It was a typical sunny day when I received a disturbance-in-progress call at a residence where the suspect was threatening to kill his parents. While en route to the residence, I spoke to the parents on the phone and learned the suspect was outside. I had them lock up the house and take cover and told them I would arrive shortly. I then requested additional officers on the scene.
The suspect was a known drug user with multiple past encounters with law enforcement, each encounter increasingly problematic. Approximately six feet tall and weighing close to 300 pounds, he had access to firearms, though it wasn’t clear whether or not he was currently armed.
Since the parents had locked themselves in the house, the threat to their immediate safety had subsided. I knew that if I rushed into the situation before my cover arrived, I would be forcing the situation with limited options and creating a situation called officer-induced jeopardy. Instead, since no one was in imminent danger, I created time and space to allow more options in the hopes of achieving a more favorable outcome.
I turned my lights and sirens off a short distance from the residence so I wouldn’t alert the suspect to my presence. I exited my vehicle and came around the corner of a detached garage, where I found the suspect sitting in a lawn chair. He was salivating profusely, drool running down his chin, and did not see me. He appeared to either be under the influence of methamphetamines or withdrawing from them.
I waited until medical had staged in the area and two more officers were on scene before I spoke to the suspect. Upon seeing me, he became confrontational and agitated, jumping from topic to topic and spouting random, made-up statutes. He did not want to speak with me, but he did not appear to have a firearm. Whenever I came within 30 yards of him, he yelled even louder and became further agitated.
I waited for more officers to arrive, both to give me more options and in the hopes that this show of force would result in the suspect’s cooperation. A half hour later, after numerous unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the suspect, I told him we were going to take him into custody and place him on medical hold at the hospital.
Upon hearing this, the suspect became even more disturbed and stood up. Noticing a deputy holding a shotgun marked with a florescent orange stock and pump, he began shouting, “What are you going to do, shoot me? Go ahead and shoot me! Come on; do it!”
A second deputy drew his tazer, a third deputy drew his firearm, and two of us readied our handcuffs. The suspect suddenly grabbed three metal lawn chairs that weighed about 15 pounds each and began throwing them at us. One struck me in the right shin. The second deputy promptly tazed the suspect, who went down to the ground. We linked three sets of handcuffs together to accommodate the suspect’s size, transported him to the hospital for medical clearance, and charged him with assaulting a peace officer.
Unnecessary injury, and very possibly an unnecessary tragedy, had been averted.
The moral of the story is that if I had rushed into the situation alone, I would have had to deal singlehandedly with an irate and irrational individual under the influence of drugs. Without backup, my only option would have been my firearm, since policy at that time didn’t allow the use of less lethal means without lethal cover. Had I been forced to use my firearm to protect myself, the situation could have ended tragically. In this scenario, having taken action without adequate cover, I would have been the one unnecessarily forcing the situation.
This textbook example of officer-induced jeopardy reveals how, with forethought, assuming safety isn’t in danger, we can corral a situation, creating time and space to allow better outcomes.
Avoiding officer-induced jeopardy means preventing tragic resolutions and is always in the best interests of the public we serve.
Darron Spencer is the author of Humane Policing: How Perspectives Can Influence Our Performance and founder of Humane Policing – Transforming Police Culture. For more information, visit humanepolicing.com.
If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, a perceived problem distorts the actual problem. The perceived problem is that law enforcement officials police through racial bias and intimidation and utilize force unnecessarily because they are out to get the general public and profit from the interaction. The actual problem is that law enforcement is not well understood, nor is how and why law enforcement officers take action. As a whole, law enforcement utilizes intimidation too frequently, but in many situations, intimidation is required to ensure safety.
An ancillary problem is that law enforcement by and large operates through a socio-economic lens and bias. In other words, I believe law enforcement is biased against poor people rather than against people of other races. The media’s focus on race inflames the situation and helps to conceal the underlying issue that affects all races – how the police deal with poor people. In addition, the current environment is very hostile to law enforcement, which further alienates the brave men and women who answer the call to serve.
The Washington Post completed a comprehensive breakdown of officer-involved fatal shootings starting in 2015. This breakdown included gender, weapon, race, signs of mental illness, age, and threat level. While this information was enlightening, it did not include the socio-economic status of the individuals shot and killed.
The Prison Policy Initiative did conduct a study in 2014 focusing on the economic level of people incarcerated in prison, but there is no database that records the economic status of individuals contacted by law enforcement or arrested and put in a county jail. Because of this, the problem has to be worked backwards. The progression is, people are contacted by law enforcement, arrested and placed in a county jail, and then incarcerated in a prison. The Prison Policy Initiative determined that, prior to being incarcerated, 72% of all incarcerated women made less than $22,500 a year and 57% of all incarcerated men made less than $22,500 a year. These numbers hover just slightly above the poverty level.
Once we become aware of the actual problem, we can begin to make strides to improve it.