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Police UK Force

Evaluating the Moral Justification of Force in the UK Police

Consequentialism and the Use of Deadly Force Among Police Personnel in the UK

Against a backdrop of a democratic society, the use of deadly force by the police in countries such as the UK seems implausible for human rights activists. First, police officers are expected to uphold the human rights of every individual hence, civilian rights are always preserved even in criminal cases where the due process of law is considered to be the golden standard in the judicial system. Thus, threading the line between regulations and policies of the agency as well as the ethical and moral dilemma in the use of deadly force predisposes police officers to question the legitimacy as well as the moral justifications in their use of deadly force. While several philosophical theorists have argued for different justifications through philosophical theories, the theory of consequentialism appears to be the one that closely justifies the use of deadly force among the police.

Before examining the moral and ethical arguments for the use of deadly force using the consequentialist paradigm, let us first examine the important aspects of deadly force and the use of it by the UK police. First, deadly force as defined by Geller and Scott (23) pertains to the force reasonably capable of causing death or bodily harm. According to this definition, an act that can kill should be consumated before it can be considered as a deadly force hence; threats are not considered to be within the parameters of this scope. The use of deadly force according to Kappeler, Kraska and Marron (3) falls within emergency situations such as in hostage taking, shooting randomly, pursuance of a police officer of unarrested criminal and other similar incidences.

Consequently, in the UK, police officers are given the discretion to determine if the suspect poses a threat to the police officer or the public. In the pursuit of these suspects, police officers are given the power to use deadly force through probably cause of harm. The courts decide whether the use of deadly force is justified or not and in some cases, police officers are charged because their use of deadly force is considered to be unjustifiable. Hence, there is a very thin line separating the justification of the use of deadly force from an act that is unjustified. The ethical and moral dilemma of police officers therefore rests not only on the regulations of their agency but on their analytical and ethical decision. Thus, the pursuit of the philosophical theory that can best justify the use of deadly force ensues.

Consequentialism has been considered as one of the more important theories in justifying the use of deadly force by the police primarily because of its consideration of the consequences of a given act. In contrast with other theories that uses the nature of the act itself (deontology) or the goodness of the wrongness of the act or whether it is a good virtue or not (virtue ethics), consequentialism considers the aggregate value of the act based on the summation of its consequences- if it benefits the greater number of people, then it is considered to be morally justifiable. It should be noted that consequentialism has different forms such as the act consequentialism and the rule consequentialism. In this paper both types of consequentialism will be explored.

The Ethico-Moral Principles of Consequentialism: Implications in Use of Force

First, the use of deadly force is essential in policing and in providing a higher value for the consequences of the actions. Some writers do posit that the use of force is essential and central in policing. Skolnick and Fyfe, in their recent book on the topic, frankly contend: No matter how many warnings may be issued by superiors about limitations on the use of force, no matter how much talk about policing as a profession, police training continually reminds recruits that coercive power is a central feature of police life. (Skolnick and Fyfe, 95) They claim that such force will remain an inevitable component of policing.(Skolnick and Fyfe, 37) Vance McLaughlin similarly asserts that although the use of force by police is not as frequent as the public may imagine, police officers routinely use force to carry out their role as enforcers. His view is that the use of force is inherent in the profession just as legitimate force is an essential ingredient in maintaining an ordered society (McLaughlin, 1). Accordingly, in every nation today, law enforcement officers possess the right to use force (McLaughlin, 7) Lawrence Sherman maintains a comparable perspective in saying: Force is the essence of criminal justice, just as the monopoly on the legitimate use of force is the essence of the nation-state (Sherman, 37).

Second, the use of force by the police is legitimized by the concept of the greater good for the greatest number- a concept that is used not only in democratic countries such as the UK but also in moral arguments. For instance, several studies both in domestic and international political and security arena have provided extensive justifications for the use of force using the consequentialist paradigm. For instance, in the study of Whitley (24), the author argued that preventive war to crimes produces more good than evil and hence, similar to the study of Yoo (730), the use of force is self-defense and in defense of society is a just war and is therefore legitimate. Hence, in the same vein, any person who is poised to commit a crime against the society necessarily invokes the right of governing institutions such as the police force to enforce security and safety of the greater good. Within this argument, the virtue of an act or the use of force by the police is justified by the preservation of security within the society. This argument presupposes that the consequence of the use of force by the police would lead to greater security and hence, deterrence of violence which leads to better quality of life for the people in this case, British citizens.

