Gerald Doane: A new law in town
Gerald G. Doane
The new law is colloquially called the “necessary use of force by police” law, recently enacted.
Not being a lawyer, this writing is far from being a legal opinion on the new law or on the use of force by police. However, I do have significant law enforcement and related experience and I do have an informed opinion on the use of force in police work.
I will be the first to admit that I used force when I was a street officer. But I always considered my use of force necessary and reasonable. I never used deadly force on an individual, although I was prepared to do so on multiple separate occasions.
Looking back, I also know that at certain times I would not have had to use force at all had I done things differently. Let’s say, I learned some important lessons, mostly at the beginning of my career.
I do know officers have a special burden. Obviously, they can protect themselves, but they must also use only that force necessary and reasonable to detain, investigate, and arrest.
Are there ways for police officers to limit the use of force in their contacts with citizens? Of course! Here are five things I learned.
Be alert and always focused on the task at hand. Look and listen for furtive behavior because it usually leads to flight or worse, fight. Inattention may just get you killed.
Think ahead, follow best practices and best tactics, and have a plan and a means for almost every conceivable situation you might encounter.
Take charge and use both psychological and physical controls when investigating, detaining, or arresting.
Never take on more than you can handle alone. Who loses when it is man versus vehicle? Man, every time.
Communicate, communicate, and communicate.
The following is a personal example of when I could have used deadly force:
I was off duty attending early evening classes at a university whose campus was in downtown San Francisco. Leaving the campus after class, I walked through a plaza located behind campus and between two large multistory buildings. I was wearing business attire, sport coat with tie, and carried a book briefcase.
As I walked through the plaza, I was approached by two youths I estimated to be about 17 years of age. I immediately alerted to a possible confrontation because of their suspicious behavior.
One young man rapidly approached me from my right side. The other was about five feet behind the first. Both had a hand inside lightweight jackets as if hiding a weapon.
The first young man stated, “Give me your wallet!” The second young man said nothing. I could feel the fear in my core. I was paralyzed by fear for a nanosecond.
But I stopped walking and said, “Sure.” I set down my brief case on the plaza floor and reached toward my wallet which was in my right rear pants pocket. Instead of pulling out my wallet, I removed my off-duty service weapon which was in a holster belted on my right side. I faced the two suspects directly and stated, “Police officer, freeze!”
I had a clear target picture on the first suspect. I almost fired my weapon, but I hesitated because I saw the young man’s eyes, now wide open and filled with fear. I now thought the suspects were only feigning a weapon; however, I maintained my threat to them until I could be certain. I told both, “Get on the ground, face down, NOW!” Both complied. I searched both and handcuffed them together with one pair of handcuffs.
With both on the ground, face down and handcuffed together, I saw a commercial armored car near the plaza. Using my off-duty police whistle, I signaled the armored car guards for help. A few moments later a police cruiser arrived and took custody of the teenagers. Both were only 16 years of age and neither had a weapon.
Could I have used lethal force because of my fear? Probably in the first instant, but I decided not to because I was alert to what was occurring. I also had a plan, took control of the situation, and communicated my orders clearly, which the suspects obeyed.
So, the new law hasn’t changed much, at least in my mind. Necessary and reasonable were the judgment standards in 1972 when those two young lives were spared. I venture to say that those standards are met overwhelmingly in police work today.
Gerald G. Doane lives in Grass Valley.
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