In this article, we’ll look at a way to evaluate threats when responding to a crisis. Whether operating as a solo patrol officer or serving as the incident commander of a large-scale incident, law enforcement officers must routinely decide if a suspect is a threat, and if so, to what degree. An officer’s understanding of the threat posed by a suspect is what should inform and shape use-of-force decision-making. This may be an individual officer deciding on what level of force to use or an incident commander deciding when and under what circumstances to engage a barricaded suspect. A basic concept useful in that assessment process is understanding terms like present ability, opportunity and apparent intent.
To understand present ability, let’s consider an angry suspect who tells an officer, “I’m going to kill you!” Clearly, the suspect possesses hostile intent, which he has revealed in his statement. To properly assess his threat level, though, we must also consider how plausible it is that the suspect presently possesses the ability to carry out his threat. If that suspect is, for example, a feeble elderly man confined to a hospital bed, then it doesn’t seem likely that he has the ability to carry out his threat. First, the invalid seems to lack the ability to get out of his bed, and second, he lacks the physical capability to cause the harm he has threatened.
To understand opportunity, please imagine you are a police officer patrolling the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. You receive a call that a suspect armed with a large metal pipe is angrily yelling about wanting to assault people. You arrive and locate the man, who is indeed armed with a pipe and yelling. The suspect is standing all alone on one side of the vast canyon, and you are on the other. Only through powerful binoculars are you able to see him. Even though the suspect has the hostile intent (yelling that he wants to assault people) and the present ability (holding a large pipe), because he has no way of accessing you, he lacks the opportunity to act upon his intent.
Tactical guru Sid Heal defined hostile intent as “an antagonistic state of mind.” Understanding that concept may be easier if you consider the following example. Create a picture in your mind of “a man holding a knife.” Is he a threat? Well, if you pictured a stabbing suspect running down a crowded downtown street with that knife, then the answer is undoubtedly yes. If, however, when I asked you to picture a man with a knife, you thought of a chef standing in a restaurant kitchen cutting onions, then the answer is no, he is not a threat. What, then, is the difference? Both fit the definition of a “man with a knife,” but one had a malevolent attitude whereas the other did not. Consider now what might happen if the chef’s assistant suddenly announced that he has been sleeping with the chef’s wife! Suddenly the formerly peaceful chef may become enraged with his co-worker and decide he wants to stab him. The formerly peaceful chef is now a threat, not because of a change in the knife he was holding, but because of a change in his attitude and intention. With that example, we can understand intent. Applying this concept in the field, law enforcement officers can consider if the suspect has, through words or actions, demonstrated any hostile intent. For instance, has he acted violently toward anyone, expressed anger or made any verbal statements that indicate a malevolent attitude? Have there been previous calls for service at the suspect’s home where the suspect conveyed hostile intent? Does the reporting party or perhaps a family member have information about the suspect’s attitude? Also consider that the suspect may have hostile intent, but only toward one particular person.
Putting it all together
This threat assessment procedure may take place in a few seconds, such as when an individual officer is under attack, or over a prolonged period of time during a critical incident response. After properly determining the level of the threat, we can then attempt to influence one of those factors, such as negotiating with the suspect to cool his hostile intent, using force on him to degrade his ability to fight or removing the opportunity for him to access anyone he can harm.
New laws in states like California contain the language of present ability, opportunity and apparent intent, so it’s vital that officers become familiar with this. Even if your state doesn’t yet have these terms codified in law, if you can explain them in a police report or in a court proceeding, you can help others to understand your use-of-force decision-making.