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The Key Points Involved in the Court Determining the Lawfulness of the Use of Force

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Broadly speaking, the use of force by law enforcement officers becomes necessary and is permitted under specific circumstances, such as in self-defense or in defense of another individual or group. There is no single, universally agreed-upon definition of use of force. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has described use of force as the "amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject".

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Recent developments have heightened concern about police use of force. They range from well-publicized incidents involving allegations of excessive force to the onset of “aggressive” policing, whose frequent emphasis on zero-tolerance enforcement is sometimes regarded as encouraging use-offorce abuses. No matter what specific event triggers concern about police use of force, how is the public to assess whether such force is, in the aggregate, a major problem? One way is to examine what research has unearthed. The first pertains to knowledge that can be accepted with substantial confidence as “fact.” The second relates to use-of-force knowledge that can be accepted only with modest confidence because, for example, additional research is warranted. The third category consists of knowledge yet to be developed through research—that is, what is not yet known. The primary purpose of police is protection, and so force can be used only to promote the safety of the community. Police have a responsibility for safeguarding the domestic well-being of the public, and this obligation even extends in qualified ways to protecting those who violate the law, who are antagonistic or violent toward the police, or who are intent on hurting themselves. In dealing with such individuals, police may use force in reasonable and prudent ways to protect themselves and others. However, the amount of force used should be proportional to the threat and limited to the least amount required to accomplish legitimate police action.

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The officer pulls out a baton and threatens to strike the suspect. If the suspect backs down, but the officer hits the suspect anyway, this would be defined as “unnecessary force” because the suspect had already complied with the officer’s order and the threat had ended. In the same scenario, if the suspect instead lunges to punch the officer and the officer strikes the suspect with a baton, that level of force would be justified (Anthony A., 2017)

If the suspect stops and cooperates, but the officer continues to strike the person repeatedly, this would be understood as “excessive.”But the problem is, these examples are absolute and concrete, and sometimes situations in the real world are not as clear. Most civilian-officer confrontations cannot be placed into such rigid categories. Thus, PERF contends that the use of force continuum is outdated and needs to be revised. They suggest that officers need to be trained to evaluate the entire situation at the moment when police are called, and to start developing a plan even before they arrive on the scene (Rachel Crosby). This way, they can be better prepared to make decisions within the wide range of available options, including defusing a situation without resorting to using excessive force.

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In the final analysis, most police officers never fire their guns (except during training) throughout their entire careers, yet they face enormous challenges and risks to their own safety on a regular basis and they perform their jobs admirably. But police chiefs tell us that even one bad encounter can damage trust with the community that took years to build. In doing so, agencies will be part of a national effort to take policing to a higher standard when it comes to police use of force and the safety of officers and the public.

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Rachel Crosby, “Police rebuild trust in Las Vegas’ Westside, one event at a time,” Las Vegas Review-Journal,

Anthony A. Braga and Desiree Dusseault, Can Police Improve Homicide Clearance Rates?, Harvard Kennedy School Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, 2017

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