Civilians who’ve never had to physically restrain an “ain’t-gonna-be-controlled” suspect usually have no idea how much force and how many officers may be required to gain compliance. So when they see video of cops trying to subdue an unyielding subject, it’s easy for their naïve eyes to interpret knee strikes, baton strikes, CEW hits, and the like as blatant evidence of excessive force.
When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) PD drew criticism for officers caught on camera delivering body blows to a gun suspect who stiffly defied efforts to get his hands behind his back, training director Sean Mitchell created a demonstration for local media that he hoped would be mind-opening.
“I didn’t expect them to necessarily agree with our point of view,” says Lt. Mitchell, a Force Science News subscriber. “If they hate what we do, they’re not going to leave a demo and say, ‘Now we support you.’ I just wanted to give them a point of reference for better understanding what we do and why.”
In a training room, about 20 reporters and crew members who showed up recently for Mitchell’s special Media Day were introduced to two volunteers from the department’s current recruit class who had agreed to act as uncooperative bad guys. One recruit was “a big guy, muscles,” the other a “small-stature” female.
The assignment seemed simple enough. Two at a time, volunteers from the media pool were to approach one or the other of the “suspects” and get his or her arms into proper position for handcuffing.
The media “officers” were not allowed to strike the suspects in any way to get the job done. And the suspects were prohibited from striking or actively fighting back, as well. Their defiance would be limited basically to stiffening and assuming resistant stances, “nothing overly aggressive.” Mitchell told the group, “All you have to do is get their hands behind their back.”
For Round 1, the suspects would be standing. Round 2, they’d be prone, with their hands under their body; kneeling on either side, the media officers were to get the hands out and back for cuffing, again with no striking permitted.
To add a touch of realism, Mitchell had the media volunteers wear weight belts to simulate the heft and interference of gear on a typical duty belt.
Only a handful of the media folks volunteered for the experiment. Women wearing skirts largely begged off as being inappropriately clothed for the task. But the newsies who did participate got a revealing workout and the others saw their trials and errors close up and in-person.
“I let each attempt run until they got tired—usually about 30 seconds or less,” Mitchell told FSN. “In some cases, they tried persuasion or commands, which didn’t work. Sometimes they tripped over themselves and fell down.” Even when the suspect was smaller and not exceptionally muscular, determined resistance proved surprisingly effective against larger officers’ tugging and grappling.
One suspect was toppled to the ground with a leg sweep. But with suspects on the ground, the media officers weren’t able to get hands from under the body within the limits on force that Mitchell had imposed. One prone suspect defeated them just by standing up, putting them back to Square One because the legs hadn’t been controlled.
The participants “began to get some appreciation for the challenges and emotions officers experience in overcoming resistance and why an escalation of force is often necessary,” Mitchell says. “When you’re actually involved in an event, things aren’t always as clear cut as they appear when seen on video later.
“And this was in a safe environment. They were on mats, not concrete. It wasn’t raining and slippery. They knew the suspects were not armed, not going to kill them or even hit them. The suspects’ family and friends weren’t around, adding to the hostility. So many of the factors that affect an officer’s decision-making weren’t relevant here.”
The lessons of the day reached far beyond the range merely of Charlotte-Mecklenburg media when one of the participating journalists posted video and commentary of his experience on Facebook. His report quickly received more than 2,000,000 views.
MORE TO COME
With the support of CMPD Chief Kerr Putney, Mitchell has more Media Days in the works. A prospective attendee at a future Force Science certification course, he is busy devising participation events that will explore for civilians other human factors that influence police decision-making and behavior.
- Drills with body shields and Simunition pistols that show action/reaction realities and the time-pressured urgency that can drive officers’ decisions to use deadly force;
- Range sessions that allow reporters to experience first-hand how quickly rounds can be fired by would-be assailants and officers alike using modern weapons;
- Driving track demonstrations that show the difficulty officers have in maintaining road focus while attending to job-related distractions like computer communications and license plate reading;
- Analysis of body-cam and cell-phone footage to prove that what’s recorded on video is not always how events actually appear to officers as they’re experiencing them.
The goals, he says, are always the same: to show the impact of inherent human factors on officer performance and to improve outsiders’ understanding of tense, rapidly evolving, and uncertain confrontations before there’s a jump to judgment.
Lt. Mitchell can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Our thanks to Lt. Glen Mills, president of the Massachusetts Assn. of Crime Analysts, for alerting us to Mitchell’s creative endeavors.