Recognize fight’s over – it’s not an officer’s job risk his badge to inflict punishment on anyone

David Cole (HPD Retired)

While watching the national news on television the other night, the network was pleased to show what looked like a dash camera video of what happened after state troopers (not Texas DPS) had managed to stop a fleeing vehicle.

There must have been a crash at the end of the chase. The suspect vehicle was facing the wrong way on the road with the suspect still behind the wheel. As you watch the video, you see officers running toward the suspect vehicle. One officer grabbed the suspect through the driver’s side window and launched him out several feet onto the road. He picked up the suspect and launched him through the air again as if he weighed no more than a rag doll.

A second later I noticed what I had not seen before.  An officer laying on the road on his back, apparently unconscious. Some officers attend to him while others attended to the suspect by continuing to assault him. Now I understood the absolute rage displayed by the officers. Somehow, during the pursuit and the crash, a trooper had been seriously injured.

And I also realized that except for the unconscious officer (and even he may get sucked into the outrage vortex) that all those state troopers’ careers were over. Some may even face prison time. What a waste. They were probably good police officers who let emotion overrule their good judgment. Now they will pay the price.

A while back, a retired officer told me these stories:

Many years ago, when the officer was young and riding a one-man unit, he stopped traffic on Westheimer, just east of Fondren. The driver had some old traffic warrants and the officer had to scuffle with him to get him into the back seat of his patrol car. Well, it was more than a scuffle and when other officers arrived to help, they could see that the officer’s gun belt was sideways, his uniform shirt was hanging out and, worst of all, his hair was messed up. While catching his breath and telling his buddies what had just happened, one officer opened the shop door, reached in and slapped the prisoner.

That officer immediately told him to stop and don’t ever do that to a prisoner of his again. That was the end of it. What would happen now with body cameras?

Months later, in an old neighborhood near the Galleria, that same officer and others were running through back yards and hopping fences in pursuit of a purse snatcher who had just beaten an old lady into a bloody pulp while stealing her purse at a bus stop. It was night and the back yards were dim. But they did find the suspect and tackled him.

They had him face-down on the grass. The fight was out of him. He knew he was going to jail. The officer had just gotten out his handcuffs when he saw another officer kneel over the suspect, straddling him. That officer reached into the stratosphere with his flashlight. He brought it down with the wrath of the righteous, aiming for the suspect’s head. Instead, he missed and dug a divot into the grass. He was cursing the suspect and telling him that he was going to pay for beating up the old lady.  He raised the flashlight again. The first officer pushed him off the suspect and told him to go and cool off.

What if he had connected with those blows?

Excessive Force. That’s what the Department will call it. Official Oppression, Violation of Civil Rights, Aggravated Assault. That’s what the prosecutors and courts will call it. Don’t do it. It’s not an officer’s job to inflict punishment on anyone. If you do, you are wrong and you are courting disaster. You are also endangering every other officer and supervisor on the scene. Control yourself. These old crooks are not worth your badge and your reputation.

I recently had an officer tell me about an auto theft suspect he fought after a vehicle chase and foot pursuit. The officer was attempting to arrest the suspect who was resisting to the utmost. But this suspect wasn’t just trying to push the officer away so he could run away again. This officer told me he realized about 10 seconds into the fight that the suspect was trying to hurt him. He had no interest in getting away anymore. The suspect out-muscled the officer by 50 pounds. The officer realized that it was a deadly serious fight and he had to win.

So that officer did everything in his power to win the fight. He fought dirty and pressed any advantage he had. He pummeled the suspect into the ground. He lit the guy up with his Taser about five times. Finally, the suspect had enough and the officer was able to handcuff him.

I congratulated the officer on his grit and determination to win. Seems to me that was an appropriate use of force. You cannot allow a suspect to win a physical confrontation with you. If he knocks you out, he may take your gun and shoot you. He may take that same gun and shoot other people. No, you must win.

But when the fight is over, don’t give him an extra punch or kick for good measure. That will only get you in trouble. Recognize when it’s over. Put the handcuffs on him, put him in your shop and take him to jail. If you want to hit something because there is still fight in you, go to the gym and hit the punching bag for a while.

You may save your career.