Insufficient Use of Force by Police

The extent to which rioters were able to enter the Capitol, trash it, and disrupt the work of Congress had multiple causes. One of them was insufficient use of force by the Capitol police. Buried deep in this AP story is this comment by Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman: “She also says officers didn’t understand when they were allowed to use deadly force, and that less-than-lethal weapons that officers had were not as successful as they expected.”

Now that Members of Congress have personally experienced the adverse consequences of insufficient use of force by police, will they learn the needed lessons from this experience?

Lesson 1: When police are unsure of the boundaries of permissible use of force, and when they face career-wrecking discipline, civil liability, and even criminal prosecution for good-faith misjudgments on where the line is, they will tend to err on the side of insufficient force.

Lesson 2: When police use insufficient force against people who are clearly breaking the law, innocent people suffer the consequences. Looking back over the events that spurred outrage for “excessive” force over the last few years, most of them began with inexcusable law-breaking by the person ultimately killed or injured. In contrast, the people who suffer from insufficient use of force are typically innocent of any serious crime and did not make any choices leading to their own victimization. Innocent people suffered in last year’s riots due to insufficient police action. Innocent people suffer when a perpetrator escapes to prey again because police do not use enough force to capture him. A reflexive argument that police should err on the side of insufficient force overlooks these facts.

Lesson 3: There are no quick and easy answers. The non-lethal alternatives look good in demonstrations. How well they work in real-world situations is another matter.

Lesson 4: It is not possible to write a rule book detailed enough to cover every possible situation. There will always be a gray area. Police need to be able to make judgment calls within the gray area without destroying their careers and lives. That is why we have qualified immunity in civil cases and why we need to keep it. That is why leaders need to back up their officers when they make these good-faith judgments, something most did until recently.

Lesson 5: Of course, there are examples of misuse of force outside the gray zone. There is no excuse for using deadly force against a fully subdued and secured arrestee. But generalizing from those isolated and rare examples to withdraw needed support from police officers in the far more common situations is fatally wrong policy.

Will the Members learn these lessons? We shall see.