11 THINGS I WISH I KNEW ABOUT MY CAREER IN LAW ENFORCEMENT WHEN I FIRST STARTED
As I look back at my law enforcement career, spanning over 30 years, I can’t help but recall how much I didn’t know about working in the public safety community. I was kid who loved every job I ever had from digging ditches to mowing lawns. I had a strong sense of duty and a conviction to serve those around me. So, armed with a saying from my Granddad, “Do it before they ask you to and do more than they ask you to”, I left Ridgewood, New Jersey and set out on my professional voyage. Here are the 11 things that I wish I knew about my career in law enforcement when I first started.
1. The military and martial arts set the stage.
Two weeks after graduating from Hiram College, where I received a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education, I joined the military – Marine Corp Recruit Depot, in Paris Island, SC. The code of personal integrity, honor and duty were deeply instilled at a young age and so I excelled among my fellow cadets. I was promoted meritoriously to Private First Class, won the Dress Blue Honor Man Award, was awarded the American Spirit Honor Medal from Congress, given to 1 in 10,000 Marines, and was the first person in the history of U.S. Marine Corp to achieve perfect proficiency and conduct evaluations. These early honors cemented the notion that hard work and dedication truly pay off.
Doing the right thing when no one else is looking is a cornerstone of the Marines and it guided my actions as I pursued martial arts. As a 5th degree black belt, I reveled in the discipline and self-control martial arts offered. Unexpectedly, martial arts opened the door to collegiate classrooms where I taught classes in the physical education department. I spoke in front of and taught students at Kent State University, Hiram College and Ursuline College. I eventually owned my own martial arts school, but my family was growing to include 4 little girls and job security was calling. So, I began my law enforcement career with the Portage County Adult Probation Department, on a state grant supervising adult felons. While in this position, I attended basic peace officer training at night to obtain my certification. I then worked for the Portage County Sheriff’s Office, Robinson Memorial Hospital Police Department and the City of Kent Police Department
2. The scope of responsibilities at the OPOTA was staggering.
After five years working as a police officer, I was hired at the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy (OPOTA) which is a section of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. I started as a training specialist, instructing in the areas of use of force, defensive tactics, ASP baton, weapon retention/shot avoidance, physical conditioning, officer survival, communication tactics and leadership. As my experience evolved, I became the chief defensive tactics/subject control instructor for the state and was responsible for conducting train the trainer classes. From 1987 – 2009, I trained every trainer who conducted basic law enforcement, corrections, bailiff and private security training throughout the state. I was sent to Kentucky and West Virginia to conduct train the trainer classes in those states also.
3. Graham v. Connor laid the ground work for my training path.
The Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 104 L.Ed 2d 443, 190 S.Ct. 1865 (1989) created the standard that all law enforcement officers must follow in the use of any type of force against a citizen in the United States. The Supreme Court stated, “All claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force – deadly or not- in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other ‘seizure’ of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its ‘reasonableness’ approach”. The Court stated, “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. The calculus of reasonableness must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments, in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”
To put this into language that made sense to me, I likened these findings to the rules in the game of football. Nearly everyone has watched a football game and while some understand the rules better than others, we all can agree that when we see someone commit a foul, like taking a player down by their facemask, we know that it is wrong. It can also be said that the reasonableness of the penalty varies depending on which side of the stadium you are sitting, home or away. The term “reasonably objective” was subject to individual interpretation and I intended to discover if my definition matched those of the trainers and law enforcement officers that I was training.
4. What if I was wrong?
When you teach subject control techniques you must put them in context of when those techniques are appropriate. Basically, any move done at the right time is right and any move done at the wrong time is wrong. What if the context in which I was teaching techniques in was wrong? That would mean that I was not just screwing up Ohio, I was screwing up multiple states.
To valid that the subject control techniques I was teaching were sound, I had no choice but to tackle the question, “What is reasonable?” At the time Graham v. Connor decision was rendered, I had the opportunity of speaking in front of thousands of law enforcement officers each year. In an effort to discern what the law enforcement community, at larger, believed were reasonable responses to resistance, I developed a survey. I surveyed individual officers to determine what techniques they considered reasonable in response to the actions of the subjects they were arresting.
5. Conducting a survey revealed ground breaking insight about law enforcement.
It is difficult to be overly scientific about a confrontation mainly because no two situations are the same. Each has a unique location, time, circumstance and officer/subject variables. The thing that is universal in all confrontations is the movement of the human body. If you read any police report you will see something along the lines of, “he pushed me so I…”, “he punched me so I…”, “he reached for a weapon so I…”
With this in mind, I created an open-ended survey in which I asked officers what they considered to be reasonable responses in scenarios from a person not responding to an officer’s commands escalating up to a person using a weapon against an officer. The first three thousand surveys I conducted verbally in person so that the questioning would be consistent. I recorded the officer responses by hand because back then computers were in their infancy and financially out of the reach of a training officer. What I discovered was that officers were not clones, but their beliefs of what constituted a reasonable response to resistance from a subject were strikingly similar. At this point, I knew that I was on to something. Despite the many changing variables in a unique situation, the officers seemed to agree that a given perceived threat constituted a similar and reasonable use of force.
