When Cops Use Force: the Limits of 'Gerbil Voodoo'


As a recruit in New York City's Police Academy, there came a time when we had to choose which revolver we would be carrying on patrol. I consulted with a veteran friend of mine, and he recommended the Smith & Wesson square butt with a 4″ barrel. This was the biggest and heaviest of the choices, and I asked him why he preferred this make and model.

“When you're pointing your gun at some perp and he decides to charge you, you want something solid to clock him with,” he replied.

I was a little shocked. I had never considered being in a situation where I have a gun drawn, aimed at a guy and he decides to charge at me. Perps always freeze when TJ Hooker draws his weapon, and Dirty Harry just shoots the bad guy should he be fool enough to charge at a cop!

I had yet to work one day on the streets, and my perception of what happens in these confrontations was as naive as those who report news of these incidents, not to mention the legislators who create doctrine governing a police officer's use of force.

I went on to work as a cop in the projects of the South Bronx, and saw that my friend's words held a lot of truth.

I found myself many times in a position where I had to struggle with an offender while my gun was drawn. The holsters for our revolvers were fairly easy to locate quickly, and the firearm would lock securely if you were lucky enough to fully seat it therein. But it was always a battle for my life, as it is not uncommon for a police officer to be killed with his own gun.

That's why I my attention was caught by the new guidelines adopted by the Seattle Police Department that are intended to reduce the need for use of force through “advisements, warnings, verbal persuasion, and other tactics. “

It reminded me of a class I attended when I was an undercover called “Verbal Judo,” where the instructors taught you to disarm a confrontational situation by not letting yourself get “hooked” by verbal assaults while performing your duties.

We were advised that an officer should respond to such verbal assaults by saying: “I appreciate that, but….”

In other words, when you are responding to a call of a “man with a gun,” and someone matching the description has his hands in his pockets, possibly holding a firearm—and his response to your instruction to take his hands out of his pockets is “F#@K YOU Mutha F*%#ER!”—you reply: “I appreciate that, but please take your hands out of your pockets.”

As an undercover, I wasn't really subject to these types of confrontations anymore, but I felt sorry for the guys who still were. I knew full well that my old South Bronx warriors were not going to deploy this Verbal Judo, adoringly nicknamed “Gerbil Voodoo.”

Funny thing is, when I tried this philosophy out in my personal life, it produced remarkable success. It takes two to fight. If I remained passive when the potential for a confrontation arose, not letting my ego get hooked by words, the hostility was likely to diminish.

Unfortunately, at the time I was still too young and wild, and too worried about my image, to adopt this as a full time personality trait. I never stood up and gave credit to the idea when cops sat around on bar stools bashing gerbil voodoo.

As an internal affairs investigator and a crime scene unit supervisor, I responded to many incidents involving the use of force, some of which resulted in the murder of a police officer. I've seen situations where a cop's hesitation cost him his life, and I will venture to guess that that, rather than thinking tactically, he was thinking about how much trouble he'll get in if he discharges his firearm.

I know this from personal experience as well, but I was always a single guy with no kids who lived by the “It's better to be tried by twelve than carried by six” credo. I was prepared to use as much force as necessary and all that I had available when a situation turned violent.

Many of the cops I've seen killed were recently married, had a new baby or one on the way, giving them cause to worry about getting locked up and fired, so they were killed instead.

At least their families were provided for as a result of their line-of-duty death.

There are heavy-handed cops who need to be reined in, and the actions of very few cause scrutiny, criticism and heavy restrictions for all. I believe that officers should have all possible 'less than lethal' means of force available to them, such as Tasers and mace so that deadly force is the last of several possible options.

NYPD officers all carry batons and mace, but you need the Emergency Service Unit or a Sergeant to respond if the situation calls for a Taser. I see cops in small suburban towns and security guards packing Tasers, but the NYPD has always been decades behind other departments when it comes to weaponry.

I was trained with a Taser when I became a Sergeant. It can bring a hostile situation to a halt – QUICKLY!

But it's an expensive item, requiring maintenance and training, and thus impractical for the NYPD's budget, but when you consider what the city spends settling civil suits, it may not be a bad investment. I wonder what it cost the city to train 40,000 cops in gerbil voodoo.

It is a very difficult— maybe even impossible—mission trying to achieve balance when it comes to cops, civilians and force. It is rare that a civilian is faulted for failing to comply with a police officer's instructions.

I regularly listed “Assault 2nd Degree” (assault on a police officer subsection) while preparing online booking sheets for arrestees who fought with me as I attempted to place them into custody, but the District Attorney's office would never officially charge anyone with that if I wasn't seriously hurt – which I was more than once.

Perpetrators are aware of this and emboldened by it. I wonder how much it would cost to train millions of New York City residents in gerbil voodoo.

John Paolucci, a retired NYPD detective sergeant, worked his last eight years in the Forensic Investigations Division, four of them as a Crime Scene Unit supervisor. He was the first to command the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Liaison Unit, and developed a strong alliance between the OCME and NYPD. He also worked as a narcotics undercover and patrol officer in the housing projects of the South Bronx and is currently the president of Forensics 4 Real Inc. He welcomes comments from readers.

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