Use of force

The use of force, in the context of law enforcement, may be defined as the "amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject".[2]

Use of force doctrines can be employed by law enforcement officers and military personnel on guard duty. The aim of such doctrines is to balance the needs of security with ethical concerns for the rights and well-being of intruders or suspects. Injuries to civilians tend to focus attention on self-defense as a justification and, in the event of death, the notion of justifiable homicide.

U.S. military personnel on guard duty are given a "use of force briefing" by the sergeant of the guard before being assigned to their post.

For the English law on the use of force in crime prevention, see Self-defence in English law. The Australian position on the use of troops for civil policing is set out by Michael Hood in Calling Out the Troops: Disturbing Trends and Unanswered Questions;[3] compare "Use of Deadly Force by the South African Police Services Re-visited"[4] by Malebo Keebine-Sibanda and Omphemetse Sibanda.


Use of force dates back to the beginning of established law enforcement, with a fear that officers would abuse their power. In today's society this fear still exists and one of the ways to fix this problem is to require police to wear body cameras and to have them turned on during all interactions with civilians.[5]

Use of force continuum

The use of force may be standardized by a use of force continuum, which presents guidelines as to the degree of force appropriate in a given situation. One source identifies five very generalized steps, increasing from least use of force to greatest. It is only one side of the model, as it does not give the levels of subject resistance that merit the corresponding increases in force. Each successive level of force is meant to describe an escalating series of actions an officer may take to resolve a situation, and the level of force used rises only when a lower level of force would be ineffective in dealing with the situation.[6] Typically any style of a use of force continuum will start with officer presence, and end with the use of deadly force.

  1. Presence (using the effect of the presence of an authority figure on a subject)
  2. Verbalization (commanding a subject)
  3. Empty hand control (using empty hands to search, relieve weapons, immobilize, or otherwise control a subject)
  4. Intermediate weapons (using non-lethal chemical, electronic or impact weapons on a subject)
  5. Deadly Force (using any force likely to cause permanent injury or death to a subject)

Use of force continuums can be further broken down.

Use of force continuums are an illustration of the broad spectrum of force that a law enforcement officer may use. However, the officer's use of force is governed by the US Constitution and clearly established case law, not a use of force continuum.

U.S. case law

Graham v. Connor (1989)

On November 12, 1984 Graham, who was a diabetic, felt an insulin reaction coming on and rushed to the store with a friend to get some orange juice. When the store was too crowded, he and his friend proceeded to go to another friend's house. In the midst of all this, he was being watched by Officer Connor, of the Charlotte City Police Department police department. While on their way to the friend's house, the officer stopped the two of them and called for backup. After several other officers arrived, one of them handcuffed Graham. Eventually, when Connor learned that nothing had happened in the convenience store, the officers drove Graham home and released him. Over the course of the encounter, Graham sustained a broken foot, cuts on his wrists, a bruised forehead and an injured shoulder. The Supreme Court held that it was irrelevant whether Connor acted in good faith, because the use of force must be judged based on its objective reasonableness.[7] In determining the "objective reasonableness" of force, the court set out a series of three factors: "the severity of the crime", "whether there is an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others", and "Whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or evading".[8]

Tennessee v. Garner (1985)

On October 3, 1974, Officers Elton Hymon and Leslie Wright of the Memphis Police Department were called to respond to a possible burglary. When they arrived to the scene, a woman standing on the porch began to tell them that she heard glass breaking and that she believed the house next door was being broken into. Officer Hymon went to check, where he saw Edward Garner, who was fleeing the scene. As Garner was climbing over the gate, Hymon called out "police, halt", and when Garner failed to do so, Hymon fatally shot Garner in the back of the head, despite being "reasonably sure" that Garner was unarmed. The Supreme Court held deadly force may be used to prevent the escape of a fleeing felon only if the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a serious risk to the officer or to others.[9]

Payne v. Pauley (2003)

Payne v. Pauley is a case in the Seventh Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the use of force must be both reasonable and actually necessary to avoid an excessive force complaint.[10][11]

