Protecting Officers from Themselves: Tactics for Self-Control
Ellis Amdur, MA, NCC, CMHS
Police training should include an ethic of moral policing. This becomes particularly important when an officer may be called upon to intervene when a fellow officer is losing control or otherwise acting unprofessionally. What does not work, however, are general statements urging moral behavior. Instead, tactical intervention needs to be routinely, and realistically, trained upon.
This is because protocols are clear in police agencies in the United States concerning officers’ responsibility when another officer is using excessive force, and there are detailed court decisions concerning this. Although there are variations in wording, such protocols usually go something like this:
“Officers have an absolute responsibility to intervene. They should attempt verbal intervention. If this fails, they are expected to physically intervene. And they are required to immediately report the misconduct.”
Part of any such training should include clear standards on malpractice, as well as clear guidelines on how to intervene when a superior officer, a peer or one lower in rank crosses the line.
In general, effective training should start in a classroom, with policy and legal information. This should be followed by coached table-top scenario training. Finally, there should be true scenario training, which includes any and all types of force as a potential within that scenario. Scenarios should include the possibility of resolution through supportive communication to low-, medium- and high-impact applications of force.
What is perhaps most difficult to deal with are situations approaching the line—sometimes very rapidly. At what point does an abrupt, direct or “street” style of communication cross the line into abusive language? Most difficult situations occur when the officer is acting in a way that is lawful, but is inflaming the situation (for example, talking over a person who needs to be heard).
What Comes Naturally
To accomplish effective interventions in these situations, officers should be supported in their natural inclination to back each other up. For example, New York City Police Department is reported to have a specific code that an officer calls in when he or she realizes that they are losing control of themselves. When the officer calls in this code, it means: “I’m about to lose it with this individual. I need back-up now to take this situation over!”
I have seen a film where officers quickly rush to the scene to find the officer who called already grabbing the subject by the neck. Several intervening officers are detailed to separate the individual and physically secure him, while another police officer directs his/her attention to the angry officer. They see their mission as protecting that officer’s career, protecting their law enforcement agency from negative public attention and protecting a citizen from an action that goes beyond proper policing.
However, there are times that the officer “losing it” is not self-aware, and yet they are clearly in the process of crossing a line. It can be extremely difficult for another officer to intervene. He or she may be concerned that their actions will be viewed as shaming the officer, disrespecting him or her in front of the public and making them look bad, which might only make the situation worse. They are further concerned—often rightly so—that this may harm their status within the team.
What is needed is to use the same type of code phrase as described previously—one clearly different from any other code phrase used in the agency—but this time, coming from the intervening officer. This gives clear evidence of his or her assessment of the situation and a signal that he or she will intervene. It provides the officer who is crossing the line a face-saving way to disengage.
For example, an officer has one fist clenched and the other bunching up the shirt of the target of his or her wrath. A second officer says, “Sergeant, we have a Code 993 here. Let me take this one.” [Note: The rule within the agency should be that whenever an officer uses that phrase, he or she takes over, and the officer to whom it is directed, pulls back, offering back-up only (silently). Or, if safety allows, they may remove themselves from the scene entirely.]
Depending on the circumstances, the intervening officer(s) may have to physically intervene with his or her fellow officer. This should hopefully be an exceedingly rare event. But if it is necessary, then it should be done and officers should be prepared on how best to do this through scenario training. It is clearly different from defensive tactics: one must be effective in non-injurious physical intervention, and every attempt must be made to avoid holding the officer in question in contempt.
To be sure, the officer so directed may disagree with the intervening officer’s field assessment. Nonetheless, they are required to disengage, without argument, when such a code phrase is voiced. In the field, the requirement is that one must trust one’s fellow officers, the same way one would if she or he were to warn you, “That guy has a gun under his shirt.” Any disagreements should be taken up later in an after-action review.
In most situations, however, officers will have trained to make a smooth transition to the intervener taking the lead and the other officer withdrawing. At its best, the public will see a seamless shift in the lead position among officers, without even realizing what has just happened.