Behind the Badge: When is police use of force reasonable?

Editor’s note: Our community needs professional, well-trained, accountable law enforcement. That’s why we sent reporter London Bishop to attend the Sinclair Police Academy, where for six months she is learning alongside recruits what it takes to wear the badge, telling their stories, and helping the public understand how police are trained to do their job. Visit the Behind the Badge page on our website for more from this project.

Sinclair Police Academy cadets are told officers have about ten seconds at the start of any encounter to set the tone for de-escalation.

Particularly in mental health encounters, the first few seconds are vital to ensure a situation doesn’t progress further than it needs to, something that can take an entire career to learn.

A calm head and the right words can make the difference between a tense but peaceful encounter, and a bruising brawl.

“You learn the gift of gab, because you’re tired of getting your butt kicked,” said instructor Randy Warren.

Cadets are told to use only the amount of force necessary to mitigate an incident, make an arrest, or protect themselves or others from harm. If open-hand restraint is necessary, then that is what should be used.

However, on the street, instructors warn situations can go from zero to 100 in an instant, so certain responses must be trained to be second nature.

Here’s what the soon-to-be police officers in the Sinclair academy are taught:

- Passive resistance, such as simply refusing to move during a protest, does not justify use of force.

- Active resistance, which ranges from pulling away from an officer, fleeing, or fighting, justifies an officer’s use of force, or if the person presents a credible threat, such as not responding to commands to make one’s hands visible.

- Officers are legally justified in using deadly force if they have probable cause that it would protect them or others from immediate serious physical injury or death, or to prevent the escape of a fleeing “armed and dangerous” person.

Cadets, reporter take it to the mat

Sinclair cadets are taught in the classroom when to use force. Lessons on how to use force take them — and this reporter — to the gym.

In sessions spread throughout the six-month academy, cadets spread out mats in the small PT room, and spend the day throwing, shoving, tackling, pushing, grappling and striking each other.

Training alongside the cadets, this reporter learned how I can put someone much taller than myself on the ground with good technique and a little bit of science.

Credit: Marshall Gorby

Credit: Marshall Gorby

For example, if I want to do a “seatbelt” grab, I have to (gently) kick the back of the knee to get cadet Domon Cunningham to where my 5′4″ self can reach over his shoulder and around the hip, and pull him backwards down to the ground.

We also trained strikes (shoves, knees, and elbows). We broke into two groups: one in a circle in the middle holding four-foot-long padded bags, and the other in a larger circle on the outside. The goal is to smack the pad hard enough to send the holder backward.

Officers are also trained to shout commands the entire time, like “stop resisting; get back; drop your weapon.”

This emphasizes that the officer isn’t using force to beat someone up, but to gain compliance. And it reinforces that the use of force ceases once compliance is gained.

We were also taught pressure points. Finding the points at the back of the calves, the inside of the elbow, inside the collarbone, or around the head and face takes a bit of practice, but once found, they elicit a reflex.

Pressure points are a tool, and though they cause pain, are unlikely to cause long-term damage, if done correctly, instructors said.

Again, the entire point of subject control is to gain compliance, particularly from a resistive or aggressive person, while inflicting as few injuries as possible.

Cadets are required to take 70 hours of subject control techniques, eight hours of impact weapons, such as a baton or asp, and three weeks of range time with various firearms, including pistol, shotgun, and patrol rifle.

Credit: Marshall Gorby

Credit: Marshall Gorby

While not required in basic police training by the Ohio Police Officer Training Commission, Sinclair has pepper spray and TASER training as part of its curriculum. If not done by the academy, departments will certify their staff on each of these.

When does force go too far?

There are multiple examples in recent years of public concern about whether actions by local officers were appropriate — often after bystanders capture the incident on cellphone camera.

A dispute over a charge for extra cheese on a Big Mac led to the end of a 22-year career for a Butler Twp. police sergeant last year.

Sgt. Todd Stanley and another officer responded to a request to trespass a woman from McDonald’s who was reportedly arguing with restaurant employees. The woman refused to provide her identification, and the incident escalated to Stanley punching the woman in the face during an arrest, which a bystander caught on video.

Stanley was found guilty of assault in September and sentenced to two years probation. He left the Butler Twp. police department in April 2022.

In another case, Kettering police determined that a use of force incident that raised eyebrows after it was shared on social media was appropriate.

The officers struck a man several times during an arrest in August 2023, with one officer at times appearing to punch the man on the ground.

Kettering Police Chief Chip Protsman said he reviewed multiple videos of the incident and determined that the officers acted appropriately; they deployed a taser, which was ineffective, before progressing to “hand strikes.”

“I found that (the suspect) was resisting arrest and the force used by officers was reasonable and appropriate to overcome that resistance,” Protsman said.

Dayton police have yet to release the results of an internal investigation after the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office ruled a man died while in Dayton police custody after a struggle with officers. The coroner’s office notes the man had multiple health issues and said recent cocaine use contributed to his death.

In class, the Sinclair cadets are taught a case study about the 2015 pepper spraying of a restrained inmate at the Montgomery County Jail.

Then-Sgt. Judith Sealey blasted inmate Amber Swink in the face with pepper spray while Swink was strapped to a restraint chair and unable to move, causing Swink to fall unconscious.

A scandal and allegations of coverup ensued, especially after video of the incident disappeared from county records — only to reappear online posted by a local law firm — and Sealey was promoted.

Sealey was charged with assault and ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and prohibited from serving as a law enforcement officer in Ohio. Swink sued the county and settled the lawsuit for $375,000. And a sheriff’s office sergeant responsible for the video coming to light was awarded $225,000 in a settlement after an investigation found his firing was “arbitrary and discriminatory.”

Documenting use of force

Lawsuits against police officers are common.

“You are going to get sued,” Instructor Colin Patterson told cadets.

The best protection against lawsuits, or even criminal charges, is to do the job correctly, and then thoroughly document it.

Any use of force requires documentation of what, how, and most importantly, why the force is used, Patterson told cadets. An officer’s reasons for using force must be documented and reasonable, and needs probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

When Sinclair Police Academy surveyed local jurisdictions about what they could add to their curriculum to better prepare cadets for their agencies, every single one cited report writing as one of the most important (and most lacking) skills for new cadets.

Factors determining if force was reasonable include the severity of the suspected crime, if the suspect is an immediate threat to safety of the officer or others, whether or not the suspect is actively resisting, and whether or not the suspect is trying to evade arrest by fleeing.

An officer’s intentions, facts discovered later in the investigation, and policy violations are all irrelevant.

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