Police And The Use Of Force Shakoya Criminology Essay

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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 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.

Literature Review

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 (Burke, 2005). The authority of the police to use force represents one of the most misunderstood powers granted to representatives of government. Use of force from a law enforcement perspective is using any means necessary to bring a volatile situation to a more manageable and/or resolved state.

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

The officer has a range of force options from which to choose. For instance, police officers are authorized to use both psychological and physical force to apprehend criminals and solve crimes. Sometimes, the mere presence of the police officer is enough control. At other times, verbal commands are needed. The compliance hold (physical force) is the next stage of control, followed by the use of non-lethal weapons such as the baton or chemical spray. Lastly, a police officer may resort to the use of deadly force, which by all means should try to be avoided unless deemed 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. They are given the use of force as a means of crime prevention but often times the very usage of this force is questioned and sometimes, deemed unnecessary or excessive (Engel,1997). 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).

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. 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 (U.S. Dept of Justice, 2008).

An excessive amount of force can range from a severe man handling during arrest that seems or is unnecessary to excessive use of non-lethal force. The use of non-lethal force can sometimes be considered excessive, when the uses of chemical spray, bean bag guns, or tasers, are over used to resolve a problem (McDonald,2003). However, since they are non-lethal they can be seen as reasonable use of force. Therefore, the amount of force a policeman uses does not solely depend on himself but his or her discretion. Adams (1995), states that defining excessive force in order to understand and control is not a simple matter. 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, or create certain guidelines for the use of force is difficult. 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 (Buker,2007).

However, police officers must learn to use force lawfully. You cannot use lethal force at will or use force when it is not permissible. The idea and ability of 'managing force' by police officers is directly related to establishing responsibility and accountability to encourage the use of reasonable force (Ng, 2009). Some people believe police should not have the power to use force, no matter what the situation. They believe everything can be solved along peaceful terms in which no one can be injured or killed (Ng, 2009). Police are allowed to use force during the course of their daily activities. Force can be used to make arrests, maintain order, or keep the peace. The important thing is that the police officer is able to gain control of the situation. How the officer gains control is left up to his or her judgment: In other words, an officer most often attempts to take control of a confrontation by defining the situation (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 says it is okay 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 (Albert, Smith, 1994). Harmon (2008), indicates Haduring an arrest, an officer might give verbal commands to a suspect to stop, to keep his hands visible, to turn around and place his hands against the wall, to submit to a pat-down, to put his hands behind his back for handcuffing, to come along to the car, to get in, to get booked at the station. 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. Clearly, when the law confronts claims under these statutes that an officer used too much force during an arrest, the central question for federal liability is what constitutes constitutionally excessive force under the Eighth Amendment; the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution enforce cruel and unusual punishment (Matthew, 2006).

In our society, police are in a very precarious situation when it comes to the amount of force they can apply when dealing with a civilian suspect. Whether it be physical force, persuasion, or coercion; they must use discretion when deciding what course of action best suits the situation (Douthit, 1975). Discretion is the authority to make decisions without reference to specific rules or facts, using instead one's own judgment; allows for individualization and informality in the administration of justice (Buker, 2005). 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 time, 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.

The force the police use should not exceed the threat of force that could be applied on them by someone else. As one can see in the many case histories the excessive use of force is very rarely punished on legal terms (Matthew, 2006). The police nearly always get exonerated from the charged placed on them, even though substantial evidence may be in the prosecution's favor. Why is this? Being that the police enforce the law, they become analogous with the law (Adams, 1995). When officers are placed in situations where excessive force can be used, they use this knowledge of past precedent to get away with their excessive aggression.

The 1991 beating of California motorist Rodney King will have an impact on law enforcement for years to come. The videotape of the horrifying beating, broadcast nationwide, resulted in public outrage over police brutality. The broadcasting showed three Los Angeles police officers beating with metal batons, kicking and stomping on a seemingly defenseless African American male as their supervisor watched (Gray, 2006). Regardless of the videotape, a jury in Simi Valley concluded that the evidence was not adequate to convict these officers. Everyone seemed to believe that the police used excessive force in arresting King. This case caused a special commission to investigate whether brutality was widespread within the police department. Police departments across the country likewise reviewed their own policies on excessive force. Despite these efforts, citizen complaints about police brutality have increased since the Rodney King beating. Where an officer's initial use of force is provoked and lawful, the line between a legal arrest and an unlawful deprivation of civil rights within the aggravated assault guidelines is relatively thin. The line between reasonable force and a criminal excessive force beating is thin indeed. 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 (Johnson, 2007).

