Randy Means

This is the second in a series of five articles describing strategies to reduce the need for use of force, limit exposures to liability, and positively influence perceptions of force events.

Key #1: Managing Emotion

The first key, managing emotion and interpersonal communication, significantly influences each of these concerns. Policy, training, assessment, supervision and discipline in this area are vital to appropriate force management.

An officer’s self-awareness and management of his emotional state are critical, both to communicative de-escalation prospects, and to the officer’s ability to use force reasonably. All veteran officers can recall a skilled partner’s use of “people skills” to calm a heated conflict and eliminate or reduce the need to use force. They have also watched a backup officer whip a situation that was under control into an all-out brawl. The difference between these outcomes lies significantly in the officers’ ability to manage emotion.

Unchecked by self-intervention techniques, officers in conflict-ridden circumstances can find their ability to think rationally to be hijacked by their emotions. The emotional brain (limbic system) takes over, and the rational part of the brain has little control of what they say or do. Communication suffers; potential for unreasonable force abounds.

Key #2: Recognizing Our Emotional Response

Like the sounds that constantly surround us but that we only “hear” when we focus on them, emotions often remain subconscious unless we place our attention on them. Officers need to consciously “listen up” to their emotional state when dealing with situations or people that are likely to trigger anger, fear or contempt. This is a “gut check” in the literal sense of the term; many strong emotions will change our gastro-physiology and thus how our stomach feels.

At first, an emotional gut check on the way to, or in the midst of, a high-risk call takes effort. With practice, the officer will make this a routine part of his tactical response. Just like taking a moment to scan a location for threats or opportunities on approach to a hot call, it will soon be second nature for the officer to scan his own emotional landscape for readiness.

Rising emotion will also drive us toward action. The dump of adrenaline common with high emotional arousal produces the inclination to “do something—even if it’s wrong.” Although that may be good advice if you have frozen during a lethal encounter, as a regular decision-making strategy, it is likely to lead to error and wrongdoing. Self-monitoring allows the officer a split second to think through tactical response choices that may increase or decrease officer safety and effectiveness.

Key #3: Monitoring Our Thoughts

Once having recognized emotional arousal, the officer should seek to identify the source of the emotion and its usefulness or validity. Human beings constantly judge people, things and concepts. The process is automatic, natural, and a powerful influence on how we respond.

Monitoring our thoughts to screen for counter-purposeful beliefs and assumptions keeps officers’ actions balanced in dealing with the emotions often in play during use-of-force decision-making. To use force reasonably, it is essential to keep the rational component of our brains operating at maximum capacity even under stress.

Self-talk is a term which describes the unconscious dialogue that goes on in our minds. Self-talk is a powerful influence in maintaining balance and perspective. Let’s look at an illustration of how the officer’s self-talk and perspective keeping will affect the force used to overcome resistance.

An officer is escorting a previously fully cooperative handcuffed arrestee who balks and stops walking while approaching the correction facility’s exterior door. The officer who takes just a moment to check his own emotion and use reason would ask why the arrestee has stopped. There are many valid reasons why the arrestee might not want to take another step toward the correctional facility. They include general fear, even dread; recognition of consequences; or a specific concern unknowable by the officer.

Regardless of the reason, the officer who has the “people skills” to listen to the arrestee’s concerns may well be able to gain compliance without physical force. However, if the officer is not monitoring his emotion, his first response may be an emotional self-talk like, “He’s resisting me! Does he want me to make him go through that door? He thinks he can pull this crap and get away with it? I’m going to set him straight right now.”

At no time did the officer lose physical control of the prisoner. In the end, the arrestee is going through the door—both the officer and the arrestee know that. The difference is, in the first case, the officer checked a perhaps natural reaction to overcome passive resistance with physical domination. The self-aware officer is able to maintain both physical and emotional control. By managing his own emotion and communication, he is far more likely to positively influence the arrestee’s emotion and gain voluntary compliance.

Key #4: Interpersonal Communication Skills

Interpersonal communication skills are the most powerful tool in the officer safety toolbox, according to a national survey of thousands of veteran officers. The results of this survey validated one old street-wise firearms instructor’s remark during a training session long ago: “If you don’t know how to listen to people and treat them with respect, you’re likely to get hurt, no matter how good you are with a gun.”

There is a widespread myth that good people skills are innately part of one’s personality and that, consequently, “You either have them or you don’t.” In reality, with effort, any motivated person can improve his interpersonal communication skills. It is a behavioral matter that does not require a personality transplant.

The moment an officer arrives on scene, the communication process begins. The officer’s non-verbal behavior is viewed and interpreted by all present. These first impressions lead to a series of rapid judgments by citizens who are typically favorable or unfavorable, rarely neutral. The officer is also reading the citizens’ non-verbal cues as he approaches. Facial expressions convey emotion; humans are hardwired to observe and interpret what a face is saying.

Fact situations may slightly alter what an officer should project with his non-verbal communication, but essential to a professional command bearing is the projection of competency, fairness and respect. The officer who telegraphs anger, fear, contempt, impatience or disrespect is likely to have them returned in kind.

Effective communication is the main key to minimizing the frequency and degree of force necessary in managing conflict. Without communication, there is little opportunity to manage behavior without the use of force or the threat of force. Communication allows for clarification of situations, reduction of misunderstanding, cooperation in finding solutions, and introduction of reason into the resolution of emotional encounters.

Officers who are patient and practice effective communication techniques are often able to lead emotionally charged people to non-physical outcomes. These officers enjoy far better officer safety odds than those who (often quite willingly) join the emotional fray. They also reap the benefits of increased investigative effectiveness and efficiency, which flow from better cooperation, more consent and more confession.

Arguing with a citizen is almost always counter-productive to law enforcement objectives. Arguing is the opposite of effective listening. Listening in an effort to find a point of agreement is a useful alternative. Identifying a point of agreement can often create a sort of ground-zero from which to build up communication, then rapport.

In some cases, de-escalation efforts will fail, and force must be used. Even when communicative efforts fail, the positive impressions made with witnesses and others in the community will often lead to helpfully adjusted, more positive perceptions of the officer’s force. Even when it fails, the effort often pays off.

Law enforcement leaders at all levels should embrace the need to help officers, especially the many young males swimming in testosterone, to manage their emotions and associated communicative behaviors. Appropriate guidance, counseling and accountability in this vital area are critical to appropriate management of the use of force.

Randy Means is a partner in Thomas & Means, a law firm specializing entirely in police operations and administration. He has served the national law enforcement community full time for more than 30 years and is the author of “The Law of Policing,” which is available at LRIS.com. He can be reached directly at rbmeans@aol.com.

Greg Seidel is the director of training for Thomas & Means. During his 25-year career with the Petersburg, VA Police Bureau, Captain Seidel has led his agency’s tactical team, investigation division, Office of Internal Affairs and Training Bureau. He is a certified instructor in firearms, fitness, and chemical and less-lethal weapons. He can be reached at gregseidel@thomasandmeans.com.

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2010

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