The use of force by the UK police was born out of threats to public safety. Neyroud (252-253) outlining the history of the UK police force has argued that the baton-days before the 1980s was inadequate in protecting the public against public criminals such as in the case of the Hungerford Shootings and the Thames Valley where an armed man started to shoot in random killing two person and one injury. Hence, according to Neyroud (253), the public expectations of the police and the use of force has been a dilemma for the UK police- is the use of deadly force justified? Accordingly, according to the Thames Valley Police (1) argued that it is justified because it protected not only the police officers but also the public. This kind of threat cannot be allowed in a society because it lessens the confidence of the people on the police as well as on their own neighborhood. Hence, shooting a person who is out to kill others by virtue of the consequence of killing innocent people and police officers is justified because the death of the criminal would mean sparing the lives of innocent people and in the process restoring the peace needed by the greater number of people.

Third, the use of deadly force by the police is justified because of the framework of defending one's self and defending others within the society. Within this frame, Kaufman (24) argues that the morality of people is subjected to a higher authority- in this case, the police force represents the society to which social contract is established among its citizens. According to Gentili (16), regulations are always backed with force- this type of force whether deadly or not is legitimate because people who have committed crimes to others and the society ultimately obliterate their human rights. Hence, in violating the rights of others and the public, criminals who are subjected to the use of deadly force essentially, forego their own human rights. Hence, while even the UN Charter would consider the use of deadly force as the last resort, it recognizes that political and judicial means are not always responsive in defending its citizens thus, the inherent use of deadly force in self-defense cases are permitted (Yoo, 738).

Consequently, the use of deadly force is more prevalent in the United States than in the UK because of the reason of self-defense. The use of deadly force is mostly applied to cases considered to be of extreme nature such as the murder of police officers, firearm robberies and homicide of the general population (Parent, 230). Within the consequentialism paradigm, the consequence of self-defense is morally justifiable because the police use of force is within the boundaries of their discretion- it is easier for the society to accept the shooting of the criminal who is about to kill a police officer or an innocent bystander than the police officer or the bystander being killed by the offender (Levy, 28).

Similarly, consequentialism justifies the use of force through the argument that its use can deter the incidence of crime for the greater good of society. For instance, consequentialism is an agent-neutral term (Huigens, 944) that judges an action based on the value of a decision. For instance, if a police officer shoots a hostage taker, the police officer is essentially choosing between the life of the innocent hostage and the hostage taker. In these cases, the decision is weighed based on the value of the decision for the persons involved and the society in general. The dilemma for the police officer therefore is whether to risk the life of the hostage victim or take action and shoot the hostage taker. While negotiations in this type of situations are first used, the use of deadly force is considered as an important last resort if all things fail. As long as the police officer had exhaustive other means, then, the use of deadly force does not violate the protocols of police power and regulations in UK policing.

Fourth, the use of deadly force is not used in the consequentialist theory sparingly but rather on the grounds that the consequence is still the best alternative. For instance, Paul Ramsey (144), a thinker who often concentrates on war issues rather backhandedly mentions the police when illustrating just war principles. Ramsey argues that the just use of political violence in warfare must include two principal elements: 1) a specific justification for sometimes killing another human being; and 2) severe and specific restrictions upon anyone who is under the hard necessity of doing so. "Both are exhibited," says Ramsey (144) "in the use of force proper to the domestic police power." Accordingly, police officers distinguish between aggressor, victim, and bystanders; and though an officer may hit some innocent party accidentally, it would never be right for him or her to enlarge the target and deliberately, or directly, kill any number (Ramsey, 187).

Ramsey grounds this justification of such limited use of force upon what he identifies as social charity, in which the Christian, or anyone else for that matter, is called to love the neighbor by protecting him or her from the other aggressive neighbor who has chosen to become an enemy. Although Christians are called to love the enemy as well, Ramsey asserts that when choice must be made between the perpetrator of injustice and the many victims of it, the latter may and should be preferred--even if effectively to do so would require the use of armed force against some evil power (Ramsey, 143) In this way, Ramsey maintains that restraint in the use of force is still necessary in order to respect and, indeed, love the alleged perpetrator. While this is the only point at which Ramsey devotes any attention to the context of law enforcement, it is noteworthy that it is a pivotal illustration upon which he bases the rest of his work concerning the justification of war.

The use of force often reflects an on-the-spot decision made by the police officer on the scene. The officer must quickly assess the situation and take proper action. So many factors may come into play that guidelines, restrictions, and laws may seem too vague to be of practical use to the officer; the use of force is thus difficult to control.(Skolnick and Fyfe, 38) Yet, with more and more precision and uniformity, most recent guidelines and laws attempt to check excessive force and provide assistance to police by admonishing them that they should use no more force than is "necessary" or "reasonable" or that such force should be used only as a "last resort." In this way, they echo the language of just war thinking, with its fundamental posture of restraint.

