Increasingly, we live in a world where a large section of the general public (in particular those under the age of forty), when witnessing something like an assault, a robbery or even just a simple shoplifting, reach out not to do what I consider to be their civic duty (i.e; do something to try to prevent or mitigate the unlawful act) but instead for their mobile phone cameras. Now, let's not deceive ourselves here; the overwhelming majority of such folk do NOT try to record the event in order to help the victim or to further the course of justice, but instead to post the resultant footage on social media or to try to make a bit of money by selling it to the media. You can pull a face or 'tut' disapprovingly if you wish, but if you really believe otherwise, you're living in cloud cuckoo land. Most people use their phone cameras for titillation - and nothing more noble.
What this frequently leads to is edited footage of scenes which prick the public's uninformed and disproportionate disapproval of police action - in particular where any violence is involved. What rarely happens is that someone from the police side speaks out bluntly and calls a spade a spade. Usually this is through respect for the judicial process; something that lay observers, police haters (and we all know that they are out there and have very loud voices) and hangers-on who enjoy or feel compelled to join in with the bashing of authority figures, simply have no regard for.
Do individual police officers get it wrong? Of course they do - we're all fallible, whether we lose our temper in front of our kids, turn into chanting idiots at football games, pull out of a side street in front of another car or motorbike, or drive too quickly because we're late for work. We all break those kinds of rules, sometimes. Judging a police officer's use of force, however, is something a great many members of the public do without the faintest idea of the subject that they are addressing and preaching about. Everyone seems to think that they could be a better police officer than the one they just observed. Odd how those people don't ever try it out for size.
Here, for your edification, is the skinny - how I and the people I worked with (and from what I can see, the people doing the job now in the UK) made/make those kinds of decisions about the use of force.
Protection: self and others
First: a police officer's primary function is the protection of life and property, in that order. Protection of life includes the protection of others from harm by a person or persons. That, plus the protection of property (around which so many people's lives revolve) underpin pretty much everything that a police officer does.
It's true that a police officer takes their own personal safety very seriously - as I was taught; if you get hurt, you can't help anybody. However, helping other people is certainly what I and my colleagues were about - and as a result, unlikely as it may seem today in what appears to be an increasingly selfish culture, we thought of others before ourselves. I see no evidence to suggest that this ethic has changed within the police force. We thought of our own safety of course, but self-sacrifice was certainly part of what we used to do, and what the serving officers whom I still know, exemplify. That's worth thinking about before the 'police brutality' drum gets dragged out and thumped in public (oops - did I say 'thumped'? I hope that didn't disturb anyone's sensibilities!).
If wishes were fishes...
This is what the public that I worked with wanted their police officers to look like:
*The battle that rages between law-abiding and lawless individuals can be distilled down to a battle between empathetic, cooperative and big-picture members of society with pathologically selfish and frequently less intelligent individuals.
Sometimes, however, our police have to look like this:
What is an appropriate use of force?
A police officer rarely uses force to do his or her duty - doing so is usually the last resort after the normal tools of the job (a quick mind and a practised vocabulary) have proven ineffective. But, I hear you suggest, surely a good police officer can talk his or her way out of anything? Surely the use of force is a failure on the part of the police officer? Not so - not at all. Every single person I ever laid hands on in order to use restraints or to stop them from attacking me/someone else had ceased to listen to reason, or had started off with violence from the beginning of our interaction. The FACT is that many people who come into confrontations with police officers are predisposed to behave violently, sometimes malevolently, and on rarer occasions, with dangerous, even murderous intent. Think about that; on your street, it's entirely possible for your local police officer to be attacked simply for doing their job or even more simply, for wearing the uniform. Knowing that, would you remove the right of the police to use physical force when a person becomes violent?
