Facts About Use of Force in Law Enforcement

When should officers use force?

Riot police with shields on a littered city street
••• Charles de Jesus/Creative Commons

No area or action draws public scrutiny—and sometimes ire—quite like the use of force by law enforcement personnel. Police officers are necessarily authorized to employ various forms of physical control in order to carry out their jobs, but the circumstances, level, and degree to which they use that force is often the subject of serious debate.

Law Enforcement History and the Use of Force

Law enforcement has a long history, but modern policing as we know it is a relatively recent societal institution. The history of the professional police force is actually less than two centuries old.

Prior to the establishment of standing law enforcement agencies, there was a great deal of public concern over granting power and authority to what many feared would become another occupying force. It follows that there has always been a slight level of mistrust between society at large and those who have been sworn to serve and protect them.

Nevertheless, in a more rough-and-tumble era, more rough-and-tumble tactics were called for. Officers didn't have as many force options available to them as they do in the millennium, and society did not have the same distaste for harsh justice as it seems to in 2019.

Over time, the public began to demand more mild and measured responses to crime as opposed to brute force.

Increased Scrutiny

From Rodney King and Marvin Anderson to Andrew "Don't taze me, bro" Meyer, law enforcement and corrections officers have been placed on notice that the public is watching what they do and how they do it.

The added scrutiny has gone a long way toward keeping officers honest and to expose those who are not. Police, correctional officers, and other criminology and criminal justice professionals have made advances in policies as well as in technology in response to the increased attention.

Courts and criminal justice standards and Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) commissions have additionally introduced guidelines to help officers make sound decisions on when and how to use force.

Despite this evolution in police tactics and technology, a disconnect still exists between what the public sees, expects, and understands about law enforcement training, goals and practices, and how police and corrections officers are actually trained to respond to use of control situations.

The Goal of Law Enforcement in Uses of Control

When members of the public question an officer's use of force, they first question whether force was necessary in the first place. Likewise, courts tend to focus first on whether any force was justified at all before broaching the topic of excessive force.

Officers generally apply force to effect an arrest and to bring a potentially dangerous situation to a peaceful conclusion as quickly as possible. The goal is to do so without injury to the officer or to innocent members of the public.

Obviously, the preferred outcome would be for the resisting subject to allow himself to be arrested peacefully. But officers must make quick, split-second decisions about just force to employ when that doesn't occur. The well-being of the suspect is often a secondary concern during this decision-making process.

Objective Reasonableness

Officers might not have all the information regarding the level of threat a subject poses because these decisions must be made quickly, before they feel that they must take action. The U.S. Supreme Court established the "objective reasonableness standard" to determine whether force was justified in Graham vs. Connor in 1989.

Objective reasonableness simply asks whether a reasonable person with similar training, knowledge, and experience would have acted in the same manner as the police officer under similar circumstances. Three factors are applied in making this determination:

  • Whether the subject posed an immediate threat
  • The severity of the alleged crime
  • Whether the subject was attempting to flee or resist arrest attempts

Implicit in these "Graham factors" is the question of whether the officer was justified in exercising his authority to arrest to begin with.

Most importantly, the objective reasonableness standard recognizes that officers must think fast and act fast. The facts available to officers at the time they're making their decisions to use force are what the officers are judged by, not anything else that might come to light after the fact.

In other words, it doesn't matter if it later turns out that the gun wasn't loaded if an officer shoots a subject who is threatening him and pointing a gun at him. The officer would have been justified in their use of deadly force if they believed their life or the life of someone else was in danger at the time of the incident.

Just the Facts

The standard by which the action is judged comes from what the officer knew at the time if that officer learns after the fact that what he perceived to be a weapon was actually a toy gun, a cell phone, or even a wallet.

Officers need not—and often times can't afford to—wait for a subject to pull the trigger or try to stab them before they react. Instead, they must weigh the totality of the circumstances and make an instant, split-second decision based on the facts available to them in that moment.

Reasonable Choices

The objective reasonableness standard also establishes that officers aren't necessarily limited to using the least amount of force possible. Rather, they're called to use only the level of force that falls within the range of what might be considered reasonable in that particular scenario.

This is an important distinction because there are numerous force options available in most situations, all of which might be appropriate.

For example, an officer can choose to use pepper spray, an electronic control device, or hands-on control techniques in order to gain compliance when a subject is fighting and resisting arrest. Any one of these choices are reasonable, although the public might perceive the taser or pepper spray to be more invasive and less necessary than going hands-on.

An officer's actions aren't evaluated based on what they could have done differently, but rather they're based on what might be considered reasonable.

Judging Deadly Force Situations

This standard becomes especially important when looking at instances of deadly force employed by police officers.

Officers are taught at the police academy to meet deadly force with deadly force. They're trained in the techniques and tactics necessary to make sure they make it home at the end of their shifts, and they spend extensive time training in the use of firearms.

It's important to recognize that the expected result of a subject's actions don't necessarily have to be death. Instead, deadly force is described as actions that are likely to cause either death or great bodily harm, which can include permanent disfigurement without causing death.

The type of weapon used is an important factor in an officer's decision to use deadly force as well, but it's not the only factor. Deadly force is deadly force whether the subject is wielding a knife, an ax, a gun, or a baseball bat. All of these have the potential to take a life or cause great bodily harm.

Officers must be able to articulate that the suspect had the apparent ability, opportunity, and reasonably perceived intent to commit an act likely to cause death or great bodily harm to be justified in employing deadly force.

Justifiable Decisions

This standard is often the source of confusion for the public when it comes to police use of force. An officer might shoot a suspect who is holding a knife. Some members of the public might disagree with the officer's decision, suggesting instead that he should have used a non-lethal weapon such as a taser to disarm the subject.

While a taser might have been one of many possible options available, it might not have been the most reasonable or—more likely—it might have been just one of many reasonable force options. Given the fact that a knife is quite capable of causing death or great bodily harm, the officer is very likely justified in the use of deadly force.

Officer and Subject Factors

Another important consideration in evaluating an officer's use of force is the officer's physique as compared to the subject in question. An officer who is 5'2" and 100 pounds might be justified in using greater force against a subject who is 6'2" and 250 pounds than a taller, heavier, and presumably stronger officer would be in similar circumstances.

It's More Complicated Than It Looks

This all demonstrates that uses of force by corrections officers and police officers are most often far more complicated than a single news story or internet video might make them appear. Law enforcement careers are known to be inherently dangerous, and officers are often placed in situations where they're required to make instantaneous life-or-death decisions.

It's entirely correct and appropriate to evaluate and scrutinize the actions of the police, especially when they employ control techniques, but it's also very important to withhold judgment until all the facts leading up to the incident are known.

It's especially important to judge these decisions based only on those facts that were known or perceived by the officer at the time of the incident, as opposed to facts that might become known after the fact.

Sound Law Enforcement Requires Sound Judgement

It's important that officers use sound judgment and due diligence when determining whether to employ force, and when deciding exactly what force to use.

The public rightly holds its law enforcement officers to a high ethical standard. It's incumbent upon officers to adhere to that standard and to always act in the interest of safeguarding lives and property, while at the same time preserving and protecting the rights of the innocent.