Law enforcers lost another warrior last month. A Chicago police officer was fatally shot in the head after a struggle with a bus passenger who was causing a disturbance. Somehow the belligerent woman was able to disarm the 27-year veteran and use his own service weapon to end his tour of duty - Permanently.
When a brother or sister in blue gives the ultimate sacrifice, there is quiet mourning among police officers. The sergeant’s read a synopsis of the incident during roll call and we all pay homage somberly in our own thoughts. Even in our silence, we try to learn the lesson from the fallen officer. Many times we gain meaning from suffering by systematically dissecting the scenario from a tactical perspective so we can learn from the tragedy. When tragedy strikes, we are reminded once again that going home every night is not an absolute guarantee.
The woman who shot that police officer was wounded as well. When back-up police officers arrived at the scene, they ordered the woman to drop the weapon and she threatened them. They fired at her, striking her several times. She survived the multiple gun shot wounds and is still recovering from her injuries. The media swarmed the friends and family of the hospitalized woman and there was one statement from a family member that caught my attention. With the microphone in his face, he stated, “I don’t know why those police officers couldn’t have just shot the gun out of her hand - - there was no reason to shoot her like they did.” I laughed out loud right there in my living room. Not at the circumstances but because I was astounded at the notion that the man didn’t feel as though her pointing a weapon at the officers and threatening to shoot them didn’t give them reason to fire upon her (especially given the fact that she had just shot a police officer moments before). More intriguing to me was his idea that the officers should have shot the gun out of her hand. And just as officers can learn from these circumstances, so can the public.
When confronted with a resisting subject, police officers apply the force continuum. It is a standard that provides law enforcement officers with guidelines as to how much force may be used against a subject in a given situation. The continuum model is depicted in an escalating visual and the concept is that a police officer may use the level of force matched by a subject’s resistance. The officer need not move through each level of force before applying deadly force – the final level - but instead they must choose the appropriate level of force in response to the subject’s actions.
If that conceptualization is too textbook, think of a ladder. At the bottom rung, there is police officer presence. When you see a uniformed police officer simply present, that is normally enough to keep the peace. The next step up on the ladder is verbalization. For the most part, a police officer’s verbal commands satisfy a reasonable, law abiding citizen to comply with the law. Verbalization also applies to arrest situations in that the directive to place your hands behind your back usually gains compliance by the subject being arrested. Contrary to popular belief, this is how most encounters go in the course of a police officer’s tour of duty.
Now consider that the subject does not comply with verbal commands. Suppose a police officer’s command to comply with a lawful arrest is ignored by the offender and when the officer attempts to handcuff them, they resist by attempting to get away or striking the officer. We now move up the ladder on the force continuum and can apply physical means necessary to subdue the individual. Usually this level requires physical contact to control the subject’s movement.
Escalated threats require that we move up the ladder to control the threat. A subject that is combative and violent against a police officer or other member of the public thereby placing them in danger of harm requires that we use an impact weapon, TASER or OC spray. The subject’s actions must be assessed by the police officer and considered a necessity for gaining compliance. Deadly force is the final rung as we move up the ladder and is justified only under conditions of extreme necessity as a last resort. Simply put, when the person is believed to be an immediate danger to others around them, officer’s need not begin at the bottom of the force continuum. Rather, officers must meet and exceed the threat level. Officers are not trained to shoot weapons out of people’s hands or shoot to injure. Television depicts a very unrealistic view of police work in that sense. If an officer discharges their weapon, there is an imminent threat of death and they must eliminate the threat in order to save their own life or someone else’s. This may give you an insight into the minds of those police officers who used deadly force against the Chicago woman.
Police officer’s receive much scrutiny after utilizing deadly force and rightly so. Because police officers are given the power to take away freedom and life if necessary, their actions should be assessed and justified. The average police officer spends much their career using the appropriate judgment and applying force reasonably and responsibly to de-escalate situations. We never want to resort to deadly force but we are mentally and physically ready to do so if it means protecting you or your loved one from harm.
*This column appeared in the Beacon News in August