Appropriate force is a level of force which is necessary to arrest, restrain if need be, or prevent another person from committing a criminal offence. The circumstances vary infinitely, and so, therefore, does the level of appropriate force. Someone resisting having the handcuffs put on will receive force to their limbs and pressure points to enable the task to be completed; someone kicking out with their legs will have their legs restrained, someone trying to punch an officer in the face will be taken to the ground in a hurry, etc., etc. Bear in mind that in the real world, violence is frequently a surprise strategy; people don't send a telegram politely informing the officer that he or she is about to receive a head butt or have their eyes gouged. Criminals (and I'm including the drunken idiots who seem to pepper our western society streets) tend to lash out unexpectedly, and they tend also to see the police as a legitimate target. Officers will frequently find themselves outnumbered and facing violence without fair warning...when was the last time you faced that kind of situation? For most people, the answer is: never.
In my day (that makes me sound very old!), we didn't have Tasers and we didn't have firearms (UK police still don't carry sidearms of course)...we had handcuffs, a baton and in later years a tiny can of almost entirely useless CS incapacitant spray. Unless you go into a confrontation with any of those things already in hand, typically you don't get to use them until the violence has begun - and most times, not at all. In eighteen years I had more physical confrontations/altercations than I can remember. I used my baton twice (both times to threaten; I never landed a blow) and my CS spray precisely zero times. I protected myself with my hands, always admitted doing so in court, and was never censured for doing so (despite some of the recipients of my use of force making complaints, of course). As a copper, we just used enough force to get the job done - anything else simply wasn't worth the hassle, even if we had been so inclined!
How much is 'enough' force?
The politically incorrect thing to say (but it happens to be true) is that the general public generally haven't got a clue. The vast majority of people haven't been involved in a physical fight since their school days, or at all. The vast majority of people don't play full contact sport (I'm not including soccer, because it's not in the same league as, for example, rugby). This means that most people - happily - don't have the relevant experience of being punched, kicked, spat upon, scratched, gouged, kneed in the groin, attacked with a weapon, etc. Unfortunately, however, the general public is very quick to condemn a police officer for use of force. This means that totally unqualified, inexperienced people pass judgement on people at the opposite end of the scale - and usually very publicly.
I was lucky; I'd been playing rugby for a number of years before I joined the police, and I'd taken my share of punches, etc. before I put a uniform on for the first time. I was able to roll with the physical side of the job, but being the object of someone's hatred or get-away-at-all-costs violence was never pleasant. It's never fun when you know that somebody you're trying to detain is prepared to inflict any kind of injury upon you; that they simply don't care how much they hurt you.
I know that I incidentally hurt people sometimes, but in every case their injuries were sustained in the process of being restrained and after having physically attacked me. I sustained my fair share of injuries too: everything from scratches to significant soft tissue injuries and I was luckier than many of my colleagues in that respect.
One of the things that very few people seem to comprehend is that the possibility of restraining someone without causing injury to them increases enormously with the number of officers restraining a person, and decreases in the same manner as the number of officers decrease. In a one-on-one (even a two-on-one) situation, it is very difficult to restrain a violently struggling person without causing them some injury - and without sustaining injury to yourself. Putting it in a real-world context: the struggling person is usually either: a) drunk or otherwise intoxicated through drugs, b) emotionally agitated, c) mentally ill, d) desperate to escape or e) violently inclined towards the police no matter what. Any one of these is sufficient to create a dangerous situation for an officer, but in many cases there is a combination of two or more of these factors involved. Couple that with the fact that there are, generally speaking (and I am drawing on experiences from two continents), only a fraction of the number of cops on duty at any time that the public believes there are. On one occasion, in discussion with a group of concerned residents, I asked the group just how many police officers they thought that there were on duty in that fair city that night. The consensus of the group was TEN TIMES the reality...
