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Monday 05 May 2003

The Problem With Non-Lethal Force

The problem with non-lethal force is that it’s specifically intended to be a low-intensity kind of thing, so it winds up getting used more casually, and in more situations, than is good or necessary. Most if not all law-enforcement agencies in the United States have a policy of using ‘non-lethal force’ to subdue suspects. Presumably ‘lethal force’ means shooting someone, and ‘non-lethal force’, while actually being a catch-all term, seems to mean ‘pepper spray’ almost all of the time.

The police have always had non-lethal force at their disposal, of course: the billy club. But even with euphemism (in the Rodney King trial, the act of smacking Mr. King on the head with a stick was referred to as ‘delivering power-strokes with the baton’), it’s an inherently violent, aggressive act, and it looks extremely bad on TV (cf. Mr. King). On a practical level, it also requires the cop to get extremely close to the suspect and thus to expose himself to possible injury, and it’s certainly possible to permanently injure or even kill someone with the ‘non-lethal’ nightstick.

So the pepper spray has certain advantages: the officer can stand at arm’s length and subdue the suspect, and there’s little or no chance of permanent harm to the sprayee.

But precisely because the use of pepper spray is so simple and innocuous, it seems to be used by the police as a first resort and in situations where there’s no need for any force, even ‘non-lethal’.

This story of a recent police encounter in Fort Lauderdale is interesting:

A deputy used pepper spray on a 12-year-old girl and wrestled her to the ground when she ignored repeated orders to stop jaywalking, the sheriff’s office said Friday.

Jaywalking. The very definition of an absurdly minor crime. To be sure, jaywalkers put themselves and others at risk, and they can tie up traffic, but jaywalking is hardly the kind of offense that merits being maced.

Ah, but there’s more to the story:

The girl also walked away and ignored four more orders to stop and put her hands behind her back, he said.

The girl […] threatened to hit Roberto and rolled her hand in a fist, the report said. The deputy repeatedly warned her that he would use pepper spray if she didn’t listen.

Well, that’s different. This person was threatening to assault the officer. Being a cop is a risky job to begin with, and there’s no reason why the police should take any more risks than they have to. But wait — I deleted a passage in the second paragraph there. Let’s see what the original said:

The girl, who is 5 feet 1 inch and 134 pounds, threatened to hit Roberto […]

Ah. Hm, well now. That puts the risk to the officer in some kind of perspective, doesn’t it?

(As an aside: the article also says:

Deputies seeking to stop accidents along busy Federal Highway have been ticketing Olsen Middle School students for the past several weeks.

— Which would seem to indicate that there’s a significant need for the students to cross the road there. It’s far easier and cheaper, though, to write tickets and mete out non-lethal force than it is to actually adapt the human habitat to the needs of the humans.)

I’m not saying that this jaywalking girl didn’t deserve to be arrested, or that the police officer in this particular case was necessarily overreacting by using pepper spray; I wasn’t there. But this is hardly the only incident within recent memory of police using what seems like excessive force, but this use being silently accepted because that force is ‘non-lethal’.

To name just one example, last year, a Washington Redskins football game was delayed when police used pepper spray to subdue a disturbance in the stands, and the fumes drifted onto the nearby field and incapacitated a number of players. No arrests were made in the incident, and since there were a number of police officers within pepper-spraying range (and thus well within eyewitness and identification range), I have to conclude that these people weren’t doing anything that was actually illegal. Nevertheless, the police felt justified in using a weapon (albeit a non-lethal one) that causes significant collateral damage (drifting spray) when used on a large area.

The police — too many of them, anyway — aren’t using the pepper spray instead of clubbing or shooting someone, they’re using it instead of negotiating. It makes the job easier, and wraps up things a lot more quickly. The cops probably believe that this hair-trigger approach will result in people being more submissive, but past experience would seem to indicate that it’s going to result in a general escalation of hostility. If the scofflaw public starts to believe that any encounter with a cop that’s less than perfectly harmonious is highly likely to result in a pepper-spraying (or a taser-ing, or any one of a number of other non-lethal responses), they’re going to be much more likely to come out shooting in the first place.

Posted by tino at 00:01 5.05.03
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Your article appears to portray police officers as people who are afraid. It is important, however, to remember they are just people. Unfortunately, due to the decay of society, increased demand for officers, but lack of enough people to hire, who have not done drugs, or been convicted of disqualifying crimes, we are left with not the most physically and mentally capable of beings, in many cases. We only have those who are not disqualified from the profession, and fewer who are actually qualified.

Posted by: Dan Glenn at April 8, 2004 11:58 PM

This is an interesting story and, I’m quite sure only one of many hundreds or thousands of such stories. There will always be examples of officers ready and willing to “shoot first” when non-lethal options are available. I am a law enforcement officer myself and I beleive this shoot first mentality is more a result of inadequate training and casual interpretation and applicaton of policies on the part of the individual departments. The Federal agency I work for emphasises in our use of force training that our most useful and powerful weapon is located between our ears. Tactical communication when skillfully employed can most often eliminate the need for force, but it takes practice and training to develope those skills. Having said that there is still a very large portion of the response options model of incident management and intervention that calls for non-lethal options. I mean, given the options of engageing hand to hand, deploying spray, or using your side arm which would you rather do? We also need to examine our societal norms and demands of society on law enforcement. Would tax payers prefer to see an individual officer engaged in tactical communication with a subject for two hours, or do they want that officer to bring the situation to an immediate close? Personally I support non-lethal force options but we must work toward striking a balance between using them post-haste and waiting until it’s too late. Every department should review every use of force. Not in a disciplinary manner, but in a search for the balance that I mentioned. Questions like ‘was this forced used to avoid an escalation of force, or to avoid injury or unwarranted risk to the officer or the public, or was it because the officer can’t afford to spend all day with a single situation’? If we know what our priorities are, what society expects from us, provide quality training to our officers and have effective response options available, there’s no reason why we can’t strike that happy balance.

Posted by: Kevin at May 16, 2004 10:56 AM