Monday, October 4th, 2010 by

Police Beatings: Balancing Anarchy and Tyranny

A Seattle police officer punched a woman in the face after detaining a woman for jay walking.  The officer tried to detain the woman but she refused to cooperate by pulling away.  As she resisted, the officer grabbed her and struggled as she pulled away.  This continued as an angry crowd began to circle the officer.

Soon a second woman entered the scene and pushed the officer to help her resisting friend.  The officer immediately reacted by punching the second woman in the face, removing her from the picture while he continued struggling with the first woman.  This obviously upset the crowd and also excited a negative reaction toward the officer from the normally pro police — Bill O’Reilly.

Surprisingly, this type of incident is similar to those that provoke most citizen complaints and law suits against law enforcement.  For the most part, it isn’t the shootings or other more seemingly serious incidents that draw… the most public scrutiny.  It’s also these less serious situations that cause police officers the most stress and problems in their careers.  There are some obvious cases of police officers abusing their authority, and these need be dealt with strictly.  But unfortunately, there are many cases of officers who have used appropriate force, but have been disciplined or fired because of public pressure.

I’ve studied and trained officers in use of force for over a decade, so I have a soft spot in my heart for good officers who find themselves on the receiving end of negative public scrutiny for doing their job.  Being a use of force trainer, I’m often defensive of the police officer’s actions and usually see the problem as insufficient training, instead of bad officer intentions, as the media often portrays.

I left lunch recently after a discussion with Greg Dossey, a colleague and law enforcement use of force expert, with a broader perspective prompting me to do more research and thinking.  Part of growing is learning to step back from the narrow view we often have and looking at things from a much bigger perspective.  When focusing on these incidents as a police officer, it’s often easy to forget the bigger picture of what civilian law enforcement’s role is within the community and only look at the officer and suspect’s actions.

A Different perspective

When the Founding Fathers created our government, they tried to balance the inherent compromise between tyranny and anarchy.  Any government with too much power will drift toward tyranny, while too little government control may lead to anarchy.  So the U.S. constitution empowers the government with as little power possible to prevent anarchy, while leaving the people with the freedom we Americans are so proud of.

Freedom is the one thing American’s value more than life itself. Look at our history and what American’s have sacrificed for freedom.  Consider the wars we’ve participated in and even the events within our own borders such as the civil rights movement.  There is no denying it, Americans value freedom.

Now consider the role of law enforcement.  Today’s police officers have evolved into so many roles that it’s hard to keep track what their job really is.  They are traffic enforcement, social workers, marriage counselors, and surrogate parents, just to name a few, but what is their real purpose?  Their primary role is to protect your freedoms, from people within our borders, who may want to take them away.

Taking your freedom

Police officers protect your physical safety and also personal property.  But in order to do that police officers are empowered to also take some of your constitutionally guaranteed freedoms away. Americans are free to do as they wish without interference from anyone, except law enforcement if acting within the law.

So you are free to walk or drive as you desire throughout the United States, and no one can stop you except a police officer in the form of a detention.  A legal detention by a police officer momentarily waives some of your constitutional rights.  When you are stopped by a police officer for running a red light, the police officer has temporally overridden your constitutional rights. This is serious stuff.

Then when an officer escalates the detention to an arrest, now he is empowered to not only make you stay put, but to take you away; a legal kidnapping, again striping away some of your constitutional rights. And finally, if you resist the arrest, he may physically use force to get you to comply; which may involve punching you in the face or as extreme as taking one’s life depending on how serious the situation is.

No one else in the United States has such power to immediately bypass some of your constitutionally guaranteed rights.  With so much power, it is obvious why law enforcement gets so much scrutiny.  Law enforcement walks a fine line between preserving freedom and taking it away.

Checks and balances

So how is all of this power kept in check to prevent police officers from running a muck and creating tyranny?  Within our country there are some obvious lines that everyone agrees.  Very few people would contest a police officer who shoots and kills a mad man on a shooting rampage at an elementary school.  But what if that same officer shoots a teenager in the back after stealing bubble gum?  That’s also easy, our society would not approve.

But what if an elderly minority woman with a mental handicap runs away from the police with a gun in her hand?  What if the officer shoots her in the back? That’s a bit more difficult to assess.  Some would say shooting her in the back is excessive, others would say she is a risk because she has the gun.  But what if she was running toward a school playground full of children after just shooting several other children?  Perhaps if you said a shooting would not be justified in the previous sentence, you may change your mind with these new facts.

