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Police Use of Force | Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3206 words Published: 18th Jul 2018

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There have been several issues concerning the policies that underline the use of force within the field of law enforcement. Favorable opinions, negative objections, and indecisive feelings about the use of force have varied throughout the public as well as within the criminal justice system when it comes to this policy. For a number of years, it has been extremely difficult in determining the proper definition of what is considered to be the use of force or the proper use of force, especially in regards to law enforcement. Ironically, there have been dozens of studies on police and the use of force and research concluded that there is no single accepted definition.

“Must police use force?” Not only should the answer to this question include the circumstances surrounding the situation but it should also include the amount of force able to be used in each unique situation. This question will especially benefit a police officer when determining the amount of force that should be exerted on criminal suspects.

Overall, in order for one to fully understand the various definitions of use of force, one must be able to appreciate the background, causes, and ways to reduce the use of force. The basic problem with use of force is the lack of routine, national systems for collecting data on incidents in which police use force during the normal course of duty and on the extent of excessive force and when force should be applied and how much.

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According to Buker (2005), “the term, “use of force”, describes a right of an individual or authority to settle conflicts or prevent certain actions by applying measures to either: dissuade another party from a particular course of action, or physically intervene to stop them (pg201).” Police are granted the authority to use force and being able to use force this is characterizes one of the most misconstrued powers granted to commissioners of the government. Law enforcement officers may define the use of force as, taking all actions to bring a hostile situation to a more manageable status.

Adler (2007) found as leading police historians have demonstrated, early law enforcers worked in a hostile environment. Established during an era of soaring violence, when riots were commonplace and when social divisions cleaved cities into competing neighborhoods, American policemen, in Chicago and elsewhere, faced a daunting task. They were expected to maintain order, yet they lacked legitimacy and remained shackled to a partisan, often corrupt, institutional structure in which they were encouraged to use their influence and muscle for overtly political tasks, such as safeguarding their patrons and quelling labor unrest. All the while, American law enforcers battled to command respect and to control the streets.

Types of Force

There are several interpretations as to what is considered an excessive amount of force, which can vary from using bean bags guns, chemical spray, or batons. When these items are used inappropriately or excessively one may say this is using an excessive amount of force. However, since they are non-lethal they can be seen as reasonable use of force. Therefore, the amount of force a police officer uses does not solely depend on him or herself, but his or her discretion. Every situation that possibly involves the use of force is unique. Situations may be similar or seem to mirror one another, but no situation is the same. By situations varying from the differences in people, regions, beliefs, and backgrounds to tailor a particular definition, create certain guidelines for the use of force is difficult. Some people believe police should not have the power to use force, no matter what the circumstances may be. They believe everything can be solved along peaceful stipulations in which no one can be injured or killed (Ng, 2009). Then you have others who understand that in some situations, force is not only necessary, but is required, if serious, injury or death is avoided (Rahtz, 2007).

When handling a certain situation police officers have a variety of force options from which they can choose. Officers have been granted the authority to use both physical and mental force to solve crimes and detain criminals. At certain times criminals can be very cooperative when being arrested, so there is no need for physical force the mere presence of the officer is enough to gain their control. When criminals are no so cooperative, the first step would be verbal commands, going forward the next stage to detain a criminal, would be the compliance hold which means applying physical force, which may be followed by the use of non-lethal weapons such as the baton or tasers. The last result would be resorting in applying deadly force, which by all means should attempt to be avoided unless considered necessary (Douthit, 1975).

It is widely regarded that the police in any given society have a difficult job to fulfill. Dealing with criminals and placing themselves in harms way on a day to day basis is definitely an admirable calling. Although seen as difficult, there is an underlying sentiment in the general public that the job of law enforcement officers is relatively straightforward. Police are faced with tough moral decisions daily. They are to decide when and how to act when presented with violations of the law. When the use of force exceeds that which is necessary to accomplish their lawful purpose, or when their purpose is not lawful apprehension or self-defense but, rather personal retaliation, it is defined as excessive use of force and is unethical and illegal (Pollock, 2010).

According to the United States Department of Justice (2008) the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in Data Collection on Police Use of Force, states that “the legal test of excessive force is whether the police officer reasonably believed that such force was necessary to accomplish a legitimate police purpose.” However, there are no universally accepted definitions of “reasonable” and “necessary” because the terms are subjective and totality understood. A court in one jurisdiction may define “reasonable” or “necessary” differently than a court in a second jurisdiction. More to the point is an understanding of the “improper” use of force, which can be divided into two categories: “unnecessary” and “excessive.” The unnecessary use of force would be the application of force where there is no justification for its use, while an excessive use of force would be the application of more force than required where use of force is necessary (pg3).”


