The Fear Factor in Policing

Given the situation, officer, is your fear reasonable or not?

After three decades in policing and two of them as a chief officer, I find myself in the ranks of most police officers – I never had to kill someone. And I am thankful for that. At the same time, I know it was a possibility every day I went to work; especially during my days on the tactical squad.

Yet looking back, I have in my memory one indelible scenario that had I used deadly force it would have been both problematic and career-changing. A high-speed chase, chasing one of the two suspects alone down a dark alley, a 2×4 narrowly missing my head, taking aim with my weapon, and at the last moment firing into the ground. That’s a split-second decision. Had I taken that person’s life would I have continued in police work? I wonder even today.

During my early police career, I spent time training police officers in defensive tactics in the city of Minneapolis and throughout the state. I also studied one or more martial arts during my career as a police officer and incorporated many of those techniques into my training.

The use of deadly force by police in a democracy tends to be problematic. Did the officer have to shoot the suspect? Why couldn’t he shoot to disable, not kill?

If the deadly force was to save another’s life, the life of the officer, or to stop a fleeing and immanently dangerous felon, the taking of a life becomes less problematic.

Yet even in the above instances (which are supported by law) when the suspect is black and the officer white, or the victim a teenager, the shoot often becomes more than problematic in the black community because of decades (centuries?) of mistrust between those who enforce the law and those who must comply.

That is why I have often said and written about the “ideal police officer in a democracy” is not only educated, well-trained, honest, respectful, connected with the community, but also controlled in his or her use of force.

In our society, police must be controlled in the use of deadly force and use it only in situations in which they are protecting life. But, of course, easier said than done… [I happen to believe that training makes the difference. Officers need to feel they are competent in controlling a physical person should the situation present itself. Realistic training can help overcome one’s fear. How much time to we train on hand-to-hand (and stick) methods of control versus the time spent at the range? Both are extremely necessary.]

Last week, Michael Wines and Frances Robles reported in The New York Times about reasonable fear and the police use of deadly force. They noted that the legal concept “reasonable objectiveness” comes from a standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989. It essentially says that a police officer’s use of force must be seen in the context of what a reasonable officer would do in the same situation given the danger and stress of police work.

The problem I have with this is based on my own experiences. Every police officer has had to work with officers that simply should not be in police work. I certainly have. Generally speaking, I believe these officers have an excessive (unreasonable?)  amount of fear when working on the street. Their fear drives bad decisions in how they talk and respond to people they confront and, yes, when and how they use force.

If this be the standard – “reasonable fear” — how do we cull out of our recruiting process and training systems those who are unreasonably fearful before they hurt someone? We certainly do not need police in our communities who are unreasonably fearful!

What Wines and Robles reported may not be helpful to practicing (or retired) police officers, but I sense that it might be enormously helpful to others who are trying to better understand what may have happened in Ferguson, “Each time police officers draw their weapons, they step out of everyday law enforcement and into a rigidly defined world where written rules, hours of training and Supreme Court decisions dictate not merely when a gun can be fired, but where it is aimed, how many rounds should be squeezed off and when the shooting should stop.

“The Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot an unarmed African-American teenager two weeks ago, setting off protest and riots, was bound by 12 pages of police department regulations, known as General Order 410.00, that govern officers’ use of force. Whether he followed them will play a central role in deliberations by a St. Louis County grand jury over whether the officer, Darren Wilson, should be charged with a crime in the shooting. [That is not exactly correct: Whether Wilson will be charged with a crime has little or nothing to do with General Order 410.00, but Missouri state law regarding the use of deadly force.]

‘But as sweeping as restrictions on the use of weapons may be, deciding whether an officer acted correctly in firing at a suspect is not cut and dried. A host of outside factors, from the officer’s perception of a threat to the suspect’s behavior and even his size, can emerge as mitigating or damning.

