Officers too often escalate incidents with citizens

The Justice department released the conclusions of its civil rights investigation of the Cleveland Police Department yesterday. Techdirt reports on some of what it says.

The DOJ’s report opens with the de rigueur statements about how dangerous policing is and how grateful the nation is that there are men and women willing to do this difficult job. But this is mercifully brief. The token belly rub doesn’t even last a full paragraph. The generic praise that makes up the two first sentences is swiftly tempered by these curt sentences.

The use of force by police should be guided by a respect for human life and human dignity, the need to protect public safety, and the duty to protect individuals from unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment. A significant amount of the force used by CDP officers falls short of these standards.

And one more thing – the need and duty to minimize the damage done by their use of force; see previous post.

The next page briefly summarizes how the CPD falls short.

The unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons;

The unnecessary, excessive or retaliatory use of less lethal force including tasers, chemical spray and fists;

Excessive force against persons who are mentally ill or in crisis, including in cases where the officers were called exclusively for a welfare check; and

The employment of poor and dangerous tactics that place officers in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable and places officers and civilians at unnecessary risk.

That’s no good. Law enforcement isn’t warfare. They’re not supposed to be trying to kill us or take us out. They’re supposed to use the minimal force necessary, not the maximum possible.

The pattern or practice of unreasonable force we identified is reflected in use of both deadly and less lethal force. For example, we found incidents of GDP officers firing their guns at people who do not pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to officers or others and using guns in a careless and dangerous manner, including hitting people on the head with their guns, in circumstances where deadly force is not justified. Officers also use less lethal force that is significantly out of proportion to the resistance encountered and officers too often escalate incidents with citizens instead of using effective and accepted tactics to de-escalate tension. We reviewed incidents where officers used Tasers, oleoresin capsicum spray, or punched people who were already subdued, including people in handcuffs. Many of these people could have been controlled with a lesser application of force. At times, this force appears to have been applied as punishment for the person’s earlier verbal or physical resistance to an officer’s command, and is not based on a current threat posed by the person. This retaliatory use of force is not legally justified.

The bolding is Techdirt’s, I think.

It sounds all too familiar. Cops lose their tempers when people disobey them. I can sort of see why they would, up to a point, but the fact remains that that’s not part of their job and not what they’re supposed to do. The report makes clear that they’re trained to de-escalate, not escalate, but that’s not what happens.

People who want to be cops aren’t the kind of people who should be cops, it appears.


  1. karmacat says

    I didn’t do any digging for information, but I was wondering what percentage of the police force used excessive force. It is common for people to displace their anger onto someone else, especially if they see that person as the other. There is also an impulse to punish others especially if you feel out of control of other aspects of your life. I do think cameras would be helpful because hopefully it makes a person stop and thinking about what he or she is doing. Of course, they also need to hold these cops accountable for their actions

  2. quixote says

    About this whole idea that it’s “understandable” that police use excessive force when they’re angry, frustrated, dissed, whatevered.

    Yes human beings react that way. That’s why we have laws against that kind of thing. And the police aren’t paid for understandable human reactions. If that was all we wanted we could save a boatload of money and just have people do citizen’s arrests when they felt like it.

    They’re paid precisely because they’re supposed to be trained professionals who can keep their understandable reactions to themselves. (Like, say, teachers or lawyers or doctors.) They’re paid to maintain the peace. Escalating, rather than de-escalating, is the exact opposite of what they’re paid for.

    None of this is remotely difficult to understand. So the only reason why it seems forgotten must be “People who want to be cops aren’t the kind of people who should be cops.”