According to Alpert & Smith (1994), “a major cause of overuse of force, possibly leading to police brutality is the belief that police officers are “soldiers” in a “war” on crime. The war mentality impulses are to do certain things that would not be allowed under normal conditions. Police adopt this mentality because of citizens, whose fear of crime has reached an all-time high, and because of politicians, who publicize the notion that tough cops prevent crime (pg127).” Most suspects are compliant and require no more than a guiding arm, but those who refuse or resist, and occasionally those who do not, may provoke a forcible response. Subjects of police uses of force often respond with allegations of law enforcement brutality. Sometimes these allegations are baseless, a product of misunderstanding what might justify lawful force or of false accusation (Matthew, 2006). Other times they represent a just demand for recognition and redress for damaged bodies and spirits. The dilemma, according to Rahtz (2003), “is the lack of a clear agreement on what constitutes legitimate use of force. The public, as well as the police, understand that in some situations, force is not only necessary and unavoidable, but is required, if serious injury, death or destruction of property is to be avoided (pg136).”

When dealing with civilian suspects and the amount of force a police can apply during an arrest it places them in a very shaky situation. When police officers make decisions and choices based on the current situation without referring to any policies and procedures, just by following one’s own judgment this is called discretion (Douthit, 1975). This gives the police leeway as to when force is necessary and when it is not, within certain guidelines. For instance, a policeman cannot beat up a man for robbing a store. But, if the robber battered someone in the process of the robbery the policeman could. He could do this because there was a clear threat of danger to himself or to another officer or human being. Police must take the precise course of action to fit the circumstance, because if they are too lenient or to forceful, even when dealing with the pettiest things, they can be chastised by superiors and the public.

It seems as if the use of force issue has not been taken very serious through legal aspects. Police officers are rarely reprimanded; if the officer is charged with excessive use of force the charges are nearly exonerated. This causes questions to be raised, why is it that law enforcement officers get special treatment? One may say officers charges are exonerated because; when officers are placed in a precocious situation they use their knowledge of past precedent to be excused with their force actions which may be excessive aggression.

Notorious Cases of Police Brutality

In 1991 a horrified videotape was broadcasted nationwide, capturing California police officers brutally beating a motorist by the name of Rodney King. This case has had a tremendous effect on law enforcement. This case caused an investigation by a special commission to see whether the brutality was extensive within the police force (Engel, 2008). Another case of police brutality happened in Brooklyn, NY a citizen by the name of Michael Mineo claimed he was sodomized with a baton by police officers. The case of Sean Bell is a case that many will remember Bell was killed on the morning of his wedding day outside of a strip club in Queens, NY. Bell and a few of his friend were out at a strip club celebrating his wedding, not to long after leaving the nightclub, Bell and his friends were confronted by a plainclothes undercover officers who did not identify themselves as officers. Bell sped off in the car and the plainclothes undercover officers let off 50 rounds into Bell’s vehicle, killing him and severely injuring his friends (Engel, 2008). Several political leaders such as Al Sharpton and the NAACP tried to fight for some justice because the outcome of this case did not seem like a feasible amount punishment. The officers were charged with manslaughter, reckless endangerment and assault but were all acquitted. On November 29, 2008, a 15-year-old girl was beaten by two King County Sheriff’s Department deputies. The video shows deputies as they escorted the girl into the holding cell, when the deputies asked her to remove her shoes, and, as she slipped out of her left shoe, she appeared to kick it at the deputy. The deputy then lunged through the door and kicked her, striking either her stomach or upper thigh area, he smashed her head against a corner wall before flinging her to the floor by her hair.

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These events are very alarming but what is more alarming is the amount of times officers are exonerated for their actions. Where an officer’s initial use of force is aggravated and lawful, the line between a legal arrest and an unlawful deprivation of civil rights within the aggravated assault guidelines is relatively thin. There is no middle ground, no buffer zone. It’s either reasonable or criminal. One extra baton strike, shove or control holds can make the difference between an officer doing his job and being sent to prison (Alpert & Smith, 1994)

Ways to Reduce Use of Force

There are several ways to reduce the excessive use and improper use of force, the most important factor is to make all laws enforceable to the fullest extent no excuses. Police officers should fall under these same set of rules, they should be used as deterrence so other officers will not commit this same crime in the future. It is not a question of should or whether, but when and how much. However, police officers must learn to use force lawfully. You cannot use lethal force at will or use force when it is not permitted.

