Law enforcement officers face extenuating circumstances on a daily basis. Their job is to isolate and de-escalate circumstances that pose a threat and are beyond the control of citizens in their community. There are times officers may need to resort to force if necessary to gain control of an escalating situation. Basic law enforcement training introduces officers to the force options available.
Use of force is the amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject (United States Department of Justice, 2004). The methods used to gain compliance range from verbal commands to the use of deadly force. The use of force can have extensive consequences, both good and bad, for the public, department, and officers involved.
Few events in law enforcement attract the attention of the media, political establishment, and police administration more than a use of force incident, specifically an officer-involved shooting. Media coverage molds the perception of the surrounding communities. This also influences the perception of officers and department staff, before and after incidents.
Interviews conducted with officers who have been involved in shootings have revealed that while many were well trained for the event, they often were not prepared for the investigation afterward (Pinizzotto, Davis, & Miller, 2006). Some believed investigations centered on finding something the officers did wrong so they could be charged with a crime or a violation of departmental policy. Others felt that the investigations were for the protection of the agency and not necessarily the officers involved (Bohrer & Chaney, 2010). Officers’ actions can be influenced by their experience with use of force incidents and knowledge of what has happened to fellow officers in similar situations.
The Public’s Perception
Perceptions by the public of officer use of force incidents usually are as wide and diverse as the population, often driven by media coverage, and sometimes influenced by a long-standing bias and mistrust of government (U.S. Department of Justice; Community Relations Services, 1999). Though an officer feels they have the right to shoot, and the evidence supports the officer’s actions, this may not guarantee a positive, or even a neutral, reception from the public. In addition, who the police shoot seems to mold some perceptions. For example, a bank robber armed with a shotgun presents a different connotation than a 14-year-old thief wielding a knife (Bohrer, Kern, & Davis, 2008).
Sometimes, it is who the police use the force against that can set the tone surrounding the incident. Communities where residents have perceived a police use of force incident as unjustified have a history of acting out with acts of civil disobedience. There are members of some communities that automatically assume the officer did something wrong in a use of force incident before the circumstances surrounding the incident are revealed. This may be a result of the media’s premature coverage surrounding the incident.
A department’s lack of cooperation with the media can develop poor communication between the public and the police, resulting in distrust between all parties. By failing to interact with the media in interviews or providing press releases, the department contributes to the negative perception formed by the media and public. The standard “no comment” statement given from departments, leaves the media and public with the impression that the police are trying to hide an incident involving excessive use of force.
Establishing an open and positive working relationship with the media can improve relations between the department and public. The department should take proactive steps to demonstrate their cooperation with the media by having a department representative contact the media before media representatives approach the department. By taking the proactive approach the department demonstrates a desire to release information as it becomes available. Agencies should form a working relationship with the media and encourage them to print and air stories on the responsibilities of officers and the training conducted to enhance their abilities.
General information on past shootings, simulator experiences, and the perspective of the reasonable objective officer can help develop a cooperative association (Masters, 2000). Such a collaborative effort between the police and the media is not a magic pill and will not alleviate all of the public misperceptions and problems. However, it may reduce or prevent false perceptions, especially with officer-involved shootings (Pinizzotto, Davis, Bohrer, & Chaney 2009). Working together with the media forms the foundation of public understanding. Joining together and sharing information can help both the police and the media deal with officer use of force incidents in a fair and sensible way, as well as influence the perception of the public in a more positive manner.
Bohrer, S., & Chaney, R. (2010). Police investigations of the use of deadly force can influence perceptions and putcomes. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin , 21-24.
Bohrer, S., Kern, H., & Davis, E. (2008). The deadly dilemma: Shoot or don’t shoot. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin , 7-12.
Masters, B. A. (2000, February 13). Under the gun: I died, I killed, and I saw the nature of deadly force. Washington Post .
Pinizzotto, A. J., Davis, E. F., & Miller III, C. E. (2006). Violent encounters: A study of felonious assaults on our nation’s law enforcement officers. Washington, DC.
Pinizzotto, A. J., Davis, E., Bohrer, S., & Chaney, R. (2009). Law enforcement perspective on the use of force: hands-on, experimental training for prosecuting attorneys. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin , 16-21.
U.S. Department of Justice; Community Relations Services. (1999). Police use of excessive force: A conciliation handbook for the police and the community. Washington, DC.
United States Department of Justice. (2004, June). United States Department of Justice. Retrieved September 12, 2010, from COPS: Community Oriented
Policing Services: http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/default.asp/Item=1374