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You Don’t Have To Be Right; You Have To Be Reasonable

You Don’t Have To Be Right; You Have To Be Reasonable

What cops and the media need to know about Graham vs. Connor

In a front page article from the New York Times titled “Training Officers to Shoot First and He Will Answer Questions Later”, the author attacks Dr. Bill Lewinski, a use of force expert, police trainer and researcher.  Through his Force Science Institute, he has examined controversial use of force scenarios and explains why police react within the “Constitutionally Reasonable” realm in most instances.  

The article is filled with the typical left leaning, blame everybody but the bad guy nonsense, you would expect in a New York Times article.  It does not help that some groups like the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have supported non-evidence based, unrealistic and dangerous ideas that fall outside of the United States Supreme Court’s own use of force decisions.  

Both PERF and the DOJ are left leaning and controlled by politicians.

The comments in articles, letters to the editor and national media commentary on police use of force incidents don’t reflect the reality of what would really happen if any of those commenting were faced with any of those situations themselves.  There have been several studies done proving this but for now research some of the news reporters, activists and private citizens who have gone on camera in use of force scenarios.

Every one of those involved were shocked and reacted differently than they thought or suggest for others.  Take for instance the Cincinnati police officer who was attacked with a knife in his vehicle.  The suggestion that he should have taken the attack at risk to himself by Black Lives Matter and an advocacy group for the homeless because “….. human life is far too important to not choose other options, even if doing so might increase immediate personal risk” goes against human nature and the will to survive.  

Part of the problem is that we don’t share with or educate the public how hard use of force situations are.  Partly because we face these situations every day and accept them and partly because we don’t explain that part of our job very well, either in reports or to the public.

Graham vs. Connor is the seminal use of force case in the United States and has guided court decisions, police use of force training and use of force policy since 1989.  The case is the perfect case in the sense that Graham had committed no crime yet the foundations for officers being judged in those “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving” circumstances are not based on the thoughts and facts known after the situation is under control but from the perspective of a reasonable on the scene with consideration given to the fact that police officers must make “split-second” decisions about how much force is necessary during that situation.

In analysis after analysis, what is asked for by the media, certain groups and even alleged law enforcement organizations is whether what the police did was right.  Is it right for a 12-year-old boy brandishing a realistic looking toy gun to be shot and killed by police?   Is it right to shoot a person who is armed with an unloaded or non-functioning weapon?  

The answer is that it is not right to shoot those people given the facts that are asked in these two scenarios.  

These are the questions asked by the families and the media.  The problem is that we try to argue that it is right given those facts.  We do them and law enforcement a disservice by saying it was right because it was not.  How do we expect the public to understand what we cannot explain?

With all the focus on use of force by police, the question is not is it right but is it reasonable.  Graham vs. Connor lays out as many guidelines as possible for determining whether force was reasonable and decision after decision by prosecutors, judges and juries show that once the actual standard is explained to those people, the correct conclusions are made.  

Police officers need to make some decisions quickly.  They are asked to do this with regularity and more importantly as human beings with all of the human performance considerations, workload, regulations, fear and dedication to public order.  To expect right every time is impossible.  The Constitution’s framers and the Supreme Court clearly understood that, given the circumstances, “reasonable” is a realistic expectation.  It is impossible for people who have lost someone in a tragedy to understand when we say it was right when it was not.

The next time you discuss use of force with your department, the public or your friends, try using this language.  It is not that force is excessive, necessary, justified or even right that matters.

It only has to be reasonable.



About The Author


Tim Barfield is in his 35th year as a police officer. He started as a police officer in a rural village before transferring to an inner ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. He spent 32 years in that department gaining experience in many areas of police work. In 2014, he accepted a position as police chief for another department. He is a husband, father and grandfather who has a love for police work and police officers with a goal of helping them succeed in a great profession. His responsibilities and desires have included patrol, traffic, DARE, SWAT, training and supervision. He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. He continues to learn and instruct on subjects with an emphasis on awareness, police survival mindset and ethics.

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