Nelson v. City of Davis (2004)

On April 16, 2004, what was supposed to be known as the "biggest party in history" took place at the annual UC Davis picnic. Due to the large number of participants at this party, people began to illegally park their cars. Sgt. John Wilson demanded that officers start to issue parking tickets to the illegally parked cars. Tickets were also issued to the underage drinkers. Wilson called the owner of the apartment complex because of the disturbances that were being caused; loud music and the sounds of bottles breaking. Wilson was consented by the complex apartment owner to have non-residents to leave the complex. 30 to 40 officers were rounded up with riot gear - including pepper ball guns - to try to disperse the crowd of 1,000 attendees. The officers gathered in front of the complex where 15 to 20 students, including Timothy C. Nelson, were attempting to leave, but no instructions were given by the police. Officers began to fire pepper-balls, one of which struck Nelson in the eye. He collapsed immediately and was taken to the hospital much later on, where he suffered multiple injuries including temporary blindness and a permanent loss of visual acuity. He endured multiple surgeries to try to repair the injury. Nelson lost his athletic scholarship due to his injury and was forced to withdraw from UC Davis. The officers were unable to find any criminal charges against Nelson. The Ninth Circuit held that the use of force was unreasonable and the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity.[12]

Plumhoff v. Rickard (2014)

On July 18, 2014, a West Memphis police officer stopped Donald Rickard for a broken headlight. As the officer talked with Rickard he noticed that there was an indentation in the windshield and that Rickard was acting very erratic. The officer asked Rickard to step out of the vehicle. Rickard at that point fled the scene. A high speed chase ensued, which involved several other officers. Rickard lost control of his vehicle in a parking lot, and officers exited their vehicles to approach Rickard. Rickard again tried to flee, hitting several police cruisers and nearly hitting several officers. At this time officers opened fire on Rickard. The officers fired a total of 15 rounds which resulted in the death of both Rickard and his passenger. The Supreme Court ruled that the use of force was justified, because the objective reasonableness of the use of deadly force must be based on the situation in which it was used, and not on hindsight.[13]

U.S. statistics

Of the 40 million people in the United States who had face to face contact with the police 1.4%, or 574,000, reported use of force or the threat of use of force being directed at them. About a quarter of the 574,000 incidents involved the police officer pointing the gun at the subject of the incident and 53.5% of the incidents saw the officer using physical force such as kicking, grabbing, and pushing. In addition, 13.7% of those that had force used against them or were threatened with the use of force submitted complaints to the offending officer's department. Of those that received use of force from a police officer or were threatened with use of force almost 75% reported that they believed it was excessive and unwarranted. This statistic was consistent across the Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic races.[14]

A report by the Washington Post found that 385 Americans were fatally shot by law enforcement officers in the first five months of 2015, an average of more than two fatal shootings a day, which was more than twice the rate reported in official statistics. 221 of those killed were armed with guns, and 68 were armed with knives or other blades.[15]

Officer attributes


Studies have shown that law enforcement personnel with some college education (typically two-year degrees) use force much less often than those with little to no higher education.[16] In events that the educated officers do use force, it is usually what is considered "reasonable" force.[17] Despite these findings, very little - only 1% - of police forces within the United States have education requirements for those looking to join their forces.[18] Some argue that police work deeply requires experience that can only be gained from actually working in the field.[19]


It is argued that the skills for performing law enforcement tasks well cannot be produced from a classroom setting. These skills tend to be better gained through repeated exposure to law enforcement situations while in the line of work.[20] The results as to whether or not the amount of experience an officer has contributes to the likelihood that they will use force differ among studies.

Other characteristics

It has not been strongly found that the race, class, gender, age etc. of an officer affects the likelihood that they will use force.[21] Situational factors may come into play.