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    I first noticed that we live in a police state in the US about 1976. I was 16, and since then, it has been my consistent experience (except for, like, 3 times) that, whenever pulled over by a police officer, the officer is invariably confrontational, aggressive, and abusive. I’m a skinny lady, BTW. Also, when in court arguing a traffic ticket, the court will almost always take the police officer’s account as fact and rule against the civilian’s account. Even when the civilian presents an overwhelming case, the best s/he can hope for is to get the case “continued” (or something), where the civilian pays the same amount as the fine for being found guilty, but the details don’t go anywhere other than the court so long as the civilian doesn’t get in any more trouble within a specified time frame. So the best you can hope for is to be fined and put on probation, effectively. For having been unjustly charged.

  4. karmacat says

    I didn’t say that the cops’ behavior were understandable, just that it is common. People can change this but it takes the ability for introspection and wanting to change. That is why I think body cameras are a good idea. People tend to behave differently if they think they are being watched. Although body cameras won’t make a big difference if the cops are not held accountable for their behavior.

  5. says

    No, I said it, or half said it.

    But quixote makes a good point. It reminds me of this scene from the latest episode of Madam Secretary, where very dramatic things are discussed and explained [unspecified here because spoilers] that the Sec of State had known all about for weeks and the chief of staff had not. He, the chief, asks her, the sec, how she could have just gone about her business all that time. She gives him a “what can I tell you?” look, and throws up her hands a little, and says “It’s what they trained me for.” She had been an intelligence agent.

  6. Crimson Clupeidae says

    The quote, for those who may not be able to see/read the image:
    “There is a reason you separate the military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state. The other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, the enemies of the state tend to become the people .”

  7. quixote says

    (Karmacat I wasn’t jumping on you at all! Although I realize now it might have sounded like it. 🙁 The post and your comment just reminded me of what I’ve been hearing and how much it annoys me.)

  8. smrnda says

    I think a problem is the type of people likely to be cops are pea-brained authoritarian thugs. They want a job where they get to react to ‘disrespect’ with violence. You see this in disproportionate response. Judges have at times argued that it’s a tit for tat ‘street justice.’

    Any nation where cops or judges even talk of ‘street justice’ is a nation run by thugs. If a cop can’t accept taking a few hits on occasion, they have no business on the force.

  9. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    They’re paid precisely because they’re supposed to be trained professionals who can keep their understandable reactions to themselves. (Like, say, teachers or lawyers or doctors.) They’re paid to maintain the peace. Escalating, rather than de-escalating, is the exact opposite of what they’re paid for.

    Thank you. This is what I’ve been too exhausted to try to explain to people that I see who still don’t get it. Unfortunately “whatever gets me home safe at the end of the day” is a common phrase I’ve seen brought up by cops and people familiar with the profession. But this is not their job description. Any more so than it is for a firefighter. And they are supposed to be held to a higher standard than a civilian with regards to abstaining from their natural violent impulses in order to serve the public. We have this weird hero-worship/fetish in the US where police (and military) are supposedly superhuman but can’t possibly handle the expectation of exercising restraint once they are wound up.

  10. A Masked Avenger says

    My theory, which is mine, is this: cops are psychologically screened not to be nice, stable individuals, but rather to be just sociopathic enough to obey any command without question, but not quite sociopathic enough to go on a freelance murder spree.

    The state needs a certain level of sociopathy, because it might command them to arrest pretty much anyone for pretty much any reason, and it expects them to do it with all necessary force, even if it means killing a little old lady with cancer for smoking weed (if she resists arrest). But of course it only wants cops to exercise force when ordered to do so, so it needs cops not to be complete psychopaths.

    The corollary of my theory, which is mine, and is known as “my theory,” is as follows: it’s pretty damn hard to find someone who is just sociopathic enough. So a fair percentage of the time, there’s going to be freelance criminal activity. If the state were to crack down too hard on that, then they might end up with cops that were not sociopathic enough to do their jobs.

  11. AsqJames says

    Uncle Ebeneezer:

    Unfortunately “whatever gets me home safe at the end of the day” is a common phrase I’ve seen brought up by cops

    They may tell you that, but if so they clearly haven’t thought through the longer term implications of the kind of actions it is used to justify.

