A question I see asked quite often is why you sometimes see a large number of police officers piling in to arrest a single person. It looks needlessly violent and doesn’t seem particularly fair. Is that really necessary?
It’s a great question, and one I happen to know the answer to, so I figured I’d explain!
First off, a disclaimer: I was a police officer for a while, but I’m speaking only for myself, and all the opinions here are mine alone.
Arrests are scary
As an officer, you’re regularly facing very unpredictable situations, and never is that more true than when you’re making an arrest. Most importantly, you don’t know their state of mind or what they are thinking. You don’t know whether they are wanted for a crime, whether they have combat / martial arts training, or what their opinion is of police officers in general. You don’t know if they are armed or whether they are on drugs. If they are on drugs, you don’t know what type, or whether it is likely to give them super-human powers, a complete disregard for their own well-being, or an ability to completely ignore pain.
Basically, as a police officer, detaining someone against their will is one of the highest risk things you do.
Everything is an unknown.
Fights are unpredictable
Over the years I’ve had a fair amount of martial arts training (Judo, Jiu-Jitsu and a smattering of other fighty-type-sports), and the main thing you’ll realize is that sometimes, people who really shouldn’t be beating you in a fight still do. In Jitsu class, I’ve had my arse handed to me by someone half my weight, two-thirds my height, and half my Jitsu experience. But that is on the mat; it feels unfair, but I’m ‘fighting’ with friends who I trust will stop if I cry for mercy. That is a courtesy rarely granted when you’re wearing a uniform.
I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if you’ve ever been in a fight, you know that it is very, very unpredictable. There are a lot of examples of how one unlucky punch ended up killing someone. The world is full of hard edges and sharp fences. In other words: Even if you’re a 6-foot-4-inch, 250-lbs person in a bulletproof vest, if you get clocked in the face by someone who really doesn’t want to be arrested, that’s the end of the altercation.
As a police officer, you’re not really there to take risks; at the end of the day, it’s a job like any other, and you want to go home to your family after having done a day’s work: There are no medals for ending up in hospital with a split lip or a broken arm.
Staying safe means using appropriate force
The final piece of the puzzle is proportional use of force. If tasked with arresting a person my size and height, I wouldn’t go in alone, and certainly not with just my bare hands. In fact, if it were up to me, I’d rather make the arrest later. If I had to, however, I’d have to consider how much force I’d have to be prepared to use in order to ensure I go home in one piece at the end of the day. Ultimately, police have a set or rules they (are supposed to) follow, but it’s an one-sided equation. I would never try to kick someone in the groin or headbutt someone get them to submit to an arrest. You’d be foolish to assume that the person you’re trying to arrest would stick to the Queensberry rules, however.
And so, the risk profile significantly changes; You can’t be sure that the person you will be scuffling with will follow the rules, and so you have to use all other tools at your disposal to ensure they cannot harm you. This is where pepper spray, a baton, or — in countries where police forces are issued with such things — a taser or a gun come in.
A single police officer would have to consider threatening or using weapons in order to secure an arrest. That’s not a good thing. That is never a good thing: Any conflict situation should be about de-escalation, but weapons do the opposite. Hitting sticks, guns, tasers, what have you — they escalate things and add more adrenaline to the situation.
A group of officers, on the other hand, might be able to take another approach. A person who appears to be unarmed could be surrounded, and if the suspect struggles or fights back, it’s much easier to take control of someone’s arms and legs if there are a number of people involved in the arrest.
TL;DR: It’s safer for everyone concerned.
Putting it all together, then: Arrests are a high-risk situation with a lot of unknowns. Fights are unpredictable and dangerous. And if a struggle should break out, a single officer would have to use proportionally more force to stay safe, than a group of officers would be able to.
There’s also the psychological aspect: Someone who feels they can take on one officer in a fight, might think twice about picking a scuffle on the asphalt with four or five officers.
Counter-intuitive as it might sound, then, it’s safer both for the person being arrested (less chance of weapons being produced), and for the officers making the arrest (more eyes and hands means fewer surprises), when there is a high ratio of officers to arrestees.