Street Blues: Defense principle protects against a moment too late

Nine years ago, I attended my first defensive tactics class at the basic police academy.  Defensive tactics are the techniques officers use to keep themselves safe. These include control holds, proper handcuffing methods, use of pepper spray and baton, how to safely search someone, proper stances and distances to use when contacting a suspect.  The first lesson of that first day, however, focused on one of the most important and universal tenets of safe policing, a basic rule that forms the foundation for officers’ thinking on how and when to contact suspects and use force all over the country — the action-reaction principle.

The action-reaction principle says that a person who initiates an action will always get the jump on anyone attempting to react to it. An easy example is that classic schoolyard game where one person sticks her hands out palm-up, and a second person puts his hands on top of hers, palm down. She then tries to slap the top of his hands before he can jerk them away. As the person who initiates the action, she should win every time, because she has already had the opportunity to think about when and how she will move her hands. On the other hand, his brain must recognize that it is time to move, send a message to his hands to move, and then actually move his hands.  By that time they are usually already stinging.

On that first day of training, our instructors didn’t have us play the hand-slap game. Instead they handed us practice pistols loaded with blanks. We were told to point the gun at an instructor, who also had a gun, held down at his side, and told us to shoot as soon as we saw the instructor move. The instructor was invariably able to raise his gun and shoot at us before we could squeeze our own trigger. After we fully understood the game and were ready for it, a cadet or two were able to muster a tie, but in a real-world game of bullet swap a tie is the same as a loss.

Policing is largely a reactionary business, and when you consider all that an officer must think about when deciding how to react to a suspect — including but not limited to the immediacy and severity of the threat to other people or the officer, time and resources available, the severity of the crime, the legality, practicality and safety of a particular reaction — it makes sense that officers are always, inevitably, playing catch-up. This is why officers want to see hands — because a suspect can draw and deploy a weapon from a pocket way before an officer can duck, let alone grab his own weapon.  This is the foundation for the “Twenty-One Foot Rule” — that a suspect armed with a knife can close a 21-foot distance and potentially stab an officer before the officer can register the approaching threat and draw his own gun from its holster. This is why officers will slowly, deliberately and cautiously approach apparently unconscious suspects laying on top of or near weapons.  This is why I ask drivers to keep their door shut on traffic stops, or sit on the curb if they are riding a bicycle — because it takes so long for me to register and react to a threat, I know I need the warning of the door opening or the rider standing up to have any chance of defending myself.

This principle was certainly screaming through the minds of the Gresham Police officers who shot Sgt. Anthony McDowell, a generous, honorable and mentally ill veteran wielding a rifle this past January, even though the muzzle was not pointed directly at any one officer. All of the officers on scene that night had been taught that if the suspect intends to shoot, by the time the gun’s muzzle is pointed, it is too late to stop him.

As citizens, it is imperative that we are also aware of the action-reaction principle, so we can better understand and judge our officers’ actions, as grand jurors or as community members reading about police incidents in the media.

The entire transcript of the grand jury proceedings related to the January shooting is available online at the Multnomah County District Attorney website. This document serves as an excellent, direct window into the minds of officers during one of the most difficult, stressful and frightening situations they will ever encounter on duty.

One response to “Street Blues: Defense principle protects against a moment too late

  1. Fantastic post! I too was a police officer and learned these same lessons. Sadly the general public does not understand, nor want to understand these principles. They continue to believe the Hollywood myths about “shoot to wound, not to kill,” and believe that police officers have some sort of magical power that makes them able to think faster, better, smarter in order to make sure bad guys, good guys and innocent citizens are never harmed, scared, hurt or killed in any encounter. Well written and a wonderful post!! You’ve inspired me!

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