Part 1 of a 2-part series
Civilians who judge the reasonableness of your use of force, whether they’re members of the media, of a review board, of a prosecutor’s staff, or of a jury, are likely to bring a welter of highly distorted beliefs to the process because they’ve undergone thousands of hours of “training” based on fantasy rather than the “seething ferocity and violence” of street-level reality.
The perpetrators and victims of these misconceptions “do not understand or appreciate the physics and dynamics of how force works,” says Det. Cmdr. Jeffry Johnson of the Long Beach (CA) PD, author of a recent insightful report on force mythology. This “can lead to serious problems” because the same real-life force incidents that are viewed by law enforcement as perfectly reasonable may be seen by many gullible but influential civilians as unreasonable and excessive, “particularly in high-profile or video-taped” encounters.
“Police officers often forget that most people do not share their experience and knowledge of how force works,” Johnson writes.
Moreover, as Johnson can testify from harrowing personal experience, otherwise savvy officers themselves sometimes unwittingly buy in to some of the common civilian delusions. And this can lead to potentially dangerous expectations, confusion, and loss of confidence in the midst of life-threatening confrontations.
What’s needed, Johnson believes, is for the policing profession to work more diligently to educate the public–and itself–about force truths, while simultaneously reasserting its rightful role as interpreter and arbiter of what constitutes reasonable force applications.
Johnson’s report, titled “Use of Force and the Hollywood Factor,” first appeared in the Journal of California Law Enforcement. You can read it now in its entirety on the website of Americans for Effective Law Enforcement:
Twenty-five years ago, public perceptions about LE force were “not a major issue,” Johnson writes, because “few people had seen an actual use-of-force incident.” If a force application was scrutinized, “it was normally done on the basis of a police report or witness testimony.” He told Force Science News, “People didn’t see the starkness and ugliness of force. And it is ugly. There’s no way you can make it pretty.”
Beginning with Rodney King, the increasingly ubiquitous video camera has effectively taken “the force incident off the cold, sterile pages of the police report and brought all of its seething ferocity and violence into the living rooms of the general public,” Johnson notes.
This has produced core conflicts between unappetizing street truths and the sanitized depictions with which people have been indoctrinated since childhood by movies, TV, and now video games. People “truly believe they understand” how force works and should look, based on the thousands of fictional versions they’ve seen, Johnson explains. “Many also base their ideas of the rules, laws, policies, and morality that govern police force” on these same perceptions. But…they’re dead wrong.
Johnson identifies 3 predominant Hollywood myths impacting the public view of force reasonableness:
THE DEMONSTRATIVE BULLET FALLACY
In other words, bullets vividly demonstrate when and where they strike a human target because the subject “will jerk convulsively, go flying through windows [or] off balconies, or lose limbs, and there will immediately emerge a geyser of blood spewing forth from his wound…. This concept is reinforced by various firearm and shooting magazines that discuss and propagate the idea of handgun ‘knockdown power’ and ‘one-shot stopping power.’”
Johnson experienced this myth first hand as a patrol officer the night he and his partner were threatened by a shotgun-toting, PCP-fueled hostage taker. “I was shooting with a .45-cal. Colt revolver, a gun I thought would blow him off his feet, and nothing happened. I put 4 rounds in him–broke his femur and penetrated his heart–but there was no movement I could see and no blood. It was extremely traumatic. I thought the only way I could stop him was to put a round in his head,” which Johnson, a master shooter, managed to do with the last bullet in his cylinder.
Other officers with similar experiences have told him how startled and stressed they were when their expectations of instant stopping proved false in the middle of a gunfight.
On the other hand, officers sometimes react to receiving fire “based on how they believe the dynamics of the force should work rather than how they actually do.” For example, the Secret Service agent who famously took a .22-cal. bullet for President Reagan “jerked quite noticeably as he observed the bullet strike him in the lower torso.” Johnson has seen the Demonstrative Bullet myth “even among armorers and range officers,” he told FSN.
In reality, as an FBI report on the subject put it, “A bullet simply cannot knock a man down. If it had the energy to do so, then equal energy would be applied against the shooter and he too would be knocked down. This is simple physics, and has been known for hundreds of years.”
Indeed, “the ‘stopping power’ of a 9mm bullet at muzzle velocity is equal to a one-pound weight (e.g., a baseball) being dropped from the height of 6 feet,” Johnson writes. “A .45 ACP bullet impact would equal that same object dropped from 11.4 feet. That is a far cry from what Hollywood would have us believe.
“[U]nless the bullet destroys or damages the central nervous system (i.e., brain or upper spinal cord), incapacitation…can take a long time,” easily 10-15 seconds even after a suspect’s heart has been destroyed. “[T]he body will rarely involuntarily move or jerk, and usually there is no…[readily evident] surface tearing of tissue. Often there is no blood whatsoever…. [A]n officer can easily empty a full 17-round magazine before he or she observes any indication of incapacitation.” With more than one officer shooting, “that total may reasonably increase exponentially.” This contrasts sharply to the “‘one-shot drop’ mentality the movies have created.”
