JUSTIFIED: Are You Serious? The Balancing Act of Persuasion, and Reasonable Force

By Fred Leland

Seattle police say they'll review police tactics and training after an officer was shown on video punching a young woman in the face. Everyone reading this article should take a look at this video before continuing. It’s provided at the link above.

This incident has been in the news all week and has been called a vicious assault even by media outlets that are very pro-police, including one of my favorite commentators Bill O’Reilly, who also stated accurately that “police are trained to show restraint.” My respectful reply to Mr. O’s opinion, vicious assault it is not and restraint the officer did show.

This incident and the punch thrown may be ugly and it goes against normally teaching in society when it comes to a man hitting woman and it is indeed not where we in policing want to see circumstances escalate to. But it is in my view in this situation a reasonable use of force.

A punch is part of an officers reasonable response options and can be used in an effort to gain and maintain control of assaultive people. This situation was indeed escalating from uncooperative person(s) to an assaultive person(s) and it needed to be stopped before it escalated to a real vicious assault leading to more serious injuries or innocents hurt.

My writing here is to focus on the balancing act of persuasion and force, how difficult it can be and the gap between police who on occasion have to use force and those who view, are affected by or report on its use. There are also lessons to be learned for all cops who deal with conflict and violence. My viewpoint on this is coming from viewing the video and reading news reports. I do not know the background of the officer involved so, I am making my opinion here based on the available information.

Circumstances leading up to the punch

Prior to the video the officer observes a jaywalker, yes a jaywalker. My understanding is that the officer was assigned to this particular area because the city has had people killed in accidents while jaywalking there. The officer while speaking to the initial jaywalker, observes two young women jaywalking, one 17 the other 19 years of age. He has them stop so he can talk with them during the conversation. One of the women says she is going to leave and the officer advises her that she must stay. She begins to walk away and the officer stops her. This is when the video comes into play.

The video begins with the officer holding the 19 year old woman up against the patrol car and the woman shouting for the officer “get the @#ck off me” and she begins to actively resist the officer by pulling away.

The officer grabs her arms in an effort to control the woman’s hands. She continues to shout obscenities at the officer while resisting his efforts to control her. About this time the second young woman a 17 years old gets involved trying to break the officer’s grip. She is quickly grabbed by a bystander who attempts to pull her away only to have her pull away and again attempt to break the grip of the officer unsuccessfully. She then moves around the woman in the officers grasp and pushes him back off balance.

The officer responds instantly with a punch to the 17 year olds face knocking her back. The officer pursues and immediately deescalates his level of force while the second woman is now on his back assaulting him. The 17 year old who was punched was pulled away by a bystander. The officer then is able to get the second woman off his back and gains the advantage but struggles to handcuff for another minute or so, the original 19 year old.

This was a clear effort in my view on the officer’s part not to hurt her, despite being outnumbered by at least one more person and a crowd of bystanders with unknown intent walking around, not happy with the officer’s choice of force options. Neither young woman was ever taken to the ground, never sprayed with OC, never Tasered, never hit with a baton and never punched again after the initial punch was thrown in response to a push that knocked the officer back and caused him to lose control of the original person he had custody of.

In the end the officer arrested both woman and no one seriously injured but the incident has sparked again the debate over police use of force. The troubling aspect is in my view this incident and the level of force used is minor. This showing a great disconnect between police and the community on how and why police use force. It also shows in my view a seemingly escalation in incidents where people are becoming uncooperative with the police when they are only trying to protect and serve the communities they work in. In the end the cops in this scenario was there to help keep people safe from traffic related fatalities. I simple conversation or perhaps a citation for jaywalking would have been the most that would have happened if those being stopped by the officer cooperated.

This incident although not pretty, is clearly a reasonable and justified use of force.

The lawfully authorized and legitimate purposes for use of force are.

  • Self defense
  • Defense of others
  • Effect an arrest
  • Prevent an escape
  • Overcome resistance

The officer in this case meant these requirements.

Force is never pretty!

No one wants to see anyone have force used on them, especially young woman 17 and 19 years of age. As a cop I will speak on behalf of the cops I know. Cops are the last people who want to use force most became cops so they could help people, that’s their main reason for getting into this job, to help others. Yet the image of police is often they somehow enjoy it or relish in using force. This could not be further from the truth. The vast majority of police will risk their lives in an effort not to use force, but every once in awhile someone decides to take it to a higher level and force must be used. Also every once in a while we have a rogue cop who is out on the street trying to prove himself and overreacts in his efforts to do so. I do not see that here in reviewing this incident. I see a cop trying to do his job using the escalation/de-escalation principle to gain control.

The fact is cops have little direct experience (unless of course you’re a TV or Movie Cop) in dealing with violent people. Most of their contacts with people end without incident. Why? Because most people respect the law and the uniform that represents it. Most cooperate with the police and the interaction never goes beyond verbal communications. This is both a credit to the cops on the street and to the citizenry.

The two women in this incident were young but they were also non-cooperative and resisting the officer. They did not respond to verbal directions. They both became verbally and physically resistant. In short they became unarmed assailants and posed a danger to the officer. Forget about the movies and your egos people. Any cops on the street will tell you being outnumbered two to one, is bad and potentially dangerous news. Yes even with woman assailants. They are stronger and tougher than most think and can do you harm.

Reasonable force to be used in this case (non-cooperative to unarmed assailant) could have been anything from escort positions, distraction techniques, compliance holds, punches, kicks, takedowns to include possible impact weapon takedowns, chemical sprays and or the taser. Communication and verbal persuasion is a constant throughout the use of all levels of force. These options were all reasonable, until the officer perceived he had control and then obviously he must deescalate and maintain a level of control.