  12. karmacat says

    Thanks Quixote says. I was over-worried about being misunderstood. I hope all this discussion will lead to improvements in police behavior and eventually more trust in police.

  13. mildlymagnificent says

    The report makes clear that they’re trained to de-escalate, not escalate, but that’s not what happens.

    I don’t think they are trained to de-escalate. I think they’re trained to neutralise, pacify, “take control” of potentially or apparently dangerous situations. Most importantly, they’re not trained to be patient or to hold back, let alone to retreat temporarily, to see better opportunities for the person to calm down or for police to approach safely.

    The Australian police force, the Victorians, which used Americans for a few years to train officers had far and away the worst figures for shooting people dead for several years. They only improved once they abandoned that training process and had to retrain the whole force in more appropriate, safe and sane approaches to mentally ill and criminal people alike. You don’t need to be trained as some kind of super-duper negotiator extraordinaire. You just need to be the calm, authoritative new person into the situation that everyone can depend on. Surely the best motto for people with lethal power at their disposal should be Speak softly, and carry a big stick. Everyone already knows you have the “big stick”. There’s no need to rush about or shout or wave your weapons around or otherwise big note yourself,

    Too often I see US police officers as impatient, intemperate exacerbaters of situations that, as often as not, were not dreadfully dangerous until their inappropriate intervention. Even if it is really dangerous, as it can be with domestic violence, drug-addled or psychosis affected people, ordinary policing skills should be about everyone getting home safely, not just the police.

  14. paulhavlak says

    “People who want to be cops aren’t the kind of people who should be cops, it appears.”

    I’ve seen several reports lately by ex-cops, who left police work because of the abuses. There may be plenty who want to be good cops, but not enough police departments they can stomach working in.

  15. sonofrojblake says

    You just need to be the calm, authoritative new person into the situation that everyone can depend on.[…] I see US police officers as impatient, intemperate exacerbaters of situations

    This is clearly the police horse that the people of the USA want. Because if it wasn’t, they’d do what the Australians did, and change it. The interesting thing is that, to Australians, lots of people being shot dead by the police is a bad thing. It’s a thing that needs something doing about it. It’s a problem with the police, but a fixable one. To USAicans, lots of people being shot dead by the police means more bad guys off the streets, i.e. a good thing. Of the two, I know where I’d rather live.

    We have this weird hero-worship/fetish in the US where police (and military) are supposedly superhuman

    And as long as that continues, as long as that impatient, intemperate attitude is the approved model behaviour for a police officer, then excessive horse will continue, and body cameras won’t make a scrap of difference. There was clear video recording of Garner’s last moments, with zero negative result for anyone involved. This sends a clear message.

  16. Dunc says

    Something that occurred to me out of the blue last night… Remember the original Robocop movie? Remember ED-209? That thing now looks positively benign – it only attacked people who were actually armed, and even then it gave 20 seconds warning before opening fire. We’re now at the stage when regular policing makes a malfunctioning, homicidal killbot from a dystopian future look cuddly.

  17. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    @sonofrojblake- I read a good point the other day by Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money that argued that while cameras will likely not be an (ahem) silver bullet for the problem, their presence will at the very least keep the public informed enough to get outraged to hopefully spur at least some change in the right direction. Without footage there would be no protests, no riots, no conversation, no white people getting nervous etc. As bad as LAPD is, they are apparently much better than they were 20 years ago and it looks like the outrage and riots after the Rodney King trial (acquitting the officers) played a non-trivial role in spurring that change (with a generous helping hand from the horrible PR that the Rampart scandal brought a couple years after.)

    But yeah, generally I agree the big problem is that the US police are doing exactly what they were designed to do and have done historically: oppress and victimize PoC and the poor. And too many Americans are just fine with that, or even cheer it on.