Too often officers’ judgment is questioned when it appears they have fired “too many rounds” at a suspect, Johnson charges. He recalls the controversial case of Amadou Diallo, at whom 4 NYPD officers shot 41 rounds, resulting in “serious rioting, public protest,” and criminal charges against the officers. A medical examiner testified that Diallo was still standing upright when most of the fatal rounds hit him. “Do you think an understanding of the Demonstrative Bullet Fallacy might make a difference in the way the public views such incidents?” Johnson asks.
THE CODE OF THE WEST
“From the earliest days of filmmaking, Hollywood has instilled in us that there is an unwritten code that all good guys must live by,” Johnson writes. “The code may not always make much sense in the real world, but it has created an implied expectation for real law enforcement.” He cites 9 examples related to force, including:
- Good guys never have the advantage. “[F]ate places them in hopeless, outgunned situations from which they ultimately triumph.” With this mind, how can an officer reasonably strike, pepper spray, or shoot an unarmed suspect?
- Good guys are always outnumbered. “The image of the lone hero facing numerous villains is pervasive in the movies. The real-life spectacle of numerous officers standing over a suspect, attempting to control him (e.g., Rodney King) just feels wrong, based on this standard.”
- Good guys are never the aggressor. Yet in real life, “officers must often be the aggressors to maintain control.”
- Good guys never shoot first or throw the first punch. In real life, an officer “must anticipate a suspect’s actions” and not wait until “incapacitated by a bullet or knocked unconscious by a punch.” To effectively control a volatile situation, an officer may need to take down, electronically neutralize, or even shoot a suspect before the subject has shown any physical aggression. “[T]his will always look bad to untrained” observers.
- Good guys will always outlast bad guys in a fight. Actually, an officer has only “a short time–maybe a couple of minutes–to gain control of a suspect before the officer’s energy is spent, placing him or her at a dangerous disadvantage.” Officers in a protracted struggle may need to use “increasing levels of force…the closer they get to their fatigue threshold.” Once that threshold is reached or passed without the resisting suspect being restrained, “the officer may easily be overcome, then injured or killed.”
- Good guys never shoot a person in the back. “This may be the best-known and most oft-quoted Code of the West…proof that the shooting was unjustifiable and unreasonable.” Yet there are “a myriad of scenarios in which an officer is perfectly justified in shooting a suspect in the back,” including the situation in which a suspect presents a frontal threat to an officer then turns to run away just as the officer reacts.
“The reality is a gunshot wound to the back only proves where the bullet struck. It provides no more evidence of culpability than does a gunshot wound to the front, side, big toe, or anywhere else,” Johnson declares.
VIOLENT POLICE – VIOLENT BUSINESS
This final myth has officers flying “from call to call shooting and beating people” and causes one to “wonder how Hollywood cops ever get caught up on their paperwork,” Johnson writes.
“The fact is, [real] police rarely use force.” Statistically, law officers “do not use force 99.9639%” of their calls for service. Further, in only a fraction of all cases where force is used–about 0.2%–do officers use deadly force. “And it is still true that the vast majority of officers (even in major cities) never fire their weapons on duty.
“The fact that law enforcement uses force so sparingly should be highlighted as a sign of success,” Johnson argues. “Yet if Hollywood, the nightly news, and some vocal activists are to be believed, one would think the police shoot and beat people as often as they start up their black and whites.”
Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, discusses the damaging impact of myths on officers’ physical, emotional, and legal survival in his Force Science seminars, and he concurs with Johnson’s conclusions about the dangers of the Hollywood Factor.
“It is not an exaggeration,” he told FSN, “to say that many officers receive more training from Hollywood by a thousand-fold than they do from any force instructor. To cite just one consequence, the dangerous tactic of holding your handgun up beside your head while searching a building or making entry–the so-called Hollywood high-guard–is not taught by any academy I know of in this country. But cops do it because they’re been ‘instructed’ to by TV and movies.
“Some officers have been so convinced of their invulnerability by Hollywood depictions by that they’ve been unwilling to do the realistic training necessary for their survival in a showdown.” And, as Cmdr. Johnson points out, even the most dedicated officers are at risk in the legal arena after a use of force because many of the civilians who are in position to judge their actions believe they know much more about officer-involved shootings than they actually do, thanks to Hollywood brainwashing.”
Lewinski explains that one of FSRC’s important goals is to educate the public about the true dynamics of force encounters. In Johnson’s opinion, that’s a goal LE itself also needs to be more proactive in pushing.
Police managers can no longer afford to “allow the untrained, often misinformed public to be the final judge of what constitutes reasonable police force, particularly in high-profile incidents, without insisting on even a rudimentary understanding of force dynamics,” he insists. Nor can they afford to continue allowing “the community to maintain unreasonable and conflicting expectations of its law enforcement officers.”
He addresses some strategies for action in Part 2 of this 2-part series.
[Our thanks to Wayne Schmidt, executive director of Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, for tipping us to Cmdr. Johnson’s provocative report.]