Policing in the face of resistance: Do you know when to back down?

American Military University
Author: American Military University

By Andrew Bell, faculty member, Criminal Justice with American Military University

As an officer, have you ever been challenged and backed down from an incident even when you knew you were in the right? Have you ever un-arrested someone? Have you ever not served a warrant, even though you believed you had the wanted person? I have done these things, and while it took time to get over the initial embarrassment, they were ultimately the right decisions because they helped de-escalate volatile situations.

What has Changed in Society?

It seems the divide between society and police is greater today than ever before. Mainstream media would have us think that use-of-force, racial unrest, riots and injustice is an everyday occurrence. This fuels resistance toward officers and encourages people to challenge the authority of law enforcement. But is this sentiment worse than in the past? There have been unrest and riots throughout history. The difference now is technology!

The prevalence of social media and camera phones means that a single incident can quickly escalate into a movement against police for the world to weigh in on. How have police responded? By getting their own body-worn cameras, joining social media, training on ethics and working to better understand diversity. Obviously, this is not enough. More needs to be done to train officers in unconventional tactics to ensure justice is done while vindicating police action in the eyes of the general public.

Training Police to Pursue and Control

My fellow police veteran and frequent co-author Bruce Razey and I regularly write about how cops are people, too. But they’re not ordinary people. There are major differences between trained officers and the average citizen. Bruce and I have more than 50 years of combined service, and we can recall academy and in-service trainings that taught us that citizens have a duty to retreat, whereas police have a duty to pursue, preserve the peace and arrest.

As a result of this training comes the mindset that officers must always act and control every situation. In some scenarios, police have wide discretion about what action they can take, but in others they have a legal obligation to act. For example, warrants don’t give cops the option to arrest. A warrant commands that police “shall arrest” and bring that person or their body before the court.

Are there situations where police are issued a warrant, but should not make an arrest? I would argue that for the sake of public safety, there are times when officers should not take immediate action. For example, when officers encounter a volatile situation that is beyond their control or on the verge of becoming so, there are ways for officers to withdraw gracefully and still complete their mission to “protect and serve.”

Applying De-Escalation Tactics

Over the course of my police career, I have encountered several situations where, rather than forcefully implementing my authority, the best course of action was to apply de-escalation tactics.

Perfecting the Tactical Pause Working in uniform patrol, I had more than a dozen warrants for a woman who, according to other cops, could not be caught. I also failed to catch her the first few times because she saw me and would not answer the door. So, I parked down the street and walked to the address unseen. I placed my finger over the peephole and rang the doorbell. Likely due to curiosity, she opened the door and, with a surprised look, immediately tried to close the door on my foot. Too late. I stepped in as she yelled for me to get out.

The address was correct on the warrant and she met the description, however, that description was vague. She would not identify herself and since she was in her own house, she legally did not have to. This was definitely a “contempt of cop” situation, which is when a cop’s authority is challenged. In many of these cases, officers lose control and take action that they may not have taken under normal circumstances. I was ready to drag her out. Before I could act, a big man came down the stairs and demanded to know what was going on. The dynamics of the situation changed dramatically. I still wanted to drag her out, but my conscience told me to hold on in the remote chance I was wrong about her identity. If I arrested the wrong person, she could sue me and the department. There was a long moment of awkward silence.

During that “pause” I decided to do something I had never done before: back down. But I didn’t back down without a plan. I advised the man I had warrants for the woman standing in front of us and they now “had a choice.” I said: “You can either get your things in order and turn her in, or I can come back with the SWAT team and drag you and her out.” I returned to my car and sat there wondering if I had made a major mistake. About an hour later, the dispatcher called to tell me the woman had requested to meet me at the magistrate’s office to serve the warrants.

This was the first of my many humbling experiences as an officer, but it taught me about the power of the “pause.” I learned to incorporate the pause in both tactical and administrative situations to provide a brief moment for everyone involved to think. For the most part, it worked. Short of being engaged in hand-to-hand combat or a use-of-deadly-force situation, I learned to use a “tactical pause” in strange and even stressful situations.

The Just-Be-Nice Tactic Later in my career, I received a Letter of Commendation for finding more stolen vehicles and arresting more auto thieves than anyone else in patrol. My supervisors asked me how I had done it. I simply responded, “I look for them,” but there was more to it than that. I would drive to the worst neighborhoods with the “hot sheet” and look for vehicles.

During one such apprehension, the driver insisted it was his car. I didn’t buy it because the dispatcher verified the vehicle was stolen through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), so I conducted a felony stop. It was a hot summer day and I had the man spread eagle on the asphalt road. As I approached him from behind and placed him in cuffs, I realized just how hot the pavement was. I lifted him up and brushed off the dust from the road at I patted him down. All the while, I apologized for having him lay down on the hot pavement and told him I would get to the bottom of the issue.

Our department had just had some training on “Verbal Judo,” which I decided to use during interactions with citizens, even when using force. The theme of verbal judo is basically just to be nice. No matter what the citizen acts like, police discussion and commands should be friendly in tone.

While in the police car, I checked the registration for the car and his license. As it turned out, it was his car. The vehicle had mistakenly not been taken out of NCIC after it was recovered weeks ago. I immediately removed the handcuffs and “un-arrested” the man. I explained the error to him and asked if he would like to sit up front with me while I made sure the car was removed from NCIC. We chatted about the heat wave and other things until the dispatcher confirmed that the vehicle was no longer in NCIC and then we parted ways. It was a good lesson that as an officer, you never know when your probable cause to arrest someone may disappear, so “just be nice” works in more cases than one may think.

Be Aware, Understand, then React During a riot, I was at a corner redirecting traffic away from the event that had been deemed an “unlawful assembly.” A few blocks away, the riotous crowd turned its attention toward us officers. Several hundred people squared off against three cops, including myself. The rioters stared at us, and we stared back for several moments. Then someone in the crowd started throwing cans of soda. Most of the cans missed, but one connected and glanced off the riot helmet of the cop next to me, exploding as it hit the ground in a spray of carbonated mist. One of the cops yelled, “Let’s get them!” and we made a mad dash toward the crowd.

They ran like a herd of deer frightened by a predator. I was the fastest of the cops and caught up to the back of the crowd with my riot stick in the batting position. I was within arms-reach of the rioters. One glanced back at me and yelled, “Please don’t hit me!” At that moment I came to my senses. First, I could not tell who threw the can so I decided not to hit or arrest anyone. Second, and more importantly, I realized the other officers had stopped running several blocks back and I was now the only one chasing several hundred people. I walked back to my station as the other cops laughed and I rolled my eyes at them. I said, “Better safe than sorry.” As a cop, you must be aware of what is going on, understand what that means to you and the life, liberty and property of others, and react in a way that you hope will not be on the six o’clock news.

The Ends Do Not Always Justify the Means

These situations are just a few examples of how police can apply different tactics to de-escalate volatile situations, but de-escalation is not always possible and many times officers have to take direct action. In order to gain citizen support and legitimacy, police must work hard to ensure their actions are seen as reasonable. Officers need to constantly think about the nuances of the situation, the impacts of their actions and think outside the box to use force as little as possible.

In order to “protect and serve” in these changing times, police must maintain awareness and understanding. They must quickly adapt to changing situations in a manner that is acceptable within the law, as well as acceptable to the general public, who ultimately gives police the legitimacy and authority to exist.

About the Author: Andrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Andrew also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a Bachelor of Science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member with American Military University since 2004. He has recently written a book, Cops of Acadia, which is available on Amazon. To reach him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.