People who are being arrested do NOT have the right to resist arrest, even when they don't agree with the grounds for arrest. They do NOT have a right to verbally or physically attack or otherwise resist an officer in the execution of his or her duty. People who do so will be subjected to physical force - it's one of those certainties of life that the public needs to accept. People will be taken to the ground, hard and fast, ideally - why would any police officer want to exchange punches cowboy-style, or get involved in an extended wrestling match while surrounded by strangers? Who knows how far away backup may be for that officer? Who appreciates that the goal is to apprehend people and restrain them WITHOUT injuring them? Would the public prefer that at the first sign of violence, a police officer backed off? I seriously hope not.
The idea that the police use too much force is something created by people who have either never seen an angry man/woman up close and bent on violence, or who feel that they are somehow intellectually gifted enough to make all the assumptions necessary to claim the high ground in such a debate. The truth is that life is dirty, gritty and messy. People can be arseholes, and when they are being arrested, much more than that. Violent people who refuse to listen to reason require a level of force that is necessary to protect the law enforcement agency and the public. If that is an unacceptable statement for someone, then I'd suggest that they need to re-appraise how removed from the real world they actually are.
No such thing as perfect
Some officers get it wrong; of course they do. Some do it because they are frightened half to death and panic, and some because they are unpleasant folk anyway. Neither type belongs in the police uniform, but while we are all organic beings and subject to being different from one another, it's going to happen. As an example I remember one officer of my acquaintance who used up his CS spray almost on a weekly basis, while my own supply (and that of everyone else I worked with) had to be replaced because it had passed its sell-by date (so to speak).The TRUTH is that the overwhelming majority (99%) in my estimation are people like you, but who have chosen a difficult yet rewarding career which places them in danger for the sake of protecting...people such as you. Think about it: when was the last time you stepped in front of a complete stranger to protect them from harm? Those kinds of people are few and far between, and many of them wear uniforms. The wrong 'uns will get weeded out, but only if the public trusts the overwhelming majority of police officers and comes forward with the evidence to make that happen.
Stop and think
I was an average police officer who did the job in the best way that I could. As big as I was, as fit as I was and as used to physical contact as I had become, there were many times when the violence of a situation was disturbing and gave me cause to stop and think about the risks I was taking. Ultimately, like all the people I worked with, I jumped in regardless of the risk. To suggest to those fine people that they were heroes would make them squirm with embarrassment. What they were in actuality were fundamentally good, reliable, caring people with a very strong sense of duty; a vocation. Those are the people I worked with, and was immensely proud to work with. Many of the younger ones are still police officers to this day, and I'm proud to have known them, mentored some of them and worked alongside them. Police officers tend, by virtue of their personalities, to be public spirited and to a large degree, selfless people who deserve your support. They do NOT deserve snap judgements about how they are wrestling with a screaming protester or drunken/stoned hooligan. In comparison to all the people who walk past, simply film something and post it online, or who can't even look, however, police officers are indeed society's heroes.
What you see is NOT all that is usually going on - a phone camera can never give you the whole story. I know that in many instances, struggles that I got into would have looked bad from the outside, but I know that I did only as much as was necessary. I know, for example, that wrestling with someone half my weight is twice as difficult as fighting with a much bigger person - it just IS - and in particular, fighting with a drunken woman is a nightmare. Unless you've done that, how would you guess? I wouldn't expect you to be able to. In which case, how can anyone who hasn't been there and done that, judge from the sidelines? Sometimes these things have to be done to effect an arrest - and if it didn't get done what, I wonder, would the alternative be?
The key to understanding how the police work is to try to suspend sensational headlines, suspend journalist's mandate to hype the facts (they almost always get them significantly wrong on even the most simple incident, by the way) and put yourself into the uniform of a police officer tasked with protecting the neighbourhood. It may not be a comfortable exercise, in which case you're probably getting close to the reality. There's no running away from danger allowed; no backing down from threats, no avoiding doing the right thing. If you'd do any of those three things, I hope it helps you respect those people who don't, each day of their lives, and yet who are vilified and publicly tried by association at every opportunity.