The final criterion comes under the heading of right consequences in an objective sense, which is the goal or end that is sought. This is usually justified in terms of the global common good. It ordinarily consists in bringing about a lasting peace, and also includes consideration of the enemy's real best interests. In the case of police, Malloy maintains that they may use the full force available to them only when they are convinced that the common good is being served (Malloy, 14). Therefore, the most objective goal of any officer in a physical confrontation is to have an opponent cease and desist from further resistance (McLaughlin, 85 ) The test of such a stance is taking someone as prisoner or, in other words, arresting him rather than using more force than is necessary. The best interests of all, including the alleged perpetrators, are to be kept in view, thereby maintaining the overall common good of society.

The use of force should be used only with the greatest restraint and only after discussion, negotiation and persuasion have been found to be inappropriate or ineffective. While the use of force is occasionally unavoidable, every police officer will refrain from unnecessary infliction of pain or suffering and will never engage in cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment of any person.

Hence, the use of deadly force as a last resort by the police involves due process or procedural integrity that qualifies both ad bellum and in bello criteria. On this criterion, sufficient time should be allowed for processes of negotiation and the exercise of diplomacy. Applying this notion to the police predicament, officers should exhaust all other possible methods for controlling a conflictive situation before resorting to the more severe levels of force.(Malloy, 13) Only when all else fails should a police officer resort to a higher degree of force. Admittedly, this is an onerous call for the police officer to make in a tense situation, such as a domestic conflict. Yet, this is precisely why there is a need for clearer principles and rules, as well as prior training to clarify and instill them.

Implications on Act Consequentialism and Rule Consequentialism

Consequentialism contends that an act is justified if the consequence is greater than the product if the deadly force has not been committed. Police officers who usually fall into the dilemma of using deadly force can use the philosophical ground of consequentialism as a rationale or justification for their decisions. However, police officers should be cautious in doing so.

First, rule consequentialism necessitates that the police officer considers not only the consequence of the action but also the regulations of the UK police force. In doing so, it is important that police officers studies the protocols governing emergency situations where the discretion of police officers is called upon to decide whether the use of deadly force is necessary or not. Cases have it that there is a very thin line separating the legitimacy or the rightness and wrongness of a police officer's decision to use deadly force. Hence, police officers would need to quickly appraise the situation vis a vis the regulations of the agency.

On the other hand, act consequentialism would consider that the use of deadly force is justified only if it is morally right and if the act maximizes the good. Hence, it is important that the consequence of the action would yield greater good than harm to the personsl involved. An important philosophical discussion in this would be, on what perspective would the consequence be considered as maximized? The answer would be to the society. The society is considered as the barometer of the goodness or the wrongness of an act. Considering the greatest consequence would be to consider to the fate of the society. If for instance, a police officer shoots at a person who is shooting randomly, the police officer would be more or less justified in shooting down the person in order to save his self and the innocent citizens.

Second, rule consequentialism considers the use of deadly force as the last resort in dealing with emergency cases. For instance, in hostage taking, the use of negotiations and diplomacies are considered to be the primary criteria among the police officers. The use of deadly force is only considered as a last resort or when all other means have been exhausted and failed. Police agency protocols also calls for the same prioritization. On the other hand, act utilitarianism would consider the maximal impact of the act. For instance, if the act had greater value for the society, then, it is considered to be good.

Consequentialism would consider that police officers are capable of fulfilling the training and the analytic requirements in order to make a morally justifiable claim or decision would be explored in the next chapter.


Kaufman, Whitley. What's Wrong with Preventive War? the Moral and Legal Basis for the Preventive Use of Force. Ethics and International Affairs. Volume 19: Issue 3. 23-30, 2005.

Yoo, John. Using Force. University of Chicago Law Review 71 (Summer 2004), pp. 729-345.

Neyroud, Peter. Use of Force. Policing. Volume 1, Issue 3: 252-254, 2007.

Gentili, Alberto. De Jure Belli Libri Tres (1612), trans. John C. Rolfe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933), bk. I, ch. XIV.

Levy, S., The Educational Equivalence of Act and Rule Utilitarianism”, in Hooker, Mason, and Miller, (eds.), pp.  27-39, 2000.

Parent, Rick. The Police Use of Deadly Force: International Comparisons. Volume 79, Issue 3: 230-237, 2006.

Huigens, Kyron. The Dead End of Deterrence, and Beyond. Wlliam and Mary Law Review. Volume 41, Issue 3. 943-957, 2000.

Geller, W.A., and M.S. Scott. Deadly Force: What We Know. Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 1992.

Kappeler, V.E., Kraska, P.B. and Marron, J.E. “Police Policing Themselves: The Processing of Excessive Force Complaints.” Paper, Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, Boston, MA, March 1995.

Ramsey, Paul. The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility 144 pages, 1968.

Skolnick, J. and Fyfe, J. Above the Law: Police and Excessive Use of Force, 1993.

McLaughlin, V. Police and the Use of Force: the Savannah Study, 1992.

Sherman, L. Ethics in Criminal Justice Education, 1982.

Malloy, E. The Ethics of Law Enforcement and Criminal Punishment, 1982.

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