Split-second syndrome

Split-second syndrome is an example of how use of force can be situation-based. Well-meaning officers may resort to the use of force too quickly under situations where they must make a rapid decision.[22]

Departmental attributes

Policies on use of force can differ between departments. The type of policies established and whether or not they are enforced can affect an officer's likeliness to use force. If policies are established, but not enforced heavily by the department, the policies may not make a difference. For example, the Rodney King case was described as a problem with the departmental supervision not being clear on policies of (excessive) force. Training offered by the department can be a contributing factor, as well, though it has only been a recent addition to include information on when to use force, rather than how to use force.[23]

One departmental level policy that is currently being studied and called for by many citizens and politicians is the use of body cameras by officers. In one study body cameras were shown to reduce the use of force by as much as 50%.[24]

Crime levels

At the micro level, violent crime levels in the neighborhood increase the likelihood of law enforcement use of force. In contrast, at the meso level violent neighborhood crime does not have that much effect on use of force.[25]

England and Wales

In England and Wales the use of (reasonable) force is provided to police and any other person from Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967, which states:

"A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders or of persons unlawfully at large".

Use of force may be considered lawful if it was, on the basis of the facts as the accused honestly believed them,[26] necessary and reasonable.

(Further provision about when force is "reasonable" was made by section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.)

See also


  1. Nazemi, Sandra. "Sir Robert Peel's Nine Principals Applied to Modern Day Policing". Retrieved October 31, 2014.
  2. "Police Use of Force". National Institute of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved September 26, 2014.
  4. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on February 18, 2006. Retrieved December 13, 2005.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. Alpert, Geoffrey P.; Dunham, Roger G. (2004). Understanding Police Use of Force: Officers, Suspects, and Reciprocity. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 17.
  6. "The Use-of-Force Continuum". National Institute of Justice. August 4, 2009.
  7. "Graham vs. Connor" (PDF). Archived from the original on October 21, 2014. Retrieved August 4, 2016.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  8. citing Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)
  9. "Tennessee v. Garner". Retrieved August 12, 2015. [Deadly] force may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape [of a fleeing suspect] and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.
  11. Payne v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767, (7th Cir. 2003)
  12. "Nelson v. City of Davis". Retrieved August 12, 2015.
  13. Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S. Ct. 2012, 572 U.S., 188 L. Ed. 2d 1056 (2014).
  14. U.S. Department of Justice. (2011). Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2008. (NCJ 234599). Washington, DC.
  15. Kimberly Kindy (May 30, 2015). "Fatal police shootings in 2015 approaching 400 nationwide". The Washington Post.
  16. Galvan, Astrid (November 30, 2010). "Study: Educated Cops Less Likely To Use Force". Albuquerque Journal. Retrieved October 10, 2014.
  17. Worden, Robert E. (1995). And Justice for All: Understanding and Controlling Police Abuse of Force. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. pp. 23–51.
  18. Rydberg, Jason; Terrill, William (2010). "The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior". Police Quarterly. 13 (1): 92–120. doi:10.1177/1098611109357325. Retrieved October 10, 2014.
  19. Paoline III, Eugene A.; Terrill, William (February 2007). "Police Education, Experience, and the Use of Force". Criminal Justice and Behavior. 34 (2): 182. Retrieved October 24, 2014.
  20. Terrill, William (February 2007). "Police Education, Experience, and the Use of Force". Criminal Justice and Behavior. 34 (2): 182. Retrieved November 14, 2014.
  21. Travis, Jeremy; Chaiken, Jan; Kaminski, Robert (October 1999). "Use of Force by Police" (PDF). National Institute of Justice: 9. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
  22. Dunham, Roger G.; Alpert, Geoffrey P. (2010). Critical Issues in Policing (6 ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc. p. 466.
  23. Dunham, Roger G.; Alpert, Geoffrey P. (2010). Critical Issues in Policing (6 ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc. pp. 513–527.
  24. Barak Ariel; William A. Farrar; Alex Sutherland (2014). "The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens' Complaints Against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial". Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
  25. Lee, H., Vaughn, M. S., & Lim, H. (2014). The effect of neighborhood crime levels on police use of force: An examination at micro and meso levels. Journal of Criminal Justice, 42(6), 491-499
  26. CPS: Self-Defence and the Prevention of Crime


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