Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
A recent article in the South China Morning Post caught my attention. A so-called defence expert claimed his techniques will put some steel in the Police Force. Judging from the statements of this 'expert' his real-life experience is limited. Further, he appears to have no law enforcement background. Coupled with that, is no apparent understanding of legal matters nor the constraints placed on the police. He does, however, have a high opinion of himself. He makes liberal mention of 'special forces'. The virtue of this guy's utterances is the light it reflects on people's ignorance.
A warped reality gets implanted in the public's mind by movies and TV shows. Violence is always clean, poetic and slick. In real life, it's messy, distorted, disjointed with unpredictable outcomes. The cops aren't all poster boys from a gym, but men with families some getting on in years. Against this stark truth, the assertions of gym warriors are banal. Hell, real life is complex.
Governing the ‘use of force’ in common law jurisdictions like Hong Kong is procedures and the law. These have evolved over the decades. Then you have oversight by official bodies such as the IPCC. Added to the mix are the media and every citizen reporter with a smart phone. None of this gets attention in the simplistic world of the gym warrior.
One suspects that such self-styled experts have never faced an angry man on the street. Their clever ideas don't pass muster. Also, it's wise to remember what Mike Tyson said 'Everyone has a plan until you get hit in the face!’
Now, I'm no expert. All I have is 35 years of policing under my belt, the majority serving in Kowloon. What I can say is that fancy techniques don't work. Moreover, fighting is hard and something cops will seek to avoid at all cost. It requires mental toughness, physical stamina and control. After years of shift work, coupled with disrupted sleep and stress-filled days … your average officer is somewhat fatigued. Some may be more concerned about inducing a heart attack.
Then we come to the fraught subject of knife defence. In my experience the nearest most of these ‘experts’ come to a real knife is in their kitchen drawer. It’s nonsense and dangerous to suggest a few swift moves can disarm a knife wielding criminal. If you’re lucky it might work. I managed to disarm a lady threatening to kill her child with a knife held against the throat. We distracted her and fortune smiled on me. But, I’ll be honest, it was a close call.
A couple of things happen when a knife appears. First, you crap your pants. Next, the adrenaline surges through you, as your heart rate races up. Your field of vision narrows. Believe me, nothing you do will defeat the ‘flight or fight’ reaction. Nature programmed us for this. It's time to engage or run. In these no duff incidents, when threatened by a knife, drawing your revolver is the best option. If you don’t the consequences could be terrible
Having seen and participated in a few street fights during my career, I can attest to a couple of things. Your energy drains away in seconds. If you can sustain yourself for a minute in full fight mode, you’ve done well. The smart moves you perfected in the gym will fall apart in the real world. You slip, bash yourself, try to avoid colliding with innocent bystanders... it’s all going wrong. But if you overreact to use too much force, expect months of misery. A detailed examination of your every move by investigators. If a bystander recorded it, you’ll be on YouTube with armchair critics, SJWs and cop-haters having their say.
Now, I can also have my say. The fantasy of these so-called experts may impress naive journalists. It does not impress the cops.
These days the investigation of ‘use of force’ incidents is a specialised function. The processes around this subject are increasing in sophistication. Also, missing from the media coverage is that the majority of incidents involve people with mental illnesses. It never plays well when officers get heavy-handed with such people.
Current police thinking evolves around the ‘force continuum’. This approach has an escalating use of force as the situation merits. And don't forget, most officers never fire their guns, draw their batons or use force in their careers. These incidents are an infinitesimal fraction of the millions of contacts between police and the public. I'd suggest a sense of proportion would help here.
Decision-making models for officers to apply is something that is entering the discussion. These systems have officers assess threats taking into account policy, the law and likely outcomes. You then decide on the best course of action. All this done in accord with ethics, values and the proportionality test. Underpinning it all is the sanctity of human life. And by the way, you've got seconds to make that assessment. You are out of breath, it's hot, people are yelling. Then the situation flips. As I said, it's not easy.
Officers train to de-escalate incidents. Get physical separation between folks, then engage them with some chat. If possible distract them, then seek to lower the tension. When appropriate avoid adopting an aggressive posture that may inflame matters. Yet be ready to respond. As I said, it's not easy.
One simple technique I learnt was to get the subjects name. The first name is best. Keep talking, inserting the name into the sentences.
“Come on, Simon, talk to me. Let's sort this out, Simon”.
The repetition gets their attention. With luck, you can make a connection and then communication can start. For reasons I can’t explain it works.
Unfortunately, the feeble SCMP article adds to the entanglement by perpetuating misperceptions. That coupled with a gross over simplification makes the article laughable. One thing is certain. The self-important expert needs to brush up his marketing skills. It’s generally not a good strategy to slag off prospective clients in the media. Just saying.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.