How to Combat Myths that Muddle Force Confrontations (Part 2)

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Part 2 of a 2-part series

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In Transmission No. 68, sent on 3/26/07, we explored dangerous myths about police use of force that movies, TV, and video games have brainwashed civilians and some LEOs into believing.

Our report quoted a provocative article by Det. Cmdr. Jeffry Johnson of the Long Beach (CA) PD, “Use of Force and the Hollywood Factor,” which now appears in full at:


In this continuation of our report, Johnson argues what’s necessary to counteract these misconceptions, which can negatively impact how officers react in life-threatening situations and how their actions are judged by civilian evaluators.]


“After a high-profile use of force, more civilians than sworn personnel are going to be judging your actions,” Johnson told Force Science News. As members of review boards, prosecutors’ staffs, juries, and the media, they’ll determine what’s reasonable and therefore justified and what’s unreasonable and therefore criminal.

“A very thin line” often separates the good from the bad, and drawing it properly demands realistic knowledge of the true dynamics of force challenges and applications in street confrontations.

Unfortunately, Johnson writes, “[s]imple fair-mindedness coupled with the experience of watching a lot of cop shows does not qualify a civilian to analyze force incidents.” As things now stand, “much of the community is quite frankly unprepared to judge police force….

“No one is suggesting that police agencies take a step backward and exclude or discourage [civilian] involvement and input.” But, Johnson argues, agencies do need to launch aggressive educational campaigns to better assure that civilian influences are grounded in a solid understanding of valid force principles.

Specifically, he offers this strategy for LE administrators:

1. “The first target should be civilians who already have a direct hand in judging force incidents.” These include personnel boards, force review commissions, prosecutors, and the like.

Their education “does not need to include extensive weaponless defense training, practical firearms instruction, endless scenarios, case law and statutory law review,” Johnson explains. “[B]ut it is critical they understand what reasonable force should look like.”

During a single 8-hour presentation, say, critical training elements could “include a force options explanation (i.e., force continuum or paradigm), basic laws of arrest, role-playing, Hollywood Factor misconceptions, review of police force statistics and data, and a question-answer session.” It would also be effective to include “components like firearms tactical simulation training or police ride-alongs” as reality checks.

2. Apart from educating these “official” civilians, “build a cadre of trained people who will come to your support” after a significant force incident.

“This is key,” Johnson says. In a controversial, high-profile case, “you’re going to have a lot of people descend on your town or arise from within it with an agenda. They’ll be eager to ‘explain’ video of the incident to the public” in a way that’s likely to be much different from your experienced interpretation. Having respected voices from outside your department who can knowledgeably challenge distortions can be invaluable.

3. Seize opportunities to educate the broader general public, including the media, through such venues as community academies, town hall meetings and forums, neighborhood watch groups, and other civic and faith-based gatherings. “Non-cops are very interested in the police world,” Johnson says. Even in a 2-hour presentation, much can be done to dispel force myths, like those mentioned in Part 1 of this series. “Mix in some videos from ‘Cops’ and let people see things as they really are.”

At the scene of a force encounter, assuming there’s time and that you’re not dealing with a hostile crowd, it may pay dividends to “take a few moments and explain to civilian witnesses why you did what you did,” Johnson suggests. You may be able to blunt the impact of “something that doesn’t look right by their standards” and get them to better understand that “using force isn’t about being sporting but about establishing control in a dangerous situation.”

Similarly, if you had to lay hands on a subject but ultimately didn’t arrest him, a few words of calm explanation may help forestall a bitter misunderstanding.

“There are always going to be people you can’t reach, no matter what you do. The media will always want to show the ugly videos. But you can balance them by educating people who want to understand and want to have confidence in the police. It’s going to take work, but you can make inroads.”

4. Police managers “must not be shy or apologetic about the fact that the real force evaluation experts come from within [LE] ranks. Just as an experienced surgeon is the best person to judge another surgeon’s incision and technique where there is an allegation of malpractice, so an experienced police officer and force expert is most qualified to judge–or at least offer a forensic analysis of–a force incident,” Johnson writes.

“This is no great insight,” he admits. But much of the LE community has been “so intensely scrutinized and brow-beaten”–not to mention horrified by riots, civil unrest, and angry protest sparked by major force incidents in recent years–that “we’ve backed away from force issues.

“We somehow abdicated our role as the experts on what’s reasonable force so we wouldn’t look brutal or insensitive to the community. This created a vacuum, and critics of the police and people with agendas have filled it.”

Johnson stresses: “This issue should not be trivialized…. [O]f course individual officers and police agencies need to be willing to submit to scrutiny. However, the scrutiny must be fair, and based upon an objective standard.”

Police managers should not be “fearful to assert their expertise, as if in doing so [they] will appear less objective and risk their own political survival.” An agency certainly should not ignore a bad shooting, he emphasizes, “but you should not be reluctant to assert reasonableness. You have to be able to say, ‘We did it right and it’s ok and here’s why.’”

5. “Finally,” Johnson writes, “police officers must also be educated…. [T]hey are not immune from the effects of the Hollywood Factor. A failure to fully appreciate these misconceptions can result in serious injury….

“[D]o you think it is important for an officer to appreciate that when he shoots a suspect, the reaction will likely be very different than what he has seen all his or her life on television? Such training is currently not provided in most academies or advanced officer training.”

For their own safety and to convey accurate information “to the community they contact on a daily basis,” officers need to be “aware of the laws and mechanics of force. Cops need to understand more about what a gunfight is really like, including what physiological changes they go through.” (This, incidentally, is a primary mission of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato and of the Force Science seminars conducted by executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski.)

Also officers need to be better schooled in describing force encounters in their reports, Johnson says. For example, the “fatigue threshold,” when you’re “suddenly out of gas and most vulnerable in a struggle,” is rarely mentioned, yet can be a vital factor in justifying an escalation of force if you feel you are approaching a dangerous level of exhaustion, Johnson points out.

“Documenting the hell out of” the suspect’s actions and what you were experiencing can be essential to recreating a picture of a force encounter “from the perspective of the officer on the scene,” part of the standard for assessing reasonableness established by the Supreme Court’s landmark force decision, Graham v. Connor.

Without proactive educational measures inside and outside of agencies, the polarizing disconnect between police and public perspectives about the reasonableness of force seems destined only to get worse.

The mythic distortions embedded in the civilian mind by the entertainment industry are likely to become “progressively more severe and graphic each year in order to maintain the public’s interest and ensure box office profits,” Johnson writes. At the same time, public exposure to disturbing real-life images of police force will increase.

With cameras in police cars, on street corners, on TASERs, in cell phones, and no doubt soon on guns, “there will be very few incidents in the future that won’t be on tape,” Johnson told FSN. “We’re going to see more and more encounters where we have to explain what we’re doing.”

The longer Hollywood’s force myths go unchallenged, the harder those explanations will be.

[NOTE: One dramatic step toward public education will be the recently announced National Law Enforcement Museum, a 90,000-sq.-ft. facility scheduled to open in 2011 in Washington, DC, under sponsorship of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Emphasizing interactivity, the museum’s highlights will include a “judgment simulator,” where visitors can “make split-second decisions on the use of lethal and less-lethal force,” and a “Cop Critique Theatre,” where real-life LEOs will offer “insightful commentary about their fictional colleagues on TV and in the movies.” For detailed information and a virtual tour, check out: http://www.nleomf.com/TheMuseum/museum.htm.]

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