“The police, the courts and experts say some leeway is necessary in situations where officers under crushing stress must make split-second decisions with life-or-death consequences. A large majority of officers never use their weapons. A handful of officers may be rogue killers, researchers say, but laboratory simulations of armed confrontations show that many more officers — much like ordinary civilians — can make honest mistakes in the pressure cooker of an armed encounter…

“Every step [in the use of force], however, is overshadowed by a single imperative: If an officer believes he or someone else is in imminent danger of grievous injury or death, he is allowed to shoot first, and ask questions later. The same is true, the courts have ruled, in cases where a suspect believed to have killed or gravely injured someone is fleeing and can only be halted with deadly force…

“Much remains in dispute about Officer Wilson’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown… But the question of whether Officer Wilson’s actions were objectively reasonable will likely be at the crux of that debate…”

Wines and Robles go on to cite interesting commentary from those who train, supervise or research police use of force.

  • “It’s a very simple analysis, a threat analysis. “If a police officer has an objectively reasonable fear of an imminent threat to his life or serious bodily harm, he or she is justified in using deadly force. And not just his life, but any life.” [Geoffrey P. Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor and expert on high-risk police activities.]
  • “If a felon is fleeing and is known to be unarmed and poses no danger of bodily harm to either a police officer or civilians in the area, then the officer will no doubt have legal issues if he uses deadly force to subdue that person. If the evidence shows a close-up shooting and a struggle, it will go better for Officer Wilson.” [Lawrence Kobilinsky, chairman of the department of science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice]
  • “Sometimes you make a straight-up mistake. ‘He punched me, so I shot him.’ Punching and shooting don’t go together unless you’re much bigger than me or you have martial arts training.” [David Klinger, former police officer and a professor and criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.]
  • “Let the physical evidence tell us what happened. How badly injured was the police officer? Was he dazed? Was Michael Brown on drugs? Let’s see what’s really going on here. He may have been pulling the trigger out of pure adrenaline, because he was in fear. If the cop has no injuries, then it’s clear-cut and hard to say he should have been shot. It’s all going to be told by the physical evidence.” [Pat Diaz, expert witness and a former South Florida homicide detective who investigated more than 100 police shootings.]
  •  “[Police] have to make a decision before there’s enough time to study everything about the situation and what all the possible consequences could be. Even if a cop does everything right in a very fast-paced, low-information situation where the risks are very high, the potential consequences of a mistake are very high.” [Bryan Vila, a professor of criminal justice at Washington State University in Spokane and former police officer.]

[Michael Wines reported from New York, and Frances Robles from Ferguson, Mo. on August 22, 2014. To read their entire article CLICK HERE.]

Stay tuned. There is a lot of legal process ahead — the investigation of the shooting by St Louis County police and the FBI, the finding of the Grand Jury convened by the county prosecutor, and, we can expect, a number of appeals and further litigation in the civil courts.

In the meantime, questions remain, emotions reign, and demonstrations and protests continue.

This is time for police to listen deeply to those whom they police. It’s a big part of community-oriented policing.

We can all learn from this matter. We can improve on that which we do.

(If somehow you think we don’t have work to do in the community trust area, take a look at this striking poll by the Pew Research Center.)



  1. When you look at police shootings in Germany, when they shoot, the shots end up in the legs of the person they shot at. How do you try not to overemphasis fear at the academy and at the same time, not underestimating it?


    1. I have heard good things about the German police with regard to their restraint in using deadly force. For example in 2011 the German police fired only 85 rounds! ( As to academy training it must be strongly oriented toward hands-on scenarios and hand to hand restraining practice with just as much time and effort directed toward conflict management and deescalation techniques. After training and field experience, a police officer should feel confident in deadly with, essentially, “crazy people;” those who are angry, upset, suicidal, and delusional.


  2. Police officers must realize that heavens will not fall if an offender escapes – most of deadly force cases in the US seem to be in the process of chase or arrest.


  3. Problem is that when the police pull you over at a traffic stop, many of them if not all of them, have their hands on their gun. Does this mean that they should not be cops since they are letting their fear get the best of them. I am just curious. I think the problem is that many Americans would rather use a gun than engage in hand to hand combat with someone like a Roman soldier, a Spartan soldier, Ninja warrior, a Samurai warrior, a Zlulu warrior, a galdiator like Spartcus, or an ordinary citizen who is good at hand to hand conbat. This use a gun in any kind of fight attitude has cerntainly been convey to the police officers as well.


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