Other Lessons learned from viewing this video

In the aftermath of an incident any and all tactical dispositions and movements can be shown to be gross errors, just as they may be judged brilliant in the event of victory. ~Edward Luttwak

Dealing with uncertainty is one of the fundamental challenges of tactical decision-making. The fact is conflict is full of unrealistic inconsistent and apparently impossible happenings. It is important to take the scenarios on their own terms. We are professionally obligated to do whatever we can to gain whatever experience we can without paying full price. That is precisely why we study past incidents.

  • The officer was alone, no backup. This seems rather foolish and unsafe on the part of the leadership to send a single officer into a neighborhood or area known to have numerous bystanders and pedestrians. At least this appeared obvious to me from the numerous people in the video. Having this in mind the single officer should have focused on one person at a time and forget about those crossing while already engaged with another. Jaywalking is a minor civil infraction although apparently in this area has serious implications death by accident and hence the need for a public safety response. But let’s never lose focus we can only do so many things at once. We must know when to engage and when not to.
  • Officer’s communication skills were weak. I could not really hear the officer communicating, at least not to an effective level. I did hear “do not struggle” but that was not done in the form of effective dialog, it was more or less done in the way he was trained. You know…tell them to STOP RESISTING, DO NOT STRUGGLE it sounds good to those onlookers. Although this method of shouting orders is in reality an ineffective method where instead a true back and forth communication and negotiations may have deescalated the situation. After all communication is a sound and powerful tactic when cops have the social skills and know how to implement when the heat is on. Do we have a lack of training in this area of policing? In my view we do and we need to get better at it.
  • Why did the officer not get some help from bystanders? Again I do not know the neighborhood or the relationship the police have in the neighborhood but the old adage ask and you shall receive may have been helpful here. You may be surprised at how people may be helpful in this situation. Despite the numerous people around and those videotaping the incident and I think would be a concern to any police officer engaged in an altercation, I did not see anyone else attempt to harm the officer. I did see on at least two occasion someone pull one of the non-cooperative assailants away. A sign in my view a request for assistance may have been useful here?
  • Small things like jaywalking can evolve into conflict and then as shown in this video, escalate to violence.
  • When circumstances do escalate and turn for the worst, 1 cop and two young women not cooperating with a crowd gathered is a potentially dangerous situation.
  • The cop’s mindset is on resolving the problem but also is greatly concerned about his own safety.
  • People cannot and should not push or shove the police, they cannot push or shove anyone... It’s called assault and battery.
  • In my view from looking this video over the officer was originally trying to control the situation with simple control measures such as hands on the wrist in an effort to gain control with reasonable force. The second woman in the pink shirt comes over and begins to grab at the officer and then pushes him. The officer responds instinctively with a punch. He then deescalates to hands on again. Although the punch has gotten a reaction we should all expect...PEOPLE don't like it especially seeing a young woman get hit by a man, in this case also a police officer. We have been raised, men do not hit woman. But in the policing world sometimes woman do get hit. They are often times a lot stronger than expected and can be dangerous if the situation is allowed to escalate.
  • The question is not, is the force used in this incident right or wrong, but is it reasonable under the circumstances? As a use of force trainer my view is it was indeed reasonable. Not pretty, not what we like to see or want to see but in the real world when people do not cooperate and escalate verbally and physically with the police, these things happen despite our best efforts, despite this officers best efforts to the contrary. When people fight! People get hurt, they get hit, kicked, bit, and knocked to the ground, banged up, cut and bruised and at times broken bones and in those extremes cases sometimes they die. It’s the reality, the real world cause and effect of violence. Pretty it is not! That why we try and avoid it and use force as a last resort.
  • This does not look to me like a rogue cop wanting to hurt someone. It looks like a cop trying to do his job, a difficult one made more difficult by lack of cooperation on the part of the jaywalkers. If there was cooperation I submit it would have never gone anywhere near that far.
  • In the heat of escalating conflict we do not process information like we do when watching the video. While we watch the video from the comfort of our seats we observe it and analyze the incident in a nice linear way. We can look at over and over and wonder why it happened.  This is good but we must consider the circumstances in their entirety, and in the moment. To those involved in the heat of it, in real time, things are taking place in a nonlinear and more complex, unpredictable way. Neither the cops nor the young woman are thinking in logical way. Emotions take control and we go into survival stress mode (fight or flight) and react intuitively to the circumstance. In this case conflict escalating towards violence.
  • Yes the police are trained but not as highly trained as people may think or like to think. Then consider the fact that the police despite television and media reports use force in less than 1% of all contacts. So direct experience in dealing with violence is not as prevalent to the police as most people think. Here there is a huge disconnect in the community and their perception cops are highly trained and an even bigger disconnect within police ranks who see training as an extra when we have the money for it type of asset. Training is more important than equipment when it comes to dealing with people. We must close this huge GAP in the community and within our own ranks. Training must be ongoing and consistent and based on the fact that we cannot predict all the types of problems our officers will have to solve so we must train officers who can succeed in almost any situation. We must develop full spectrum walking, talking, thinking and acting cops!
  • Do cops need to be better trained? YES. Does this mean these types of incidents will disappear? NO. Conflict and violence are just too damn unpredictable and complex to ever get to zero defects and have all cooperate. A sad truth. But we can get better much, much better. Better through adapting our strategy guided by persuasion first and force as a last resort, to include developing high standards of training that enhance persuasion and defensive skills as well as social skills and decision making abilities. Effective training allowing frontline officers to operate in a full spectrum way guided by outcomes that get results and support throughout the community. We win on all levels the moral, mental and physical because our actions are understood as justified!

I would love your thoughts on this incident and my review of it. There are numerous lessons to be learned. Lesson learned from your insight. Sound off in the comments section.

Stay Oriented!

Fred