Ways to Reduce Use of Force

In order to reduce the improper and excessive use of force, the law must be enforced in its totality. Police must not be able to get away with the use of excessive force on undeserving offenders. Police who commit this crime should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. They should be made as examples, so this crime does not happen in the future (Alpert, Smith, 1994). It is not a question of should or whether, but when and how much.

Guidelines define when deadly force should be used: "The use of such force is prescribed by state and federal statutes. In an effort to curb the discretionary power used by police, there is a set of written procedures (Burns, Crawford, 1998). Providing a framework for police to follow is one method employed to try and counteract individual decision making by trying to prevent officers from deviating from procedure. Another method used to control police more thoroughly is the creation of watchdog units within the department. Often times, this comes in the form of an internal affairs office. This is a department within a police department which is strictly in existence to ensure that police are acting responsibly and also to investigate any allegations against officers that may arise.

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 (Burns, Crawford, 2009). 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.


With pertinent criticisms of the use of force by law enforcement, there has been a development of a Police Training Model to assist with attempting to reduce the use of force by police officers. For instance, as of 1999, the COPS Office provided funding to PERF and the Reno (Nevada) Police Department to develop an alternative national model for training new officers that would incorporate community policing and problem-based learning techniques. The resulting Police Training Officer (PTO) Program addresses the traditional duties of policing in the context of specific neighborhood problems and includes several segments on the use of force. The PTO Program is an alternative to the 30-year-old San Jose Field Training Officer (FTO) Program. Many agencies are using the outlines of the PTO Program to develop their own in-house programs adapted to their particular needs (US. Dept of Justice, 2008).


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 methodology used in this research was a qualitative approach. Many early studies utilized official report statistics to measure the outcome of the variables use of force and excessive use of force.

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.

Overall, police department policies can have a significant impact on how force is used in street-level encounters, says a 2003 study by the Community Relations Services of the U.S. Department of Justice, Principles of Good Policing: Avoiding Violence Between Police and Citizens. The BJS Data Collection statistics reported, stresses the need for police executives to improve training of recruits and police officers on the use of force and the techniques for minimizing its application. It also so stresses the need to reduce the negative perception of police officers and the use of force within the public's opinion (U.S. Dept of Justice, 2008).


Several key points could have been operationalized differently. For instance, every day, law enforcement officers face danger while carrying out their responsibilities. When dealing with a dangerous or unpredictable situation, police officers usually have very little time to assess it and determine the proper response. It is evident that the proper training as well as other guidelines can enable the officer to react properly to the threat or possible threat and respond with the appropriate tactics to address the situation, possibly including some level of force, if necessary, given the circumstances (U.S. Dept of Justice, 2008). 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 and how much. The term of 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 (Buker, 2005). A major cause for police use of force is the belief that police officers are solders in a war on crime. 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.

Works Cited

Adams, K. (1995). 'Measuring the prevalence of police abuse of force.' In W.A. Geller and H. Toch (Eds.), And Justice for All: Understanding and Controlling Police Abuse of Force. Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum.

Adler, J. (2007). Shoot to Kill: The Use of Deadly Force by the Chicago Police, 1875-1920. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 38(2), 233-254. Retrieved August 26, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.

Alpert, S. (1994). How Reasonable is the Resonable Man. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology .

Buker, H. (2005). Understanding Police Use of Force / Understanding Police Use of Force: Officers, Suspects and Reciprocity / Into the Killing Zone: A Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 7(3), 208-217. Retrieved August 24, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database

Douthit, N. (2003). Enforcement and non-enforcement roles in policing. Journal of Police Science and Administratin , 339.

Engel, R. (2008). Revisiting Critical Issues in Police Use of Force. Criminology and Public Policy , 557-561.

Gray, M. (2006, October). The L.A. Riots:15 years after Rodney King. Time .

International Association of Chiefs of Police. (2001). Police Use Of Force In America. Retrieved July 6, 2005, from www.theiacp.org/documents/pdts/publication/Pol.

Matthew, A. (2006). Understanding Police Use of Force:Officers Suspects and Reciprocity. Comteporary Sociology , 69-71.

McDonald, J. (2003). Police Use of Force: Examining the Relationship between Calls for Service and the Balance of Police Force and Suspect Resistance. Journal of Criminal Justice , 119-127.

Ng, N. (2009). Rules for the Use of Force. International Peace Operations , 39-42.

Rahtz, H. (2003) Understanding Police Use of Force. Criminal Justice Press: New York