Police Use of Force & Excessive Force: Situations & Guidelines

Police Use of Force & Excessive Force: Situations & Guidelines
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  • 0:02 Police Use of Force
  • 2:43 Use of Force Continuum
  • 5:45 Excessive Force
  • 8:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Police are entitled to use force in order to maintain social order, but are not entitled to use excessive force. This lesson explains police use of force, how it is legitimately used, and what constitutes excessive force.

Police Use of Force

When a white policeman shot a black teenager to death in Ferguson, Missouri, the incident sparked days of riots and months of protests. Few issues are as volatile as the use of police force. This one was especially controversial because it also involved racial tensions and the use of deadly force against a youth. The question was, did the teenager scuffle with the officer and reach for the officer's weapon? Or, was the teenager complying with the officer and standing with his hands up? As one former police chief stated, just one use of force incident can dramatically alter the stability of a police department and its relationship with a community.

Though these incidents are divisive, note that police are entitled to maintain and enforce social order through the use of force. The use of force refers to the amount of effort used by an officer in order to compel an offender to comply with the officer. Officers face dangerous situations every day and are permitted to use appropriate measures to address those situations and complete their law enforcement duties.

It might surprise you to know that there's not a universal rule regarding when an officer can use force, or how much force can be used. Instead, the individual law enforcement agencies set their own guidelines. This means that different police departments have different standards regarding the use of force. However, according to the National Institute of Justice, officers should use only the amount of force necessary to control the incident, complete the arrest, or protect themselves or others from harm or death.

You can see how the appropriate amount of force depends on the situation. Little or no force is necessary when the offender is compliant. However, some force may be necessary when the offender resists arrest by running away or by trying to push officers away.

In reality, the use of any amount of force simply isn't common. It's a popular subject for news stories and television shows, but one national study showed that police used force in less than one percent of all calls for service. Another study, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, showed that an estimated 44 million people had face-to-face contact with an officer, but less than half of one percent of those were threatened with or actually experienced the use of force.

Use of Force Continuum

Now let's take a closer look at the different levels of force. Many police departments utilize a use of force continuum. This is a range of varying force choices that are graded and used according to the situation. The department sets guidelines for the use of force. The guidelines allow officers to take an escalating series of actions in order to resolve a situation.

Typically, the levels start with basic verbal commands and range upward to include the use of deadly force. Officers are trained to know when it is appropriate to move to the next level of force so that they can do so quickly. The National Institute of Justice uses this example of a force continuum:

  • Officer presence represents the first level, where no force is used. This is the preferred method to resolve a situation.
  • Verbalization represents the second level, where force is non-physical. Here, officers first issue typical commands in a nonthreatening manner. An example is, 'hand me your driver's license.' Officers can become more forceful in their commands if the offender is not compliant, such as shouting 'stop' or 'put your hands up!'
  • Empty-hand control is the third level. Here, officers use bodily force to gain control of a situation. Officers start with soft technique, which includes grabbing or holding the offender. This is used if the offender is trying to get away from the officers. If more force is needed to gain compliance, the officer can move to hard technique, which includes punching or kicking. This is used if the offender is physically assaulting the officer. Some moves, such as chokeholds, have been banned in many jurisdictions.
  • Less lethal methods make up the fourth level. Here, officers use certain technologies to gain control of a situation, such as chemical spray or a conducted energy device. A conducted energy device, or CED, is a tool, such as a Taser, that discharges a jolt of electricity into the offender. These items are used when the offender poses a threat to the officer or others by resisting empty-hand control or possessing a weapon other than a firearm.
  • Lethal force is the final level. Lethal force is deadly force, and should only be used as a last resort. Lethal force is only appropriate when an offender poses an immediate and serious threat to the officer or another person. In most jurisdictions, this means the officer or another person must be threatened with death or serious bodily harm, such as when an offender brandishes a firearm. Officers use deadly force by firing their firearms.

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