Cutting Edge Training

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Force is 'Outcome-Based'

by Tom on October 20, 2010 07:31

During a “routine” response to a call for service, Officer Johnson detains a subject for further investigation.  As the questioning progresses, the individual becomes more and more evasive and contradictory.  Eventually, the officer establishes that he has probable cause to arrest the suspect.  During the arrest process, the suspect resists by first struggling, and then thrashing about and trying to hit the officer with his arms in a bid to get away.  With no backup officer present and the situation getting more and more out of control, Officer Johnson feels he needs to get the man down on the ground to gain some control over the situation.  He tries a "takedown technique" several times, but the suspect defeats every effort.  The situation is getting a bit desperate.  Johnson wraps his arms around the suspect, driving him to the ground.  The subject lands on his elbow, shattering it, suffering what will be a lifelong injury.  Officer Johnson immediately radios for an EMS response and a supervisor to respond.  In his narrative arrest report, Officer Johnson does a good job of articulating the factors in his force decision-making, as well as his actions post-force to get the suspect treatment.

Officer Johnson’s takedown, while objectively reasonable under the circumstances, is not considered by his agency to be an “approved” technique.  He is deemed to have been "out of policy," and therefore his force was "excessive."  He is disciplined.  Officer Johnson appeals the suspension, but loses because his agency points out in arbitration that the agency force policy requires only approved techniques be employed in the arrest of a resisting suspect.  Agency civil attorneys, as a result of the disciplinary findings, eventually negotiate a six-figure settlement to the plaintiff's tort claim.  Officer Johnson and his fellow officers become even more hesitant and uncertain about responding with force as a result of the administration's actions--morale problems deepen. 

This scenario, played out in too many jurisdictions, begs a huge question:  How can it be that an officer can “reasonably” respond with force but still be “out of policy” by employing a technique that is “not approved," thereby creating the situation where the force was "negligent"?  Many agencies have bought into a concept of “correct” or “approved” techniques—generally to their officers’ and the agency’s detriment.  Some agencies break this down further into varying categories, “approved,” “approved but not completed,” and “not-approved but reasonable.”  And, of course, “not approved.”  This drive to create a system of utilizing only approved techniques does not comport with federal or even state laws regarding officer force response.  In fact, it creates an artificial liability, both to the agency and the officer.  This is a concept that should reviewed, critiqued, and finally abandoned by law enforcement.


That officers respond with force to suspect resistance and assault is an activity that is not questioned except by the most radical citizens in our country.  As a matter of law, the police force response is governed by the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution as interpreted by the US Supreme Court in Scott v. Harris (2007) and Graham v. Connor (1989).  In fact, the matter of what constitutes “excessive force” is well settled and is defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as “force which is not justified under the circumstance known to the officer at the time.”  Again, the matter of judging how the officer responded with force, the duration and level of the force, as well as the injuries inflicted versus the reasonably perceived threat is clearly spelled out.  Force is, in a phrase, “outcome-based.”

Nowhere in Scott (or in Graham) is there mention of “proper” or “approved” technique.  Nowhere is there a discussion of what the officer might have done differently that might have been less intrusive.  Instead, the inherent wisdom of Scott tells law enforcement that if the officer’s force response was objectively reasonable when the balancing test of "the likelihood of injury to the suspect is balanced with the reasonable perception of threat to the officer or others" is met, based upon the totality of the circumstances known at the time.  Graham asks us to look at the totality of the facts as well, including (but not limited to) the severity of the crime at issue, the immediate threat of the suspect, and the active resistance to arrest or attempt to escape.  If the officer's actions in response to a reasonably perceived threat is reasonable (NOT perfect, but reasonable), then the force response cannot be excessive.  The Court, in these and subsequent cases, fundamentally defines how an officer’s force response should be evaluated. 


As already noted, there are no requirements in any case law to use techniques “correctly.”  To require officers to utilize any technique denies a fundamental truth about real world force.  In the real world, a police force response is not a logical series of moves that automatically results in overcoming resistance.  Instead, a fight is defined by Cutting Edge Training as “a series of mistakes corrected as you make them.”©  Every fight is series of rapidly presented and ever changing problems to be solved.  Every physical struggle is dynamic and unpredictable.

Techniques, however, require time to develop and unfold.  Each "move" within a technique is a vital "linchpin"--if any move fails or is missing, the entire "technique" fails.  This means that as the officer is in the process of applying the series of moves comprising the technique against a real-world resisting suspect, the situation can completely change, rendering the need for that specific technique moot.  Generally, techniques require the cooperation of the suspect to be successful because of this—officers just cannot react quickly enough to the situational changes to make the technique work.  If, in the middle of the “second move” in any technique the subject moves his body, the technique fails.  The officer either improvises—and risks being out of policy—or regroups and tries to figure out another technique to apply as the suspect is in the midst of violently taking advantage of the first technique’s failure.  The idea that officers should use only “proper technique” puts officers’ safety in serious jeopardy.  It just isn’t practical in the real world.  Techniques nearly always fail given the slightest resistance by the suspect. 

