Thursday, October 19, 2006

Duty to Act

There have been several local "in-custody" deaths in the last little while, each of them stirring up their own cadres of pundits and Monday-morning quarterbacks and armchair experts. One of the commentators described one situation: the officers see someone behaving strangely and when the officer approached, the mentally disturbed person ran. The injuries that resulted in his death came from the tackle and force used to end the chase.

The commentator asked a very good question: Was it necessary to chase the person in the first place?

Lots of things come together in that question, important things that describe part of the rift in perception between emergency services personnel and citizens. The biggest may be the concept of "Duty to Act".

Let's say you see someone in your front yard, acting strangely, staring and shouting and singing songs about John Lennon and Satan. Instead of calling 911, you go out on your front porch and yell, "Hey! What are you doing? Get out of my yard!" The EDP (emotionally disturbed person) takes off and runs. As a citizen , you've solved the problem. He may be in somebody else's yard, but he's not in yours. You aren't responsible for him or for his actions.

The officer has a duty to act. This can be really specific or really vague depending on the policies of an individual agency and current tactical training. One way of thinking about it is that once an issue comes to the officer's attention, he's not only responsible for what he does, but for what happens if he does nothing.

Crazy guy runs and leaves a citizen's yard because the citizen yelled, fine. Crazy guy then slaughters a few people at the neighbor's house, no liability or responsibility to the citizen.

The officer has to think of consequences- crazy running guy might launch himself in front of a bus. Or hurt some one else. Or be wanted for a previous crime. Or just desperately need psychiatric meds.

There are clues, too. Most people don't run at the approach of an officer, hence it's reasonable to believe that if someone runs, there is a reason. The reason might be a mental stability issue, in which case the officer may need to get them to medical help. It may be because the runner has a warrant out for his arrest (no one wants to be the officer/agency who let Ted Bundy go because they didn't take the time to check for warrants). It may be because he has weapons or drugs on him that he is afraid they will find...

So the officer chases, and it is reasonable.

(Caveat- local readers will know the particular case I'm referring to. I don't have any insider knowledge or special insight to decide or even clarify the right or wrong of the issue. I'm not writing about that. I am writing about the differences in perception between officers and the people that they protect.)

People have been fed a half-lie that violence only breeds more violence. In order for someone to start to use violence as a tool, they must see violence and they must see that violence works. That much is true.

In that narrow sense it is true that someone who has never seen violence will not think to indulge in it, therefore violence can not come from non-violence, therefore violence can only come from violence therefore violence breeds violence. It is one of those sweet, logically valid (and hence true in a philosophical sense) ideas which is utterly and completely wacked. Because everybody sees violence, whether it is a bird pulling a worm out of the ground or a cat playing with a mouse. Since times before life, since the first complex molecule absorbed another simpler one, violence has been with us.

In general, peaceful and non-violent places are more pleasant for most people. I believe there are huge costs, but most people would rather live in a city where they felt safe than live in a city where they felt fear. Unfortunately, people without fear make great victims and attract predators (the dodo were wiped out because they weren't afraid of people and they were good eatin'). A second unfortunate fact is that most people, especially peaceful people are often reluctant to use violence even in the defense of their communities... and when they do, they tend to suck at it. They are amateurs.

The most damning aspect of the violence-breeds-violence platitude is that in most cases, violence (force) is the only thing that can stop violence. Appeasement just allows the violent to get more, rewarding their violence. Ostracision just makes them feel righteous in victimizing the ostracizers and proving that the shunned are important. Trying to "fix" the psychological make-up either 1) gives the violent more tools and excuses (self-esteem training has been shown to make criminals MORE violent) or 2) fails because the violent don't see themselves as having a problem. Since when was being stronger and more dangerous a problem?

That leaves Force as the only viable means to stop immediate violence (some other things can work, if given time, but most require more time than exists in a violent crisis).

Hmm, the problem. Need force, but society at large is both reluctant and ill-equipped (psychologically) to deliver it. The solution: create a group who are trained and prepared to use force for the good of society.

This creates an incredible gap in understanding between society and society's defenders. A citizen who hits someone with a stick is breaking the law (usually) and more important, going against their socialization. The officer may be required to hit someone with a stick. Or shoot. A citizen handcuffs you and throws you in the back of the van, it's kidnapping. An officer does it and it's an arrest.

This is especially hard in America. We've been trained from the time we are little that everyone is the same and all rules should apply to all people, but it doesn't work. Football games need refs. Lifeguards need to be able to swim into "off limits" areas to rescue people.

And the system has worked to an amazing level. Fewer people are touched by violence than ever before. That brings it's own problems, as people try to analyze and even judge an act and environment that they have no understanding of. Some try, extrapolating from schoolyard fights in the distant past or what they've seen on TV or read in "true crime" books, but it is very weak extrapolation. It allows some of the craziest myths and misinformation and really dumb ideas to be given currency.

It's a gap of understanding.


Anonymous said...

BUT RORY! BUT RORY! THE COPS COULD HAVE (insert steaming pile here)...

1) Shot the knife out of his hand
2) Shot him with a tranquilizer dart
3) Talked him down with skills learned from H.0.P.E. (helping officers peacefully enforce)
4) Let him go
5) Thrown a net on him
6) Lasso'ed him
7) Asked him nicely and he would have cooperated

Honestly, I blame your paramilitary olive drab uniforms :P

P.S. Can we please set one day aside as national anarchy day? I'm sure you would appreciate the day off and it would make my morning commute a whole lot more fun.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I totally forgot about disarming the kid with the knife. You know, in this one movie I saw jackie chan grab a gun out of a guys hand while handcuffed to a steering wheel and then field strip it with one hand. Then, he jumped over a wall.

Anonymous said...

I say legalize crime. Seriously, the one area no training department in the US touches is the emotionality, and experience, of being in a hand-to-hand fight. ConSim does a good job of inducing adrenalization through peer jury and scenario (uncertainty) training, but until you have someone on top of you raining down blows, you have no idea of what you are capable of or how you will react- a point Rory has made over and over and over. One solution - close quarter combat training with reward based competition. Over-coming stage (fight) fright is a necessary addition to training programs. As any of you out there knows that has fought Rory - the more brutal it gets, the more he laughs - one of the signs of being in the Void.