Why We Don't Shoot: The unwritten use of force policy

This is an excellent article that is spot on!

Training Contributor

I’m not going to get myself into a jam. If they don’t want aggressive cops, I’m willing to spend my twenty just showing up when I’m supposed to and not making any waves while I’m there.

That was from a cop who spoke with me confidentially during one of the breaks from a recent training session. As much as I tried to counsel him about the need to do the right thing, he was adamant about giving the bosses what they wanted. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this same rhetoric from a number of cops, and quite frankly, it disturbs me.

I wrote about this situation September 2006 in an article for Officer.com entitled, Your Personal Deadly Force Policy (linked below). I discussed the fact that each of us work from two different sets of guidelines, the first being your agency’s deadly force policy, the second, and oft times the stronger of the two, is your own belief system. What you deem to be right or wrong, moral or not, ethical and fair – in other words your own personal deadly force policy (think… What would it take for me to shoot someone?). Sometimes there is a huge chasm between the two policies, causing conflict, which in turn affects our response time. That endangers not only us, but our partners and the people whom we are sworn to protect.

But let me posit this theory: I submit that we operate on the street each day juggling three deadly force policies – that’s right – three. The first one is our agency’s official/written policy, the second is our own deadly force policy, and the third, is our agency’s unwritten use of force policy. Think about the implications… many of us are handcuffed by the need to have to think about consequences before we ever take any action. This certainly has an adverse impact on our performance and can lead to a poor or possibly deadly outcome.

What is an unwritten use of force policy? It starts at the street level. We either hear about, or know someone, who got caught sideways in a situation where he was ostensibly correct in his actions, but wound up taking some type of heat as a result. It could include anything from being saddled with a bad reputation (either among the bosses or street guys, or both) to administrative or criminal charges being placed. Remember, the charges need not be proven. The fact that they were lodged is enough.

The next level is the supervisory one. We’ve all seen bosses who constantly advise their troops not to be too aggressive, i.e., don’t pull your weapons if you don’t have to, don’t be overly assertive. If you hear that kind of garbage every day, pretty soon you get worn down and tend to heed your supervisors’ words. You find it easier to coalesce with them than to constantly be reminded or perhaps even written up.

Finally, the administration is the last level where we’re influenced and become inculcated to the unwritten use of force policy. We see our brass at press conferences or at community meetings, abdicating our police responsibilities in order to assuage the squeaky wheels. In a sense, the leaders of the department are facing a deadly force situation of their own, albeit the weapon they face is public opinion, rather than an actual gun. When confronted by activists or media, do they shoot, or turn and run? Sadly, we see many of them choosing the latter. When we watch the news or read the paper and discover that our bosses have suddenly morphed into spineless caricatures of themselves, it doesn’t take much for us to lose confidence. Pretty soon we find that many of our colleagues adopt the same mindset as the brass, and bit by bit we lose power, as well as the tools that will help us maintain control of our assigned areas.

For example, I’ve seen the shotguns go from the front seat, to the trunk, to the sergeants’ trunk, and finally back to the station. Tasers have been issued only to be taken away when a complaint is lodged, or the news picks up a loud-mouthed Tasered subject and runs with the sob story. The template is always the same – innocent honor student who’s never been in trouble… blah, blah, blah. In some instances, Tasers are placed in sector cars. That makes quick deployment impossible. Other times the decision to use a Taser on one’s duty belt becomes a group decision – the officer must clear it with a supervisor before deploying it. It all flies in the face of common sense and practical police procedure. Our goal as cops should be to streamline protocol, not add to it.

But this third use of force policy, this unwritten rule forged by bosses too scared to stand up to outside forces such as the media and/or city fathers, seems to be taking precedence over the other two. If you have to patrol and not only look out for what the bad guys might do to you, but also your own bosses, it becomes an exercise in futility. What’s the sense of even trying?

Yet we know that many of us are warriors at heart. We only know one way to do our job and that’s one hundred percent. We’ve adopted the ideology expressed in the famous quote from Admiral Farragut during the Civil War, Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead! We do the job in spite of the obstacles placed in our way. We are focused; we are dedicated. Our strength lies in the righteousness of our actions. With St. Michael leading us and God watching from above, we will be victorious.

Stay safe, brothers and sisters!


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