In these scenarios, I’m not proposing right or wrong answers, just complicated decisions cops must make in seconds every day.  In life there are always extremes on each end of the spectrum.  It’s the gray middle ground that makes life difficult, interesting, and the topic of this article.

As cops serve their community, at times they have to use force.  In doing so they often walk a fine line, but it’s not a straight line.  They straddle the weaving line of what is legal and acceptable to our society and what is not. Don’t misunderstand this by believing cops intentionally cross the line.  Although this happens rarely, it’s the very small minority of cops whom intentionally use excessive force.  Most cops are well intentioned and do everything they know to be within the law.

The challenge, which is what leads to so much controversy, is that the line between acceptable and unacceptable police force is fuzzy and unclear.  Rarely do judges, juries, the media or the public agree.

This lack of consensus is what makes these decisions so difficult for officers to make in split seconds.  Officers have to rapidly decipher what is reasonable under the pressure of going to prison for excessive force or possibly losing their life by using insufficient force.

It is this conflict that causes officers so much stress and frustration toward the media and public that often “doesn’t understand” it from their perspective.  But on the flip side, since 99% of cops work with the best of intentions, cops often lose sight of the fact that they are the “Government” that the constitution was created to protect the people from.

The message

The message of this article is twofold.  First, to the non-law enforcement, the majority of cops are honest, law abiding people just like you, that have a very tough job.  They have to make very tough decisions in record setting time and then perform as Olympians within very unclear and always changing rules.

The message for the cops is that there are casualties in this business by way of good cops being disciplined, fired, or criminally prosecuted for perhaps unjust political or poor judicial decisions.  I wish this weren’t true, but it is.  But if you enter this business or choose to remain, you can’t lose sight of the fact that you are the government and the Constitution was created to protect the people from you.

You will remain under intense and sometimes unjust scrutiny as long as you are a cop.  And as hard as it may seem, the always changing rules, the wandering line between right and wrong, and the intense criticism is part of the necessary checks and balances our founding fathers created to maintain the balance between tyranny and anarchy.

Please share your experiences and ideas by posting a comment below.

Editors Note: We have reposted this article that was originally posted by CopsAlive.com financial contributor Chuck Rylant on his personal blog.  Chuck raises some very interesting points about some highly inflammatory issues that are just more of the many “hidden dangers” of a career in law enforcement i.e. How do you walk that critical fine line between protecting a society that may resent your presence and avoiding crossing the line and facing administrative or criminal investigation.  Chuck is a police officer in California and is also Certified Financial Planner and owns C.J. Rylant Wealth Management.  These kinds of issues are at the heart of what CopsAlive stands for: “Helping law enforcement professionals create happy, healthy and successful lives both on the job and beyond”. Thank you Chuck for your service to your community and to our profession!

CopsAlive.com was founded to provide information and strategies to help police officers successfully survive their careers.  We help law enforcement officers and their agencies prepare for the risks that threaten their existence.

We do this by Helping Law Enforcement professionals plan for happy, healthy and successful lives on the job and beyond.  We think the best strategy is for each officer to create a tactical plan for their own life and career.

The Law Enforcement Survival Institute (LESI) works with individuals and organizations to help them create and sustain success in their lives and careers as law enforcement professionals.  It is the primary goal of The Law Enforcement Survival Institute to become the preeminent source for training, resources and information about how to create and sustain a happy, healthy and successful life and career while providing superior law enforcement service to your community.

6 Comments

  • I just came across this site today while searching the web for websites on police burnout. I am a 10 year veteran and I am convinced that I am suffering burnout, and have been for the last couple of years. This article gave me a few things to ponder. I have always wondered however, why there is not a more proactive approach to honestly and supportively informing the public of the facts of situations. I am not naive to the understanding that most major cities have the same problem with political character assassination to the detriment of the frontline officer. I am completely at a loss as to this. I have a burning desire to confront these issues with administration and media outlets, as most of us feel, but I think we all know how that would end. Any thoughts on this?

  • Michael I am impressed by two things with your comment. First, your realization and admission of burnout. It’s difficult for us in law enforcement to admit that we’re not running at 100% (for lack of a better word) even though it’s impossible to do so.

    It’s impressive that you’re researching solutions and this site is filling a void where for solutions to those types of issues didn’t exist before.

