‘Reasonable’ force is the watchword for police | TahoeDailyTribune.com

‘Reasonable’ force is the watchword for police

Christina Proctor

How much is too much?

In the course of a day the public expects them to enter a dozen different situations, make quick decisions, and never allow personal emotions to cloud their judgment. The men and women in blue, sworn to serve and protect, wield power with their badge. But, sometimes even good guys make mistakes. And when it’s the police, the consequences can be brutal and sometimes even deadly.

James Fyfe, a former New York City cop and now professor of criminal justice at Temple University, said that to an average citizen even reasonable force used in the right circumstances can appear excessive.

“I’m 6 foot, 7 inches tall, and I weighed about 240 pounds when I was a cop,” Fyfe said. “I know it didn’t always look good when I was taking people into custody, just because of my size.”

To help set clearer guidelines on “reasonable” force – the watchword in police “use of force” incidents – Fyfe said he is working with the U.S. Department of Justice on attempting to systematize “reasonable.”

Two South Lake Tahoe residents are claiming that the police department overstepped the bounds of being reasonable and entered excessively while breaking up two July 4 house parties. Neither of the two men have filed formal complaints, both were arrested on suspicion of resisting arrest.

“Generally what the police use is a scale that is based on provocation,” Fyfe explained. “It begins with the mere presence of the police, their uniforms, guns and marked cars. It is the belief that their mere presence will discourage citizens from acting wrongly. Next, police are supposed to use persuasion, ‘please hand me your driver’s license.’ If the person is still noncompliant, but not fighting with the cops, they use commands, ‘I told you to give me your driver’s license, do it now.’ “

Fyfe explained that police can move on to firm grips, and then to pain compliance if the person is actively resisting the officer. The holds inflect temporary pain, but don’t cause lasting damage. If an officer is being physically attacked, Fyfe said police can use impact devices: batons, flashlights, their own hands and feet. The next step on the scale is deadly force, characterized as killing or causing serious injury.

“The whole notion is that the training and policy of the department will have made a lot of those decisions for the officer before they are placed in the situation. Cops should not be smacking someone in the head if a lesser degree of force would do the job,” Fyfe said.

Fyfe, who studies numerous cases of alleged police misconduct, said in most cases he thinks the officer truly believes the use of force is justified, but the bigger question is how did the officer get to that point.

“In the shooting in Riverside, Calif., at the instant the cops pulled the trigger and shot that woman, they thought their lives were in danger. The other question is how did they get there,” Fyfe said. “An officer can come on too forcefully, and then the question is did he create the danger himself and then have to use force to get out of it.”

El Dorado County Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe said that under the law, reasonable use of force is subject to many factors.

“In some cases reasonable can include deadly force. It depends on what is going on, the degree of threat to the officer, and the nature of the crime. It places a tremendous burden on the officers to act correctly under very stressful circumstances,” Uthe said. “Especially when you realize that every time you make a decision you are going to be second guessed by D.A.’s, juries and the public.”

South Lake Tahoe police officer Brian McGuckin is one of three officers who is in charge of training the department on defensive tactics and use of force. McGuckin said an officer’s escalation of force all depends on the suspect.

“For the vast majority of the people, all we need is our physical presence and verbal commands. The decision to go from verbal commands to deadly force is not made by us. It is controlled by the suspect,” he said. “An appropriate use of force also depends on the number of people the officer is confronted with, the size of the suspect in comparison to the officer, the state of mind of the officers and the suspect.”

Both Uthe and McGuckin noted that under California law, citizens who should be aware that they are being arrested must refrain from resisting the officer.

In 1995 the South Lake Tahoe Police Department and El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department faced charges of excessive force stemming from a 1991 incident. The officers, attempting to serve an arrest warrant, mistakenly went to the wrong house. The occupant was aggressive and a struggle ensued that left the man with a broken collarbone. The officers were fully exonerated of any wrong doing. The court determined that with the information they were given they acted appropriately.

“The escalation of force is not a straight line,” McGuckin said. “It works more in a circle, and the suspect can make decisions that allows officers to de-escalate the situation. We don’t take any of this stuff lightly, and it is really very rarely that we have to use it.”

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