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Assessing detainee resistance in Michigan jails, Part 1

A detention officer should not focus his decision to use force solely on the detainee’s mental condition, but rather, on the manifested behaviors which may be harmful to the officer, the detainee and others.

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Jails are complex detention facilities which confine a diverse, transient, and unhealthy populations. Since 1994, the average daily population in America’s 3,300 jails, was over 550,000 detainees, admitting from 12-13 million annually. Nationally, at time of admission, 60 percent of jail detainees are under the influence of a chemical substance, over 25 percent have a blood alcohol content within a range of .12 to .22 percent, 45 percent are admitted with a drug abuse problem, 41 percent admitted with a psychological impairment, 70 percent are taking medication, 36 percent are admitted for a violent offense, and 31 percent are admitted for a drug offense (BJS, 2005).

Supervising this population can be a dangerous proposition requiring care, skill, training, constant vigilance to safety and security, and updated research. According to the Criminal Justice Institute (2003), from 1990 to 2002 the annual average number of detainee assaults on officers is 10,000. The average number of detainee on detainee assaults amounted to over 17,000, accounting for about 20 detainee assaults per 100 detainees.

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The National Institute of Justice (1999) ranked the job of correction/detention officer, as the fourth most dangerous occupation in the United States, behind, police officers, taxi cab drivers, and security personnel. Due the volatility of the jail environment the need to use force control techniques and equipment is a critical core job task. With some frequency detention officers must resort to force measures in self-defense, defense of another, to prevent an escape or crime, to overcome unlawful resistance, to prevent detainee self-harm, and for medical intervention purposes.

Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this study was to perform an assessment of the nature of the use of force and detainee resistance in 15 Michigan jails. The study was undertaken to learn more about the nature of detainee resistance situations detention officers' face while performing their custodial duties. Empirical knowledge is needed to update officers on their safety considerations when approaching detainee resistance and dangerous situations. The study provides insights into the nature of the use force encounters that officers face — which has not been widely studied.

The findings can be useful in providing information on detention officer safety and occupational risk reduction by examining common types of detainee resistance situations. Highlights from the full study are provided and divided into two parts:  Part I provides an assessment of the correlates of detainee resistance and Part II will provide an assessment of the common types of force officers employ and also provides policy and training recommendations.

Using a longitudinal approach, 949 use of force incident reports were analyzed for three years, from 2003 to 2005. A total of 175 variables were examined using correlational statistics. Common types of detainee resistance and the types of use of force applied by officers in response to detainee resistance were examined.

Common Circumstances Where Officers Encounter Detainee Resistance
The top eight force circumstances where detainee resistance is commonly encountered by detention officers include: (1) attempting to control a detainee [30%], (2) during the booking phase [29%], (3) enforcing rules [28%], (4) while conducting a personal search [24%], (5) a prisoner disturbance [20%], (6) during a forced cell move (14%), (7) performing a cell transfer/moving a detainee [13%], and (8) escorting a prisoner [14%]. These percentages total over 100 percent as more than one circumstance may be involved during the incident altercation. For example, an officer maybe enforcing a rule, giving an order to the detainee, while attempting to control the detainee.

Combinations of Detainee Resistance

Several patterns of combinations of detainee resistance were encountered by officers. Verbal resistance combined with defensive resistance occurred in 50 percent of the incidents. Verbal resistance was accompanied by defensive actions and physical actions of assaults in 38 percent of the encounters. Examples of physical actions of assault may include: wrestling with the officer, punching, pushing, kicking, grabbing, slapping, head-butting, and throwing an object at the officer. Lethal force types of assaults against an officer accounted for 5 percent of the incidents and included choking the officer and an edged weapon assault. Verbal resistance accompanied lethal force attacks in 97 percent of the incidents.

Detainee Resistance
The data show common types of detainee resistance and significant associations of the types of force officers use. Officers routinely encounter six forms/types of detainee resistance. Slightly less than 75% of all detainee resistance comprises three forms of resistance: verbal, defensive, and physical actions of assault. Interpretation of these patterns of resistance, however, must be done with caution as detainee resistance may follow any path of progression, depending upon the totality of the circumstances.

A consistent statistical finding showed that detainees engage in wrestling with the officer with some frequency (40%). This appears to be associated with two levels of physical altercations. First, defensive resistance may be encountered which escalates into aggressive physical actions of resistance, where the detainee ends up on the floor on top of the officer in a wrestling scenario. Second, the officer may encounter an assault whereby the detainee kicks, pushes, head butts, slaps or punches the officer, resulting in a loss of balance and the officer (s) and detainee end up on the floor, again in a wrestling position. Both situations place the officer in a vulnerable position. Training should address how an officer can protect him/herself if placed in this situation.

In a majority of the incidents, officers are more likely to confront a detainee who has displayed verbal resistance toward the officer’s authority or instructions. Combined with verbal resistance, the detainee escalated his behavior to defensive resistance. This primarily occurs as the officer may initially respond with a soft-empty hand control technique (a control hold) and the detainee attempts to break free from the officer. Verbal and defensive resistance comprises the majority of resistance an officer encounters. In a significant number of incidents, however, detainees escalated their resistance to more aggressive physical actions against the officer (s). A significant number of these incidents commonly involved wrestling with the officer (s).

In approximately 50 percent of the incidents, resistance altercations involved an "emotionally upset" detainee, while officers confronted a detainee who is mentally ill or “under the influence” in the remaining incidents. This underscores the fact that a sober but emotionally distraught detainee is as likely to exhibit resistance as a detainee who is under the influence or who is mentally impaired. This also underscores the fact that the officers must attend to resistive behaviors or assault cues of detainee body language and actual verbal comments made which may indicate the potential actions of the detainee, regardless of their state of mind.

