Video can make you think you know more than you really do.
Cameras have become more commonplace in the world; technology has seen that cameras get smaller, cheaper and the quality of video has dramatically improved to the point that World Star Hip Hop is close to being High Definition footage, yet the local news still seems to get all of its “have you seen this person?” still photos from a 2 megapixel flip phone, taken by a 3 year old on the roof of a two story building.
Dash cams in police vehicles were the first big thing in law enforcement video. More progressive departments, at least those that could afford it, began installing the cameras in the late 1980s. By the mid-1990s they were more common, but the cost of outfitting each car with a camera was still beyond the reach of some departments. Today, the vast majority of departments have them, to the point where it’s expected, yet even in the suburbs of large American cities, it’s still possible to find an agency that doesn’t have them (the Ferguson, MO police being the most recent and controversial example).
In-car cameras are great, but they film in one direction and remain a sensitive electronic device installed in a vehicle that isn’t the best environment for sensitive devices. Anyone who has worked for a budget minded department or pushed a patrol car long enough knows that cameras go down for no reason at all or lack of maintenance or because the department was sold a budget Martel system not fit to film children’s birthday parties, let alone evidentiary quality footage of police activities. Because society demands video, video exists. Increased scrutiny on police and their activities means that we want more video, not just from the cars but from the body of the officer as well. Video is excellent, it shows what happened, though only from the perspective of the camera, meaning much can still happen and the camera not see it, but that is a different conversation all together.
My point is the perception of what happens on video, and how the community views it. Video is an excellent training tool when used properly. When viewed as the layman, with the layman’s understanding of use of force, video can be very damning. We used to rely on the hyperbolic chatter of John Bunnell to bring us World’s Wildest Police Videos, or Cops since it began its run in 1989, but the internet soon became our best source of police video. The quality of that video has also improved and no matter how official police video finds its way to YouTube, Live Leak or a direct upload to Facebook, it’s there and because everyone can see it, everyone becomes an expert.
Owning any number of medical textbooks does not a doctor make, yet the same logic isn’t often applied to the shooting community, or worse, the anti-gun community. We laugh at the common myths such as .45 taking the bad guy right off his feet with one shot, or how you have to use the same ammunition as the police for self-defense or you might go to jail (and hundreds of others) yet these fallacies continue to exist because we don’t do nearly enough to dispel them and because, well, every gun owner can (and often does) fancy themselves an expert just because they own the tool.
I own a soldering set, but I’m not an electrician. I also own a Ōdachi Katana, but a Samurai I am not. I can buy hundreds of dollars of MMA shorts, but that doesn’t mean I get to be beaten by Rousey via submission tomorrow. Ah, but you buy a gun and that gun ownership is known by friends and family and suddenly you are an expert of self-defense simply because you can shoot paper, so it’s the same, right? No, no it isn’t.
The internet has bred all manner of experts on both sides and usually the one thing lacking in these experts is, well, experience. Common sense is just that; however common sense is shaped by correct knowledge, experiences and insights, not by gun counter gossip and people not bothering to question the premise or context of facts told to them. Just because your favorite instructor says it, doesn’t make it true. It can be true, and hopefully is, but the source of any information is not, by itself, a guarantee of its veracity. So what does this have to do with video? Well, video is the same as buying those medical text books. You have all the information needed to be a doctor then, yeah? No, because you must have a recognized expert teach you how to make sense of all of that information, how to use it, what context to apply it and most important of all, how its information is governed. Is this any different than someone owning a gun and spending an hour or so every few weeks putting holes in paper? What if that same person collects multiple firearms and accessories? What if that same person contributes regularly on a firearms forum, or is a member of a firearms group on Facebook? Does that increase their expertise? What if they were in the Army once or maybe read a few Ayoob books? All of those possible facts can accumulate into a reasonable standard of knowledge, but does not necessarily lead to expertise.
Experience and expertise comes from education in the specifics of use of force, not spectating or speculating on the direct experiences of others. It requires actual experience (training and/or real world) and of course the legal aspects as well. It’s not something you get sitting on the sidelines, lit by the comfortable glow of your computer screen. What separates the actual expert from the internet commenter? Maybe nothing, as anyone with a YouTube channel and a blog can be seen as an expert these days and anyone sharing shooting videos with their opinion tacked to the top may also be seen as an expert on the subject simply because they are the ones presenting it to their audience. This is how myths and misinformation survives; people who have no business speaking as an expert on the use of force, doing just that.
So to prove a point, let’s look at one specific event viewed through the eyes of the layman, meme sharing, low-information interested party and through the eyes with someone with practical experience involving the subject.
