Why Arrests Appear So Violent

If you want to watch videos of police purportedly assaulting someone in the pursuit of an arrest, it will only take you seconds to find them online. It doesn’t matter that they often lack context, only include the part the videographer wants you to see, or actually depict legitimate police/security brutality, the fact is arrests often look overly brutal to people who don’t know what they’re watching.

Below is a video of a smooth arrest by police. It begins with an arrest by an off duty police officer who controls the suspect until Vancouver Police arrive. When the police arrive, despite running and showing signs of andrenalization, they quickly take control and hand cuff the suspect. Now this video is a good example of a clean arrest. While I’m sure many people will attribute the behaviour of the police to it being filmed by a private citizen, the truth is probably a little more simple.

The suspect in this case is just trying to escape. And he’s not fighting to escape, he’s just trying to get free in the most instinctual way possible. He’s not really fighting back, he’s not using strikes to create an opportunity to escape, he’s just trying to find a gap and feel his way free. And the off duty RCMP officer does a great job of taking away his space and keeping him down until the VPD arrive. When they do, even the poor effort the suspect is making to escape ends, and they are able to control him without much effort.

This differs in large way to the way most arrests that end up on YouTube occur. So, without further ado here’s 6 things that make many arrests appear more violent than they are.

1) It’s easier to escape than to hold someone. If you’ve ever held a cat that doesn’t want to be held, you know how true it is. Now imagine that cat is a person, the same size as you, adrenalized, and like the cat doesn’t care whether they hurt you or not. You can’t just grab someone’s wrist or arm, put them in a lock and conduct your arrest when someone is fighting you. When’s the last time you saw someone in the UFC just apply an arm bar without hitting him? Chances are they guy who applied the submission hit the other guy, probably in the face, repeatedly at some point. Police and security aren’t supposed to do that. They’re required by society to be as humane as possible, despite the fact the suspect might be fighting as if their life depends on it. So that’s why, even when there are multiple police involved, they use things like knee strikes to a suspects legs in order to distract them to create an opportunity for control.

2) Safety in numbers – numbers for safety. I was working an event where a large football player size guy hit a security guard. It led to a scuffle, and while other security officers attempted to take the man down for an arrest, one of his large buddies tried to join the fray. I put myself in his way and advised him to stay back.

“Why is there four of them on him? They’re beating the **** out of him,” he argued.

In my best bad dog voice, I asked him if he actually saw them hit him. He got a confused look on his face and took a step back. When it was clear he had realized they weren’t hitting him, he asked again why they needed four people.

“Your friend is a big guy, and he’s fighting. The guards don’t want to get hurt, but they also don’t want to hurt your buddy,” I said.  “He has four limbs, ergo four guys. This way they can hold him down without getting hurt and they don’t have to hurt him.”

It certainly looks bad when there’s four or five guys around one guy on the ground. But the next time you see a video and see that, look for the actual violence. Most likely the guy on the bottom is going crazy, while the police are using their body weight to hold him down, and strikes are to large fleshy muscles and the like, which they are using in order to force the suspect to free up his arms for handcuffing.

3) Our safety first, your safety second. At the end of the day, making an arrest is challenging and dangerous. And the longer a fight for control exists, the higher the probability someone will get seriously injured. It might not even be intentional like an errant elbow to the head as someone pulls away to try and escape. Or it could be a suspect reaching for a weapon. Force is generally applied when there is a credible threat to those conducting the arrest and/or they’ve demonstrated their intent to resist. If you fail to obey police commands, or resist their attempts to arrest you, then force is an option, and can be the safest option. Overwhelming force, delivered quickly before the suspect has a chance to mount an effective defence has a higher probability of success, while generating a lower degree of risk to everyone involved. (And by overwhelming I don’t mean a baton blow to the back of the head, I mean mentally overwhelming.) If that means that the suspect ends up with a charlie horse in his leg, then society and the courts have accepted that as  reasonable if it ensures everyone gets out of the scenario without grievous injuries or death. And to those guys who promise to behave after they’ve been resisting? Nope. Officers are going to control you for their safety and your own. That’s why security will keep you in that arm bar until they throw you out or hand you over to police, even after you’ve stopped fighting. There’s no guarantee you won’t start fighting given the chance.

4) Suspect’s actions dictate response. When police and security officers are well trained, their actions in high stress scenarios are automatic. Their subconscious processes information and they react according to their training. If someone is compliant, they go through the same routine to arrest them without having to use force. As soon as someone starts fighting, their training kicks in. So even when a suspect says they’re not fighting back, the police are judging by the actions, whether they’re pulling away, continuing to struggle. In high stress situations there is often a disconnect between what the suspect is saying and doing, as panic sets in and instinctual fight/flight responses are activated. They don’t want to fight, but they’re trying to pull their limbs in and get into the fetal position. That’s still resisting, and the officers involved are required to react accordingly.

5) There are no videos of compliant arrests. You can walk down Granville street in Vancouver on any weekend night and find at least one person handcuffed, probably standing chatting nearly amicably with the police. For every violent arrest there are probably a dozen or more compliant arrests where people listen to police and comply. And the handcuffs are on before anyone can think to break out their phone and capture a video. And even if they did, what’s the likelihood they would share something as mundane as someone following a police officer’s verbal commands? It doesn’t make for the next YouTube sensation.

6) Context. This is pretty straightforward, but it bears repeating in such a list. For citizen shot videos, we rarely have context. Did the guy start recording after the police disarmed the subject? Because in that scenario, the police are now in a potentially life and death battle to get control of the subject to see if he has anymore weapons. Or did the guy crumple up a jaywalking ticket, so the officer punched him in the face? In the age where anyone can shoot a video, edit it, and toss it online, you’re almost guaranteed to be missing pertinent details. A video can go online, people are up in arms, and it will be months, sometimes years before all the details come out in court.

There are appropriate uses of force every day, and some of them look pretty violent when you don’t know what to look for. There are also excesses where police and security cross the line and become the assailants. If you can keep these 6 items in mind, then you might have a better idea of what you’re watching the next time someone shares an arrest video.

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