Officers are likely to confront resistance from a mentally ill detainee (24%) in aggressive physical forms of confrontations. Officers should be prepared for the unpredictable and assaultive actions which can accompany a confrontation with an irrational or psychotic detainee. Further, review of how to respond to a violent mentally impaired detainee and how to employ intervention strategies should be addressed by detention personnel.

While it is important to understand the varying dimensions of human behavior, such as irrational or psychotic behaviors, and/or behaviors associated with being under the influence of a chemical substance, it also important to understand “resistance is still resistance.” This means that a detention officer should not focus their decision to use force solely on the detainee’s mental condition, but rather, on the manifested behaviors which may be harmful to the officer, the detainee, others, and the security of the detention facility.

The key, therefore, to gauging a justifiable decision in using a degree of force should be predicated on articulable detainee resistance behaviors and not on an officer attempting to clinically diagnosis what maybe the “underlying cause” of the resistance or assault.

Correlations of Resistance
While detainees may resist or assault an officer in any location of the jail or during any type of escort within or outside the detention facility, three locations were significantly more associated with resistance. Analysis revealed that three locations within the jail accounted for 78 percent of detainee resistance: booking area; cells (including, general population, holding, adjustment, and observation cells); and recreational/dayroom areas. Respondents reported that detainee resistance could occur outside the facility during a transport to court, to the hospital, in court, or other transport locations, but were least likely to occur at these locations. Transporting a detainee, however, implies security priority of the assignment and should not be ignored when performing the duty.

The location and circumstances of detainee resistance produced several consistent themes. Performing the booking function in the booking area, with a detainee under the influence, produces a common pattern. Over 40 percent of the resisting detainees were categorized as “unclassified,” which would be associated with being newly admitted into the facility. The arrest or the arrestable charge is commonly associated with property, violent crimes, and substance abuse violations, and performing booking procedures are difficult at best with a person under the influence.

An added dimension of the detainee's level of resistance at the time of booking is how the detainee was treated at time of the arrest, during transport by the arresting officer, and/or or how he/ she is treated by the admitting officer (s). Hence, knowing that a significant association exists between a detainee’s resistance, who is under the influence, at the time of booking, detention officers should be mindful of their safety, prepare for resistance, and work toward reducing the risk of a force circumstance as feasible. Ensuring that a sufficient number of officers and the necessary force equipment is accessible in the booking area is an important consideration during admittance and booking.

Responding to a detainee disturbance and performing a forced cell extraction provide another significant finding regarding correlations and the resistance circumstance. Conducting these types of assignments are among the most dangerous tasks an officer is asked to perform. While the findings show that performing these functions occurred in 34 percent of the resistance incidents (20% disturbance; 14% cell extraction), the data reveals that it is more likely that an officer will sustain an injury, particularly a back injury. In fact, the data showed that officers were more likely to encounter defensive and physical actions of resistance, and that officers are more likely to encounter an edged weapon than in other incidents of detainee resistance. Because of the unpredictability, dangerousness, and safety concerns, detention agencies should review and revise their procedures and practices of responding to these types of scenarios as warranted.

Being under the influence of a chemical substance is another important factor which can contribute to the detainee’s behaviors. In slightly under 40 percent of the incidents the detainee was under the influence of either alcohol or another substance. Officers can not only anticipate resistance from this type of detainee but can expect to encounter resistance in three forms; verbal, defensive resistance, and aggressive physical actions. This implies that the detainee who is under the influence will more likely resist verbal instructions and more likely be physically aggressive with the officer, as opposed to being a “passive drunk.” Such resistance is more likely to occur at time of booking.

This research underscores that officers cannot become complacent in performing their custodial duties. Detainee resistance has some degree of predictability to it, and is not commonly a spontaneous, unpredictable, out of control detainee who unexpectedly creeps upon the unsuspecting officer and assaults him or her. Rather, resistance requiring a force response occurs when officers engage in responsibilities where resistance can be expected. For example, resistance while conducting a personal search occurred more commonly than using force in self-defense.

Conducting the search places the officer in a high degree of closeness to the detainee and can certainly place the officer in a more vulnerable situation. An officer must pay attention to how he or she approaches the detainee and cue into potential assault cues that may be harmful to the officer. Performing booking tasks and executing a forced cell extraction are two other resistance circumstances where officers can predict resistance with high certainty.

While the findings showed a natural progression for resisting circumstances, officers must still be prepared in each resisting situation to respond to the dynamics of the changing variables associated with the confrontation. These findings also emphasize the importance of officers being diligent in enhancing their personal safety no matter what task they may be performing. Part II will address officers use of force responses and recommendations.

More reading: Factors that influence the use of force in a correctional institution

Read Part 2

About the author

Dr. Ross is one of 12 Pressure Point Control Tactics (PPCT) Advisory Board Members and is the Director of Research for PPCT. He was awarded the “Excellence in Leadership Award” by PPCT in 2000. He regularly certifies police, corrections, the military and private security personnel as instructors in these subject control tactics nationally and internationally. He has developed 15 managerial and 7 line officer training programs, has made 12 training videos, and has been authorized to provide training in 12 states. Dr. Ross is an author of multiple books including "Civil Liability Issues in Corrections," "Civil Liability in Criminal Justice, 4th Ed." and "Sudden Death in Custody".

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