On June 14th, 2014 Dallas, TX Police were dispatched to the Harrison home. Mrs. Harrison called 911 for assistance with her son, 38 year old Jason Harrison. She wanted law enforcement to assist in getting her son, who was a diagnosed bipolar and schizophrenic to the hospital because he was off his medication and acting erratically. The dispatcher relayed the information on Jason’s mental condition to the responding officers. Officers Rodgers and Hutchins approach the home and knock on the door. It’s clear from the video that the quarters are tight, the door is at a 90 degree from the garage and two cars are in the driveway, forcing a closer proximity to the door. Officers knock and announce themselves. Mrs. Harrison opens the door, purse in tow and walks between the officers. One of the officers says “How are you doing ma’am, whats going on?” to which Mrs. Harrison responds “Hes off the chain,” And “Bipolar, schizo.” Jason Harrison is right behind her, a screwdriver in hand. Both officers ask and then order Jason to drop the screwdriver. The body camera equipped officer (the only source of video) blades his body, cutting the view of Jason Harrison, Mrs. Harrison screams “Jay!” many times and then shots are fired. From the knock on the door to the first shot fired, 16 second of video elapse.
Because the internet exists, this video is now viral and most people don’t even know it happened last year. The shooting took place before the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, but that’s beside the point. Since the Harrison family sued to have the video released and someone decided to release it to the web, it’s now everywhere and all manner of experts are chiming in on it. Problem is, most of them aren’t experts, not even close.
Why didn’t they tase him?
Why didn’t they shoot him in the leg?
It was just a screwdriver.
He was mentally ill.
More police brutality.
Any of those five statements/questions have been paired with this video and all of them show a distinct lack of practical experience in the use of force. There are other nonsensical statements and questions, but those seem to be the most popular so let’s look at them one by one.
Why didn’t they tase him?
The Taser is an excellent law enforcement tool, and a very misunderstood one. First of all, it requires proper deployment to be effective and proper deployment means that the two probes that are fired impact the threat as far away from each other as possible for the best possible delivery (and incapacitation) of the electrical current. The optimal distance for deployment is 7-15 feet. The closer the distance of deployment, the closer the two probes will be together when stuck in the threat, which seriously lessens its effectiveness of the electrical current.
In law enforcement, the louder the rhythmic clacking of the Taser deployment, the less effective it is (because the noise volume is directly proportional to the distance between the probes, more distance equals less sound). Evidence of improper Taser deployments is all over the internet. Close range deployments often do not incapacitate. In my experience, a proper distance deployment is effective nearly 100% of the time and a close distance deployment isn’t ever effective, usually requiring physical techniques to further subdue the threat. In the video it’s clear that officers did not have even 7 feet, but that’s beside the point because…
Why didn’t they shoot him in the leg?
We don’t shoot people in the leg on purpose unless that’s the only target we have available to us. Why? Because there’s nothing in the leg that’s critical for life/fight function. We shoot people in the high thoracic cavity and in the head because those two areas contain the most critical organs and the best chances at inducing a central nervous system failure. That’s right, the most vulnerable areas of the body are where we want to shoot because that’s the fastest way to stop the threat.
These officers had less than 7 feet and had limited room to maneuver because of the cars in the driveway and the corner the door placed them in. In a world where most people will go their entire lives without firing a weapon at another person, let alone seeing the real-time direct results of ballistics to the human body, we have experts who are educated by TV and movies and somehow equate that to actual knowledge. Some people firmly believe we faked the moon landings but totally buy a handgun round knocking someone on their ass based totally on the fact that it’s a bullet. But that’s also beside the point because…
It was just a screwdriver.
A screwdriver is just as potentially lethal as a knife. Now a knife is identified as a weapon, yet many of them are primarily designed as tools, just like the screwdriver. Having been stabbed myself, I can tell you that I have an intimate appreciation for the effectiveness of stabbing weapons; the middle finger on my left hand has dead spots in it where I have lost all feeling, and that was just from one stab with a 2 ½” Benchmade; imagine the potential damage from a 4” screwdriver.
But the size of the weapon is irrelevant because it was recognized as a potential weapon, and more than that, officers ordered Jason Harrison repeatedly to drop it and he did not. What harm was there in dropping the screwdriver? Why would anyone refuse a common sense request-turned-command? There is no harm whatsoever in putting an object down at the request of a police officer. Emotion, ego, mental deficiency; these factors are the only ones that make such a request ridiculous. The fact that it was just a screwdriver is like saying it was just an airsoft gun. Law enforcement officers have long been recognized as having to make split second decisions in lethal force situations and these situations do not allow for full examination of all facts (and possible facts) before using force because any delay whatsoever could lead to them being injured or killed.
No one is required to suffer actual harm before they visit it upon someone else, yet the experts on the internet seem to think that the threat of violence should be a full size billboard with neon lights before shots can be fired. We can never truly know another person’s intentions and this fact alone must drive self-defense mindset. He may have not intended to use the screwdriver as a weapon, but how is one supposed to guess (and it can only ever be a guess) that? He didn’t drop it, did he? He wasn’t tightening a screw as its intended for, so what, then? All you need is Google to find cases where common tools such as screwdrivers have been used as weapons. Anything can be repurposed as a weapon.
He was mentally ill.