  18. octopod says

    I really don’t understand why so many Americans are OK with this. My theory is that a lot of people don’t actually interact with police often enough to have even noticed the extent of this problem; well, they’re noticing now, or else having to engage in active denial to avoid doing so. I suspect that the civilians who don’t interact with police have been easier to persuade that the civilians who do have regular hostile interactions with them are “bad guys”, or that the one hostile traffic cop they interacted with was a fluke, especially if the civilians regularly interacting with the police are socially distinct from those who don’t (due to socioeconomic and/or racial segregation, network effects, all that business.)

    (sonofrojblake, you might want to check your autocorrect so it stops slandering police horses. I’m sure mounted police cause lots of trouble, but their horses, at least, haven’t engaged in any disproportionate force that I know of!)

  19. freemage says

    Cameras actually serve a dual-purpose. In every area they’ve been introduced, there’s been a dramatic drop-off in complaints against the police. While obviously the inhibiting effects of the cameras helps rein in the abusive cops, it ALSO serves to quell frivolous or unjustified complaints. So both legit incidents of abuse AND bogus claims of abuse go down, and the remaining abusers are more easily identified and held accountable (assuming the existence of a halfway decent system of doing so, of course).

    And that’s important right now, not only because of the direct effect, but also because both parties–the cops and the disenfranchised communities–can build a relationship based on trust. Once you have that trust, it makes efforts like community policing and oversight boards feel more legitimate, as well.

    One other form of escalation besides the obvious also needs to be mentioned, though. Anyone remember the African-American Harvard professor who got arrested after neighbors reported him for breaking into his own house? The cop in that situation very deliberately committed a form of escalation. To-wit, as the homeowner was ripping him a new one inside, he asked the professor to step outside so he could hear him better. However, once they were outside, the professor’s angry tone and volume were able to be dubbed “disturbing the peace”, creating an arrestable situation where none had existed before.

    There’s a ton of situations where the phrase ‘police discretion’ comes into play. That needs to be winnowed down as much as possible. Traffic stops are particularly bad in this arena. I’m white, male and can at least pass for middle-class, even at times when my income has dipped a bit. Despite looking like a hippie, my car has never been searched during a traffic stop, nor have I been held for drug-sniffing dogs to come and ‘trigger’ on their handler’s cue.

  20. Pierce R. Butler says

    I – as usual – blame tv.

    Once I happened to sit in on a brainstorming session, the host of which had the assignment of writing a script for a police show. The first rule of the series: the top cop could never, not for a second, be wrong about anything.

    Those who watch more tv than I do (i.e., any) may correct me on this, but I have the impression something similar is implicit in the majority of such propaganda entertainment. Even real-life cops, the ones who should best know better, probably pick up some of that premise.

  21. says

    Oh yes, I remember that all right, it was Henry Louis (Skip) Gates, one of the best-known and most mediagenic Harvard professors there is. He and the cop sat down with Obama for a chin-wag afterwards.

  22. mildlymagnificent says

    Something sonofrojblake said prompted a weird memory from a non-cop TV thing I saw quite a while ago. The topic under discussion was not police but firefighters. A woman who was supposed to be some kind of psychologist argued that the death and injury rate for American firefighters was higher than for firefighters in other countries. She attributed this to a US “hero complex”, which wasn’t effectively trained out of firefighters, making them liable to put themselves in unnecessary danger.

    I recall thinking that I should check out that statistic some time. Never did, and it’s probably out of date now even if it was true. But I wonder if “hero” individuals with too few opportunities for being a real hero urge too many cops to behave provocatively in order to put themselves in a situation where they need to take extreme action. Of course, this is a failure of management where they don’t perceive cop behaviour as a problem even when it’s obvious to everyone that it is. The “hero” thing comes into play when you see all those claims about cops being willing to “put their lives on the line” every day, when that simply isn’t true. Being a cop in the USA isn’t even in the top ten dangerous occupations, and most deaths of police on the job are traffic accidents anyway.

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