6. The Action-Response Continuum came to life.
Armed with three thousand survey responses from law enforcement officers, I developed the Action-Response Continuum, a pictorial representation of what was said to be reasonable response to resistance, assault and aggression. The Continuum listed the officer’s responses based on the amount of resistance encountered by an individual’s actions. The officer would choose the reasonable response to gain control of the situation based on departmental policy, his or her physical capabilities, perception, training and experience. As the individual’s actions became more aggressive, the officer’s responses, or use of force, would increase with the goal of maintaining or gaining control.
7. The research process is detailed and my findings needed to be vetted by the experts.
The Action-Response Continuum was gaining popularity, but I wasn’t completely convinced that I had fully answered the question, “What is reasonable?” Thus, I made a formal inquiry to the Ohio Attorney General asking if I could conduct research on the use of force topic. The decision was that I could do the research, but it would not be funded by the office, I would have to do it on my own time, the respondents must be anonymous and I could share the research results if I chose to. How could anyone turn down such a sweet deal? I bought my first computer, a used Apple that used floppy disks and continued with my survey process.
For more in depth results, I conducted a joint research project with the U.S. Justice Department, National Institute of Justice. The individual assisting in the research processes had the results vetted in the PhD Program at the University of Cincinnati. I conducted a national survey through Police magazine and another through AFSCME Corrections United. The research has been presented and peer reviewed by the American Criminology Society and the Academy of Criminal Justice Science and presented to the National Association of Attorney General’s (NAAG) on two separate occasions.
8. Civilians and the law enforcement community held similar belief systems.
As the survey numbers grew the variance in the officer’s opinions remained relatively constant. It was then that I decided to expand the survey to include civilians; those that we had sworn to protect and serve. This caused concern to many of my law enforcement friends. They were hesitant to learn what civilians would say. My response to them was, “If what I am teaching law enforcement officers is offensive to the public or contrary to their belief of what is reasonable then we are in deep trouble because they are the ones who will be on our juries.”
I went anywhere a speaker was wanted; Rotary Clubs, Optimist Clubs, high school and college government classes, even St. Rita’s School of the Deaf. I would always say to them, “Ladies and gentlemen. We are going to discuss what could be considered to be a negative topic; the use of force by a law enforcement officer. It is our job to protect and serve you. What I would like to hear from you is if you believe that what I am training your officers is reasonable and acceptable to you or does it offend you?” I would then survey the audience.
Consequently, the results for both law enforcement and civilians were analyzed and compared. Amazingly, there was very little disagreement or variance between what citizens and trained officers believe were “objectively reasonable” responses when viewing the exact same scenario regardless of race, age or gender. In other words, people instinctively knew what was reasonable when they saw it. In fact, current survey data reveals less than a 1% variance regarding responses that are considered reasonable when an officer is confronted by a suspect using hands, fists, feet, knives or a firearm to seriously injure or kill.
9. My research and training quest would catapult me into the court room.
Utilizing the survey results from more than 60,000 respondents, I began offering Expert Witness services. I have successfully outlined for juries how and why the actions of an officer were “objectively reasonable” responses to resistance and aggression given a certain set of circumstances. I have testified in more than 350 law suits throughout the United States in defense of police and correctional officers and their respective organizations. This includes 120 law suits relating to the use of a firearm by the officer(s). Often, in a law suit there are multiple factors and arguments, but in terms of “force issues” when the Action-Response Continuum has been followed the officer has been vindicated.
10. The climate between civilians and law enforcement would deteriorate dramatically.
When I began my law enforcement career, I took an oath, like all officers, to protect and serve. Never did I imagine that the motives of the public safety community would be under such scrutiny. Nationally, there are no guidelines for what constitutes reasonable responses to resistance, assault and aggression. Imagine going to the football game, mentioned earlier, where each team has their own rules for how to play the game or worse, there are no standard rules at all. This is the current, national situation for the public safety community. Nearly all departments have an established Response to Resistance/Aggression Policy, and it is safe to say, that each policy difference from one state to another and even one department to another.
11. Recent events have motivated a national push for unity and transparency.
The survey process has now gone on for over twenty five years. The survey tools have evolved and modernized, but the premise and motives of the survey have remained the same. The survey number is now in excess of sixty thousand respondents. My focus now is to “even the playing field” by establishing national guidelines that define what are reasonable responses to resistance through the Response to Resistance Survey.
The Response to Resistance Survey was created to support the public safety community and aid their efforts to safeguard the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect. My goal is to capture over 1 million survey participants. The current national turmoil regarding the purported disproportionate use of force by law enforcement against minorities is fueled by the fact that there is not a hard and fast definition of what constitutes “objectively reasonable force” or how “reasonable officers” respond to resistance, assault and aggression as mandated by the US Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor. Armed with survey responses from civilians and law enforcement officers throughout the country, we can establish these national guidelines.
The database is growing daily as more individuals and police agencies take the RTR survey atwww.responsetoresistance.com/take-the-survey.
If you would like more information about the Response to Resistance Survey, please visitwww.responsetoresistance.com. If like what you have read, please share my blog.