Soft Cops, Hard Cops

At Fault Lines, Greg Prickett wrote that even the cops at PoliceOne weren’t buying.

When a police officer shoots someone, like Officer Phillip Hancock of the Opelika, Alabama Police Department shot Airman Michael Davidson of Texas in 2014, you would expect that the PoliceOne group would be firmly in Hancock’s corner. Surprisingly, they are not, even though both the U.S. District judge and the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of Hancock. There is something wrong with our legal system when the everyday street police officers say that a shooting was bad, yet the courts absolve the officer of any liability.

A bit of insight one gains through the eyes of a cop is that Phillip Hancock, the shooter, appeared to have his gun in “low ready” position. In other words, before Davidson, on active duty in the Air Force, did anything, Hancock was so deathly afraid that he was ready to kill.

For what’s terribly wrong with putting a gun in the hands of this coward Hancock, read Greg’s post. For why the 11th Circuit backed the coward Hancock, look no further than the reasonably scared cop rule.

After careful consideration and review of a video recording of the shooting, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Davidson, we conclude that a reasonable officer in Hancock’s position would have feared for his life.

The holding says all it needs to say, both about the law and about cops. The problem is that Graham v. Connor allows for any colorable claim of fear to suffice. But as Fault Lines contributor and police training sergeant, Lou Hayes, suggested, the problem isn’t the law. It’s the cop.

People understand me when I say I want cops who have been in fights.

This will strike some as counterintuitive, exactly the opposite of what we might want in a cop to avoid putting a gun into the hands of a coward like Hancock. Don’t we want more peaceful, more gentle, more empathetic cops?

These are all nice words, the sorts of words in which one would take comfort that an officer more empathetic toward others would be less inclined to shoot, to kill. We’re told that. We often think that as well. But Lou made a very serious point: Who is more likely to be easily frightened, threatened?

Lou’s reaction came out of a discussion about fragile young people, for whom words are terribly traumatic as they’ve never endured the pain of sticks and stones. Much as it may be hard to believe, cops are people too, and raised in the same culture as the rest of us. Just as others “literally shake” upon hearing words that are no longer “allowed,” they too are raised in a society where mommy has made absolutely certain their knee will never get skinned, no punch will graze their nose, no physical pain will ever be suffered.

They are ill-equipped to face a threat of actual harm. They are so unprepared that fear overcomes them at the mere possibility, not even probability, that harm could befall them. We’ve raised wimps, and wimps have joined the police department. We’ve put guns in their hands, and we’re shocked that they’ve used them out of fear.

There is little doubt that the coward, Hancock, felt subjective fear when he shot Davidson. There’s no suggestion that he was jonesing for a shooting or had some beef with Davidson. He was afraid. The cause of his fear was an unknown black object in Davidson’s upraised hand. Was it a gun? Something else? Something dangerous?

Hancock, the coward, wasn’t about to wait to find out, even though his gun was out in low ready position. Had Hancock not been a coward, his gun would not have been out. Had Hancock been capable of thinking beyond his immediate fear, he might have taken actions other than shooting. Standing behind his patrol car, for example, with his gun aimed just in case.

But he didn’t. He was ready to kill and at the first hint that there might be a potential threat, he shot.

Lou’s idea, that a cop who has “been in fights” will be capable of handling the stress and fear without shooting before he knows that an actual threat exists, will be a better cop. It may not make for a perfect cop, but at least it won’t be a cop who will shake in his boots at the slightest hint of danger.

Or will it?


23 thoughts on “Soft Cops, Hard Cops

  1. Billy Bob

    We have a trenchant comment, but will wait for someone else to go first. Ha. In any case, everything we have to say has already been said. So there! Who cares?
    Working overtime today?

      1. Scott Jacobs

        It’s only a fight (gun or fist) if the other guy knows it is happening. Otherwise, it’s an ambush or a mugging, respectively.

  2. Terence Roberts

    How true. When I was a freshman at a jesuit boarding school, the Jebbies put me in the boxing ring with a classmate, with gloves.
    We battered each other for about two minutes when the whistle blew. Although bruised, We were still stnding and in one piece. I learned that being hit in the face isn’ t the end of the world. That fight happened 60 years ago. I still remember it and, more importantly, have carried it through my life. I haven’t been in a fight since, but I know the tension and fear it can bring to you. I Also know that the other guy has those same feelz
    Thanks for sharing the profoundity of Lou Hayes statement. It is so important, that it should be at the top of every hiring questionnaire of every police department.