The Continuum Scale is believed to be one of the most efficient sources used to ensure the appropriate amount of force is used. A use of force continuum is a standard that provides law enforcement officials & security guards with guidelines as to how much force may be used against a resisting subject in a given situation. In certain ways it is similar to the military rules of engagement. It was designed as a general guide to using force in a confrontation or arrest situation and to make sure police officers use the appropriate level of force necessary in the performance of their duties (Terrill, Alpert, Dunham & Smith, 2003). The scale will assist officers in applying the law and departmental policy in use of force situations, documenting the use of force, and presenting testimony in a court proceeding. The purpose of these models is to clarify, both for officers and citizens, the complex subject of use of force by law officers.

Literature Review

In 1977, the Police Foundation conducted a seven-city study of shooting incidents by police. The cities included Birmingham, Alabama; Detroit, Michigan; Indianapolis, Indiana Kansas City, Missouri; Oakland, California; Portland, Oregon; and Washington, D.C. The research team examined department policies on shootings, analyzed available reports, conducted extensive interviews, and rode in patrol cars as observers. Among their major findings was the observation that most departments were only beginning to develop recordkeeping procedures on police use of excessive force and repeated involvement of officers in shooting incidents. They went on to note, “The lack of systematic, centralized data collection in many departments inhibits the rational development of new policies, training programs, and enforcement procedures (Bazley, Lersch, & Mieczkowski, 2006).

Contacts between Police and the Public, a 1999 BJS report, estimated that less than half of 1 percent of an estimated 44 million people who had face-to-face contact with a police officer were threatened with or actually experienced force. Other studies report similar statistics. It is these few situations, however, that attract public attention. Robert K. Olsen, former Minneapolis Police Chief and Past President, Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), early in 2004 called the use of force “the single most volatile issue facing police departments.” He noted that “just one use of force incident can dramatically alter the stability of a police department and its relationship with a community” (U. S. Dept of Justice, 2008).

Also, according to International Association of Chiefs of Police (2001), one of the most publicly debated aspects of police use of excessive force during the last year, is the racial characteristic of participants in use of force encounters. There were 8,148 reported incidents of police use of force in which the contributors (police departments) included racial descriptions for officers and suspects. Of this total, 39% involved white officers using force on white subjects, 44% involved white officers using force on African American subjects, 7% involved African American officers using force on African American subjects and 3.4% involved African American officers using force on white subjects.


The literature is in general agreement that police are in a very precarious situation when it comes to the amount of force they can apply when dealing with a civilian suspect. There is no clear definition of use of force because the terms are subjective. The research designed I would perform for this study would be the evaluative survey research method, in the sense that seeks to determine what is the proper meaning of use of force. The research would be of a quantitative analysis approach. A quantitative analysis approach is an approach which is the examination, analysis and interpretation of observations for the purpose of discovering underlying meanings and patterns of relationships.


Several key points could have been operationalized differently. When dealing with a dangerous or unpredictable situation, police officers usually have very little time to assess it and determine the proper response. Effective training as well as other guidelines can make it possible for officer to react, respond and address situations in an effective manner. Many early studies utilized official report statistics to measure the outcome of the variables use of force and excessive use of force. Early studies on the incidence of use of force focused on lethal, or deadly, force by police. Lethal force, obviously the highest level of force used by police, results in the most severe injuries to its recipients and commands the greatest attention from the media. The early studies looked at the incidence and circumstances of lethal force in individual cities.

The need for improved data collection systems can also be justified by considering the legal liabilities that law enforcement agencies have with their use of force, from both lethal and less-than-lethal weapons. The research conducted over the last 30 years on police use of force consistently calls for improved data collection at the local and national level.

In short, the purpose of this study was to determine the meaning of use of force, who can use force, when force should be applied and how much force is too much force. According to Buker (2005), “the term of use of force describes having the right or authority to resolve conflicts or to avoid certain actions by applying measures to either: deter another party from a particular course of action, or to physically intervene to stop them (pg210).” A major cause for police use of force is the belief that police officers are solders in a war on crime. Police officers are placed in serious and life threatening events on a daily basis. They have to use their discretion; one’s own judgment on how to solve the problem and what they believe is the best suitable outcome. Notorious cases of police brutality have called for a special commission to investigate whether brutality was widespread in the police forces. The continuum scale is one of the most effective sources use to ensure the appropriate amount of force is being used. All in all, one may view the use of force as a glass half empty, and some view the glass half full, which simply states it all depends on how you look at the situation.


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