Officer Survival in 20/20 Hindsight

Force incidents are to be judged “at the moment” not from an armchair on Monday morning


Theodore Roosevelt knew it.  In his 1910 speech “Citizenship in a Republic” he stated:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

We all wish that we were perfect all the time but such is not the case.  We strive to be “dialed in” and aware of our surroundings so we’re not caught off guard.  We study the law so that we are knowledgeable and decisive in its application.  We practice our suspect control skills so that we are competent and effective.  We train hard and pray that when force becomes necessary we won’t fumble but we know that reality has a way of interfering.  But professional athletes on a field of play, who get paid exorbitant salaries, have the top trainers and equipment…fumble.  The play is known and practiced repeatedly and yet they miss the block, fumble or drop the pass which hits them square in both hands.  And lives don’t hang in the balance.

And yet on Monday morning the armchair quarterback, never having played or having forgotten about the “human factors” of the sport sits in judgment.  “He should have done this; he could have done that…”  The critic’s vision is 20/20 now, in hindsight, absent the realities of game day out on the field of play or on the street in law enforcement.

The Court Knew 

The Supreme Court said in the Graham v. Connor decision, “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

“With respect to a claim of excessive force, the same standard of reasonableness at the moment applies: “Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers,” violates the Fourth Amendment.  The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”

And yet chiefs, administrators, investigators, supervisors and others in LE routinely engage in serious Monday morning quarterbacking on use of force incidents.  They ponder, propose and postulate that the officer could have and indeed should have done A, B, or C instead of what they did.  They bog down officers with concepts such as: intent, ability, opportunity, jeopardy and preclusion which are not required by law.  How can we expect an officer to read a suspect’s intent?  Does he have that gun in his hand with the intent to do me harm or to kill himself?  Agencies routinely examine an officer’s tactics post incident and conflict this tactical critique with the very real question of whether the officer’s use of force was objectively reasonable in light of the totality of the circumstances at the moment they used force.  Such farcical notions get officers killed in this country each year and that’s a hell of a price to pay for agency worries about being sued.

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