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January 30, 2018
[Blue Line Lawyer]

Use of Force: As Seen on TV!

The phrase, “As seen on TV”, became iconic in the 1970s. It was plastered on toys, home products, and tools following televised commercials for the products. It was an added marketing boost when a consumer picked up a package in a store. I suppose the line was intended to lend credibility to the product and perhaps provide a testament as to the quality. While that may have worked and been appropriate for the Popeil now Ronco Pocket Fisherman, when it comes to the use of force, if you saw it on a TV show or a movie, it was likely someone’s fantasy of what the law allows, what LEOs are trained to do, and what actually happens during a use of force incident.

I recently watched some teasers about two new cop shows. They were horrible. It seems that someone gathered every LEO cliche and the writers are engaged in a cage match to see who can incorporate the most into an episode. When it comes to the use of force, this is nothing new. “As Seen on TV” means unlawful searches, excessive force, unjustified shootings, and LEOs carrying on with business as usual following each example. Quite frankly, I do not know what is more disturbing- the fact that the people making these TV shows actually believe that is how LEOs operate or that the public has come to believe these examples are reality. I do know that LEOs suffer the results of these inaccurate portrayals every day.

The injury to individual LEOs and law enforcement in general from these inaccurate TV portrayals of LEOs is immeasurable. When people see a video of an actual use of force, they naturally compare it with the only reference they have-what they saw on TV or in a movie. Even a recent controversy involving a LEO who simply took someone to the ground who was actively resisting created a firestorm. I’m convinced that the uproar when a LEO lawfully shoots a subject in the back stems largely from western movies from the 60s and 70s when to do so was considered cowardly. In fact, people move during a gunfight, and it is entirely possible for a person to point a weapon at a LEO and get shot in the back at the same time.

When I wrote When Cops Kill: the aftermath of a critical incident, one of my goals was to present a realistic portrayal of the investigations that follow a LEO’s use of deadly force. I have succeeded in that goal in several respects. A lot of people, including journalists, have read the book, and I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times which has allowed me to get the word out. I also know the book has sparked the conversation and perhaps motivated some to do their homework before they spew inaccuracies.

While there are no easy answers as to how we change this perception, I approach it as a knowledge gap and see the only fix to be education. Everyone from PIOs to sheriffs and police chiefs needs to get out front of this issue after, and preferably before, an officer involved shooting. Before you put out a video, explain why what the public will see has nothing to do with the most recent episode of the currently popular cop show. Invite journalists to visit a simulator to see what LEOs perceive in real time. You can also distribute copies of Graham v. Connor, Tennessee v. Garner, City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, Scott v. Harris, White v. Pauly, and Plumhoff v. Rickard. As I state in my book Blue News, if you do not tell your story, someone else will.

With commitment and a bit of consistency, we can make a distinction between what people see on TV or in the movies and what they see on a LEO’s body-worn camera. It will be an uphill climb, but one worth the effort. If you’re wondering why, consider this, retailers still sell the Pocket Fisherman with the ad “As Seen on TV.” Stay safe.

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Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes and should not be considered legal advice about a specific issue or situation. Working directly with an attorney on your situation is the best method for navigating legal issues. If you have a concern about a specific issue or situation, you should seek legal advice without delay. Contact the supreme court or bar association in your state for assistance locating attorneys in your area.