Officer Fitness and Use of Force

By Rob Shaul

The headline-grabbing officer use of deadly force cases in Missouri, South Carolina and Oklahoma (2015), reminded me of a conversation I had with a Law Enforcement Officer at the NTOA national conference in Alabama.

This Officer referred to a legal case where an officer escalated to deadly force, crippled a suspect and his department was sued for damages. The injured man won damages, and part of the legal reasoning was that the officer in question was unfit, and his lack of fitness helped cause him to skip non-lethal methods and escalate to deadly force prematurely.

I tracked down the case: Parker v District Columbia, 1988.

The District of Columbia was sued, lost, and the suspect was awarded over $400,000 in damages by a jury. The District appealed to the US Court of Appeals, which again ruled for the suspect.

Wrote the Court of Appeals in its ruling, “ We have considered also the record evidence on Officer Hayes’ general physical training and, specifically, his disarmament training and believe that it too illustrates deliberate indifference to adequate training. Charles W. Bates, a security consultant, and former F.B.I. agent testified as an expert regarding Officer Hayes’ disarmament training. Agent Bates described, and eventually demonstrated on the Parkers’ counsel, how Officer Hayes could have subdued Mr. Parker without the use of deadly force ….. According to Agent Bates, Officer Hayes’ failure physically to subdue Mr. Parker evidenced a serious deficiency in the officer’s training program.”

The court continued, “It is undisputed that Officer Hayes had no physical training for four years prior to the Parker incident. Indeed, he was off duty because of a fractured shoulder until just two months before the incident that gave rise to this lawsuit. Given Officer Hayes’ physical condition, it is not hard to fathom that his most effective method for subduing the objects of his pursuits would be the use of a firearm as opposed to the application of physical force. Officer Hayes simply was not in adequate physical shape. This condition posed a foreseeable risk of harm to others.” (emphasis added).

Finally, the Court ruled that the department was at fault. “We are persuaded that a fair-minded jury could have concluded that Officer Hayes’ conduct was the result of deliberate indifference on the part of the District with respect to the physical training of its police officers.”

I’m not an attorney, but as I read this the Court found that a deconditioned law enforcement officer presents a “risk” to others because his of fitness prevents him from using non-lethal means of submission and/or pursuit and thus he prematurely escalates to deadly force.

Second, the court blames the officer’s agency for his lack of fitness.

One of the reasons our LE Athlete programming includes upper body hypertrophy work is to get officers looking big and strong. The idea is that suspects could be deterred from a confrontation by an officer’s physical appearance.

Sergeant Adrienne Quigley pointed this out in her June 2008 piece on the need for law enforcement physical fitness programs which appeared in The Police Chief magazine. Sergeant Quigley cited FBI research to write,

“Physical fitness can also protect officers from becoming victims. In the numerous offender interviews conducted by the FBI over the course of the past 10 years, it was learned that offenders typically size up their victims when deciding what they are going to do. Many had difficulty identifying a particular trait or mannerism that made them pick or not pick a particular officer, but they did articulate that the deciding factor was whether or not they felt they could “take them.” If officers appeared fit and conducted themselves in a professional manner, offenders hesitated; however, when officers were perceived as potential targets, offenders capitalized on the situation. Officers need to be cognizant of the image they convey and recognize that their appearance and demeanor in uniform is a primary factor in how others will perceive them.”

Both of the cases in Missouri and South Carolina involved some kind of scuffle and subsequent pursuit between the officer and suspect. I understand there’s no indication that better officer physical fitness would have changed the outcome – and I’m in no way suggesting it here. I would suggest better fitness wouldn’t have made things any worse.

The solution being presented to prevent similar incidents is built around technology – i.e. body cameras. But perhaps there is an opportunity here on the fitness side, also. Law Enforcement officers have similar fitness demands as military personnel, but unlike the military, fitness assessments are not the norm, fitness is not part of the culture, and most commands don’t provide on-duty time to train or training facilities

The body camera solution is focused on monitoring and oversight. A Command-supported and enforced fitness program would be an investment that could pay dividends in not only escalation cases, but also overall health and well being of law enforcement officers, decreased injuries, insurance claims, etc.

I understand it’s important to keep things in perspective given the media coverage and youtube videos. Dr. Laurence Miller does a great job of this with is January article on discussing the use of deadly force.

National media had focused on these cases that have gone bad.

Dr. Laurence counters, “ it’s impressive how often police officers restrain themselves from utilizing deadly force even in circumstances where it would be justified. The average annual rate of use of deadly force by U.S. law enforcement is about 360 cases a year. Compare that with over 60 thousand reported cases of citizen assaults on officers each year, approximately 11 thousand of which involve a lethal weapon.”

So, 60,000 assaults on officers occur annually, and 11,000 of these involve the use of a deadly weapon. An average of 360 use of deadly force by officers occur every year, and just a small percentage of these are not justified. This is an astounding testament to LE professionalism, prudence, and training.




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