    Burnout as you describe is in my opinion, the doorway to all of the other problems cops face; alcohol, drugs, relationships issues, financial, health, etc.

    On your other topic, if I understand you correctly, I often had/have the same frustration. I believe the cause of much of the public outrage that revolves around incidents such as the one depicted in the video, is from a lack of immediate, proactive and honest communication from police administrators to the public/media.

    Often their hands are tied because of personnal and investigation rules. That said, something needs to change. Perhaps faster investigations may help.

    But more often than not, it’s “no comment” from police officials that enrage the public more than a simple explanation for why someone was punched in the face.

    You cannot blame the public for not understanding police tactics or use of force laws. It isn’t their job to know them.

    It is, however, the role of law enforcement to communicate with their customers–the public.

  • Thank you both for your comments and insights. I also agree that there needs to be so much more discussion on this subject. Police “Burnout” is only one of many issues that reflect the toxic nature of our profession. The fact that you Michael, recognize the symptoms in yourself is a huge success in a profession where we see far too many law suits on one side and police officer suicides on the other side of an issues that signals that we need to take better care of ourselves and of each other.

    Police work is the most noble profession in the world but it is also one of the most demanding. We as officers need to become better at caring for ourselves and looking out for one another BEFORE severe problems occur. We need to talk about these things more openly and as Chuck suggests we need to involve our customers in the discussion because excluding them does not better our cause, it only deepens the divide between the police and the people we serve. They have a right to know what toll the job takes on a police officer.

  • AlwaysSpeakingOut
    April 12th, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    The problem with this article is that it fails to assess that many police will often harass and abuse their powers simply because they wish to, for personal, and often vengeful reasons. Use of force training can’t help some people.. Does anyone know this cop personally? Has his personal life been looked in to? He may be a jerk with a short temper.

    I think that what we need are PUBLIC community votes on which police will be hired to serve us, and which will be fired, these are the people who are supposedly serving and protecting us. We should have a voice in who does this. Second of all, I think that police officers need to have more extensive psychological testing done on them, as well as more of an investigation in to their personal lives, to an acceptable extent.. You’re taking on a big responsibility as a cop, if you’re serious about it, you should have no problem assuring the people of your dedication and responsible standing.

    We need to end this mayhem!

  • Re: AlwaysSpeakingOut

    I appreciate you participating in the conversation and I’d like to share my perspective to your comments.

    The article did mention that “There are some obvious cases of police officers abusing their authority, and these need be dealt with strictly.” However, they are very much in the minority. But that doesn’t mean it is acceptable. But I’m not sure how that relates to this video.

    You asked if “anyone knows this cop personally? Has his personal life been looked into?”

    In this particular case, with the evidence presented in the video, what does his personal life have to do with it?

    There were two women who are resisting him and one actually assaults him. If the first woman would have done what she was directed to do by the officer, and the second lady did not assault the officer, he would not have had to punch her.

    I’m not following your logic. How does his personal life affect these women’s actions? If they disagree with the ticket he was going to give them, or the arrest, they need to appeal that in court, not on the street by physically resisting.

    I’m open to the idea of public involvement or oversight, but I’m also aware of the problems with it. It is difficult to have people untrained in the law and police tactics making use of force decisions.

    Law enforcement hiring practices are certainly flawed. They are often very politically influenced or done based on very poor testing procedures. That said, do you really want the public to hire your police?

    I mean look how well we do as a public hiring our politicians? We certainly pick the absolute worst candidates on both sides. Do you want cops to become politically driven?

    Regarding the psychological testing, you’re obviously are unfamiliar with how stringent the psychological testing is for cops. There is no other job that is more stringent.

    That said the tests are very flawed and are not perfect. I’m not sure there is a test that would be perfect. After all, we are dealing with humans, not machines.

    And as far as “stopping the mayhem,” I agree, the behavior of those two women was terrible and needs to stop.

  • Hi Chuck,
    Thank you again for your comments. I agree, that this issue is a very tricky one. So often the general public has no idea what a police officer must cope with while appearing cool, calm, collected and in control. Most people have no idea what it’s like to take a struggling person into custody without harming them in any way, especially if they resist even in the slightest. Most people have never been in a fight nor wrestling match and have no concept of what it takes to prevail without harming the other person. I think the concept of citizen police academies where the general public can go through modified police training is a great idea and gives people a fresh new perspective on the men and women who risk their lives everyday to protect them.

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