    1. Lou Hayes

      Terence, as a student of Catholic high school myself (Augustinians here!), I was no stranger to boxing gloves. When we ask prospective police recruits about street fights or physical scuffles, few these days have that experience. They’ve been told their whole lives to shy from violence or physicality. Thanks for sharing your story. Not many are getting that anymore! Lou

      1. the other rob

        It was the Christian Brothers, for me. But I grew up in a land where guns were rare and violence wasn’t. By my late 20s, I’d been knocked out a half dozen times and had delivered roughly the same myself. I’m not a big man and certainly don’t consider myself to be “hard”. That was just the way it was, where and when I grew up.

        Last I checked with the old country, it was still as violent as ever. The “shy away” messages were being delivered, but nobody was listening. I’ll stop now – the cat on my lap is making it increasingly difficult to type. Yes, I’m with Posner on feline matters.

  3. Lex

    Perhaps there’s something to be said about the fact that (probably) the vast majority of current and bygone goons in the NHL are among the most well-liked players, as well as the team’s face at charity events.

    The reality is that a bit like this old post: Similarly, scrapping needn’t be the product of a personally hostile “adrenalin rush that clouds [one’s] reason.” Having cops who realize that when a fight’s over, it’s over — and don’t feel the urge to bump a perp’s head on the door after getting tagged in the face — is probably a good thing.

    1. SHG Post author

      Frankly, I’m not sure how far the analogy extends when it comes to cops. I suspect Lou’s right, and more importantly, is on to an important shift in both cultural attitudes and personal character. Then again, it’s not like abuse and excessive force didn’t happen in the old days, too. Then again, the concern that cops have grown too afraid, too quick to take a life, because they’re just as fragile and scared as so many others these days need not be the only factor at play, but can still be a critical factor.

      The First Rule of Policing isn’t new. But it used to be the “glint of steel” that drew fire, not the threat of the unknown that could potentially end up with the glint of steel. And no court decision will change a cop’s decision to fire if he fears for his life. Better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6. That goes for the rest of us as well. There’s no glory in being the dead guy. The question is what does it take for everyone to make it home for dinner, not just the unduly scared cop.

  4. Morgan O.

    I have been deeply involved in military training, and without a doubt it is a major, if not THE major, problem in training people who need to be ready for violence. Due to budget cuts and the inevitable arguments of “we don’t do that anymore because [technology X]”, we have lost a great deal of the combative aspect of training. I had to fight like fury to keep bayonnet fighting drills in Basic Training. There were no dummies, so it was barely training. We lost pugil-stick fighting. Unarmed combat is only taught to SF, and units lucky enough to have an enthusiast CO. I thank my lucky stars that the current Superintendent of West Point, his badassness the Lieutenand-General Robert Caslen managed to stand up to the concerned doctors who said 1st Year (Plebe) Boxing was too dangerous due to concussions.

    If the army isn’t doing it, how can we expect police to get on board? And that’s in a country that deifies football. At least you have the chance of getting young men who have been tackled.

    1. SHG Post author

      A recurring theme from combat vets is how their rules of engagement would never allow the self-indulgence that cops enjoy, to shoot at the slightest twinge of fear. The irony here is that the guy shot was an airman.

      1. Morgan O.

        That’s a whole issue by itself-and I speak as a vet who had some terrifyingly permissive (though arguably necessary) ROE in Afghanistan. I think we have a very different dynamic, though. We are rarely alone; there’s almost always a more experienced leader on the ground keeping an eye on the troops. Not to mention the sense of invulnerability the full Robocop and a couple of big guns can give.

        There’s no easy solution. But the hard ones can be good. Training, training, training. And training that hurts. I was always impressed at how some of my candidates would get badly hurt, and upon coming off of medical would often become more open to risk. Surviving pain and fear made them better.

        1. SHG Post author

          Not being a vet, I can’t speak from knowledge. So I defer to the experience of those who know better.

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