Techniques are also complicated and difficult to remember--especially so in the heat of combat.  This is because each is designed to be applied to one specific attack or situation.  The unique situation calling for a "rear wrist lock" is not the same as an "outside twist lock," which is not the same as that calling for a "front goose neck" which is not the same as a any other situation calling for a specific, unique response.  The reality is that we can teach officers 3, 30, or even 300 techniques specific attacks.  How does one remember even 30 techniques that must be perfectly performed when a suspect is attempting to injure the officer?

Additionally, most of these "techniques" were not designed to "control" another human being--they were originally designed to injure, break, and kill a soldier on a battlefield, and were only adapted to civilian use (and, decades later, to police training) as a method of training in the martial arts without injury.   This creates contextual problems for any application of technique.  Taking anything out of context generally renders that object or concept null and void.  For instance, attempting to take a technique that is designed to permanently disable a limb by breaking bones or dislocating joints, and then modifying it as a "pain compliance" method fails for several reasons. 

  • Ancient military application would call for the enemy warrior to first be injured in some manner, through a strike by a weapon or punch or kick.  This gives the warrior time to complete the series of moves needed for the "technique" and disable the limb.  The warrior would quickly follow up with a killing blow to dispatch the enemy before moving on to engage others enemy soldiers.
  • Diluting a method of breaking or killing into something that it was never designed to accomplish has huge unintended consequences.  Officers are trained to employ techniques on suspects who are uninjured and physically fresh.  The suspect is free of psychological or physical impediments, enabling him/her to resist the series of movements required for a successful technique.
  • The now-hybrid technique intended to "control" an individual permits the suspect the ability to unexpectedly escape--often easily--is completely ineffective for its intended purposes, unless the suspect is too injured or too fatigued to continue resisting. 

Further, this adaptation of a technique from "breaking" an arm to "controlling" an arm through pain requires the suspect's cooperation.  The suspect must honor the pain without going beyond the limits of the body's structure, or the arm breaks.  Whenever this occurs, the officer is predictably accused of employing excessive force. 

This concept of teaching "techniques" that are now "approved" fails any test of reality:

  • The defense and control situations that officers face are literally infinite, and the limited number of techniques of any system cannot address all of the variations officer face.
  • How is any officer with an average of 80 hours of training can instantly recognize any situation and then instantly select the correct response and then instantly respond?  They cannot.  It takes time to respond, and then time to apply the technique, causing most techniques to fail.
  • Techniques are designed to teach "principles"--not to be employed "as-is" on a resisting suspect.
  • Techniques routinely--almost universally--fail when the subject upon which they are being used resists in any manner.

Reasonable force is, instead, about recognizing that human beings in uniform realistically respond to the chaos of real-world assaults and resistance with levels and durations of force that are justified by the situation.  For example, given a suspect who is threatening to “fight” with an officer who has just arrested him, one officer might attempt a limb restraint.  Another might try a takedown, while others might spray him with OC or use a TASER to subdue him.  All are reasonable, although some are less tactically sound than others.  The only caveat for evaluating force is reasonableness based on the totality of the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time. 

Real force against a living human being who is motivated to resist being taken into custody and who may elect to injure or kill the arresting officer(s) is definitely not a static event.  Its inherent dynamism requires constant improvisation on the part of the arresting officer who has scant fractions of seconds to react to protect himself and/or impede the suspect's efforts.  Techniques, approved or not, fail any test in the real world where they are supposed to be applied. It is a false standard that cannot stand any type of "reality test."


There is a large segment of law enforcement, encouraged by vendors supplying training (who have a financial interest in remaining the "approved training source"), that has bought into the concept of evaluating force based on “proper” or “approved” technique.  This is a concept--especially in agency policy and court testimony--that should be abandoned because:

  • Requiring an officer to respond only with an “approved” technique is not realistic.  The human condition and the limits of police training cannot respond to infinite number of attacks and resistance they face with specific counters and counters-to-counters and counters-to-counters-to-counters, ad infinitum
  • Officers are routinely forced to improvise in their force response efforts.  This need for improvisation routinely surfaces in almost every defensive tactics situation where a suspect resists.  This means that officers cannot realistically use “approved techniques in even a majority of arrests.
  • Civil liability is increased in situations where officers achieve reasonable conduct but violate artificial policy restraints.

To be successful, techniques require a perfect application of force in a perfect situation under perfect circumstances.  If any factor fails in its perfection, the technique fails and the officer is forced to improvise.  Instead, officers and their force response should be judged by the objectively reasonable standard described in Scott and Graham.  This standard is based on the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time, rather than on a technical standard based on the concept of an ideal application of force that regularly fail in the real world.  Through this standard, every interested party benefits.  Force in America by police is judged from its outcome.  The officer is more fairly judged in his or her work product, the agency does not manufacture liability where none exists, and the suspect, protected by the reasonableness requirements of the law, remains the "architect of his own fate" and responsible for requiring the officer to respond with force.