The Use of Force

by Dave Leon

    Daniel took a swing at my supervisor, and almost instantly he had Daniel in a basket-hold, straining to keep Daniel’s swinging head low and away from his own, stretching his neck up and away.  “Help me take him to the floor,” he said to me and two other staff.  “You take head,” he said to me quietly.

   Daniel was 12 and not large for a twelve-year-old but he was wiry and fast, and had broken the nose of a less experienced staff person just months earlier who had attempted the same move as my supervisor but much less successfully.  We were a well-trained, well-intentioned group of post-college wanderers, working the in-between shifts when the Social Workers, Psychologists and Nurses left for the day.  Some of us had taken a psychology class or two, some had been at this work for a while, but none of us really knew what we were doing.  We had 22 teenagers under our responsibility overnight at a small Northwest psychiatric hospital.  We knew the drill. 

    “Taking head,” in the context of a physical hold or to take a client down to the floor safely, meant that I was responsible for protecting Daniel’s head on the way down the floor, and to secure his head on the floor so that he would not crack his skull by slamming it into the linoleum.  It was only a matter of seconds before another team member was able to find and place a towel between his head and the floor, but for those moments I was conscious only of trying to hold his skull against the floor with just enough gentleness and firmness to resist his straining neck muscles trying to lift it and thinking how fragile his head seemed under my hands. 

    In a high intensity take-down, one staff, in this case our supervisor takes lead and is the only person talking and guiding the action.  “Daniel, you are not in trouble and we are not trying to hurt you.  We are controlling your body on the ground only until you can demonstrate that you can regain control and not hurt yourself or any of us.”  He spoke calmly while also helping the team navigate to securing only his upper arms, legs and head and taking all weight off his torso.  Often when one of the residents requires a physical intervention like this, the calming words of the lead defuses the situation.  This time Daniel started hyperventilating. He was violently trying to thrash his body around and our team was straining to secure him, small as he was. 

    We learned later in our clinical team meeting that Daniel had started talking about past sexual trauma in therapy.  The rawness of this topic, now that he was talking about it, may have caused him to have a panicked reaction to the restraint when in previous situations he had calmed down quickly. 

    In the moment, we were starting to worry that this situation would not resolve.  “Daniel, we are here to help you stay safe and we all really care about you.  You seem really afraid right now and that makes sense, but we are only here to help keep you safe.  Guys, let’s do some breathing.”  With that, our supervisor takes a deep inhale through his nose, then slowly and pretty loudly out his mouth.  We joined in with him, and about three breathes into this, we could all collectively feel Daniel’s body relax as he began breathing with us as well.  Another thirty seconds and he and the supervisor were sitting on the couch in the dayroom talking it out.

    I have been thinking about the difference between force and power a lot lately, and I think about this experience above, which happened more than 20 years ago, often.  This story combines both for me.  Our team, essentially untrained psyche techs, worked to help the residents gain whatever agency they could over their own lives.  There was a genuine, loving commitment to the idea of a certain kind of power, the power to help someone become who they are capable of being.  And yet at the same time, we had an ability to use force when needed, never to force someone to do something, but to force them not to.  In this interaction above, which took all of 5 minutes, our use of force turned into a healthy power relationship.  Daniel’s body relaxing and his moving smoothly back into conversation with someone he had just tried to hit in the face, who had just guided a team of adults to take him down to the floor, reestablished that positive power relationship.  My supervisor was a trusted mentor to Daniel, and to truly trust the relationship, Daniel had to test it, repeatedly. 

    I cannot imagine a society with no need to use force.  Having known so many people with serious psychiatric illnesses, I have also known many who have lost control to the point of extreme danger to themselves or others.  Force was applied, my friends survived to tell the tales, some even grew to appreciate times when someone else who really cared took control of a situation by force. 

     The power of our society to protect the safety and sanctity of its citizens has been granted to the police.  We ask a lot of the police, but we need to demand that they act with compassion and a higher purpose always in mind.  Professional officers of the peace need to see their work the same way a bunch of scrappy 20-year-olds saw ours.  We were granted enormous power but that power was directed towards truly empowering those we served.  Can’t the police do the same?

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