Jason Harrison was mentally ill; I couldn’t find any information on if either officer had been trained to deal with the mentally ill or emotionally disturbed though having been through an emotionally disturbed persons class myself, I can tell you that the techniques learned are useful in the best case scenarios only and if Jason Harrison did intend harm to officers with that screw driver, none of those techniques could have been used to effectiveness in that 16 seconds.
Now, officers approached the home with knowledge of his mental illness according to media accounts, and even if they didn’t, Jason Harrison’s mother makes comments as she walks out the door that would have clued officers in to the possibility of mental illness, but you know what? Ultimately that information is more academic than actionable. There are no special tools officers carry for the mentally ill and all things considered, a mentally ill person can be considered far more unpredictable than a sane person, so why then would the public expect officers to give them more warnings before using force? Should an officer allow a mentally ill person to injure them or someone else before using force? Doesn’t make sense, does it? I am in no way advocating that a mentally ill person should be given less of a chance before force is used, though using the fact of mentally ill is not an excuse for not using force, and shouldn’t be expected. Each self-defense situation is dealt with as the facts reveal themselves and the facts here are that a man refused a common sense command to drop a screwdriver, threatened officers with it (or a threat was perceived) and force was used against him. 16 seconds from door to the perception that lethal force was needed.
More police brutality.
You can look long and hard for examples of police brutality, this isn’t one of them. In fact you don’t have to actually look hard at all because by and large, law enforcement behavior is scrutinized by the layman and criticized by the expert more than any other profession I’m aware of. The use of violence is violent and there’s no pretty way to shoot someone, nor magic number of rounds to be fired. The use of force should be as violent as the law allows (and the law allows all of the violence) until the threat is stopped. Just because something looks bad does not actually make it illegal and since incapacitation of a threat requires trauma, there will be blood.
The often talked about self-defense mindset requires the realization that to save your life or the lives of others, you must visit brutal violence upon the threat faster and more effective than they do to you. Ideally, you must destroy their ability and will (in that order) to fight before they are actually able to harm you. That’s how you win. If you merely want to survive, take your chances with a puncture wound or two from a screwdriver and then fight back. The police do violent things to those who choose to have violence visited upon them; no different in the moment than the private citizen defending themselves against a similar threat.
The “21 foot rule.” Just stop, seriously.
Edged weapons, improvised weapons, sticks, bats, clubs, tire irons and cinder blocks; all have the ability to cause death or serious bodily injury with the intent to do so. If that intent exists, the actual type of chosen weapon is irrelevant. People like to talk about distance, as if it was the only deciding factor, well, it isn’t. The “21 foot rule” isn’t a rule at all, in fact the phrase “21 foot rule” shouldn’t even exist and the only reason it does is because people parrot it from experts who aren’t.
Yes, I’ll be blunt, anyone using that term as a serious training tool is not any sort of realistic expert. There are no bright line distances in self-defense, least of all a “21 foot rule” that the creator of the drill for which it is based, Dennis Tueller, never used the term at all. His drill was created to show how long it would take an officer to clear a duty holster with an edged weapon armed threat running at them. That time was averaged to 1.5 seconds or 21 feet. Some gun writer (the internet expert before such a thing existed) coined the term “21 foot rule” to justify the distance someone must be from you with a knife before you can shoot them.
This drill doesn’t account for an officer already having their weapon drawn, the officer retreating or placing a barrier between them and the threat, or any number of other factors that would render it pointless. All in all, the drill only works to demonstrate distance vs. draw time and since there are much more effective and realistic ways to do that, its usefulness in training is questionable at best. Since it’s taken as gospel and almost always out of context, this “21 foot rule” is a dangerous mindset that can do much more harm than good. Distance is a factor, but often not the deciding one. Many other factors must be weighed before force is used and force can always be used with other options have failed, or cannot be attempted due to lack of time and/or distance. Experts and experts must respect these facts, though it’s usually the former that does and the latter pretends they don’t exist, or doesn’t know they exist because the bought the textbooks but never went to school.
If your training and practice is strictly drill-based, where the conditions are controlled and variables are minimized, you aren’t actually training, you are practicing a drill. If your instructor teaches to the drill, you aren’t learning, you are performing to a standard for a task in which the standards in real life are not neat, controlled or very predictable. If you think this way and then take to the internet, viewing actual shootings through the lens of drill based training, or worse, through the lens of no actual training or life experience, you are the reason terms like “21 foot rule” exists and why this article was written.
Be careful with justifications for or against anything strictly based on the clean view of video, video only sees exactly what it sees and you don’t see what it isn’t pointed at, what happened before the camera was turned on, or what happens after it ends. Careful editing and a bias for or against the content of a video can be used to shape public opinion, which in turn becomes the latest gun store gossip and sets training back every time a lie, myth or incomplete story is passed on as a sacred cow. Most important of all, even if you do indeed own the textbooks, you are not a doctor. You own the gun, that doesn’t make you a gunfighter. The fact that you can write or post online just like an expert can doesn’t make you an expert. We all have lanes and those lanes only get wider with actual, correct experience.