Use of Force in the Protective Services: Police Service

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Use of Force in the Protective Services: Police Service


Police officers are a part of a protective service that has a moral duty to protect the public and keep society safe. In order to carry out such a task, force is used as a means to control behavior that is detrimental to society (Wolfe, 1969). The use of force is not usually based on discretion but in many cases, discretion is needed. This will be further discussed later on in the essay. However, in every police agency there is a use of force continuum that guides officers on the appropriate levels of force that can be used in particular situations. This continuum generally has many escalating levels, and officers are instructed to respond with a level of force appropriate to the situation at hand, acknowledging that the officer may move from one part of the continuum to another in a matter of seconds (National Institute of Justice, 2009). As one can see, the use of force is a necessary part of an officer’s duty to protect and keep an order in society and if used correctly it is deemed ethical. However, there are always instances where the officer ignores the guidelines or misuses their discretion and their use of force easily becomes excessive. Many officers will argue that excessive force, although unconstitutional, is sometimes ethical and needed. The question is what ethical system justifies the use of excessive force? To answer this question, this paper will place its focus on the use of the force continuum, police discretion and the teleological ethical system, as a means to justify the use of excessive force.

The Use of Force Continuum

As stated prior, the use of force continuum is a guide that assists officers on what level of force is appropriate in particular situations. However, there's not a universal rule regarding how an officer should use force, or how much force should be used. Instead, individual law enforcement agencies set their own guidelines. This means that each police department will have varying standards regarding the use of force. The use of force continuum is generally made up of five levels of force that escalates on a scale from minimum to deadly force. Officers are supposed to act morally and use force that is appropriate for the circumstances they are in, even if it requires them to move from one force to the other in a matter of seconds. As a general principle, the level of force used should be tailored to the nature of the threat that prompted its use (Godoy, 2014). The following are the general levels of force in the continuum.

Level One: The Officer’s Presence

Many believe that the use of force has to be physical in nature. However, the presence of an officer is the first and least amount of force that can be used. The mere visual presence of an officer that is in uniform is usually enough to deter people from committing unlawful acts or prevent disorderly situations from escalating. No words or verbal commands are needed at this level of force, just the use of gesticulations and the officer’s body language. This should not come across as threatening to members of the public; instead, the gestures must be professional at this level of force.

Level Two: Verbal Commands

When the mere presence of the officer is not enough to control the public, verbal commands is the next level of force that should be taken. When this level is used in combination with the officer’s presence, desired results of control can be obtained. Verbal commands, such as; ‘stop’ or ‘you are under arrest,’ are usually enough for the officer to get things under control.

Level Three: Empty Hand Control

There will be situations where a simple verbal command will not control the situation. Another level of force will be needed; police officers will now need to get involved physically. However, the physical force must be distributed empty handed. There are two types of empty handed control techniques, they are; soft techniques and hard techniques. Soft techniques may include the use of grabs, holds and joint locks to restrain an individual. This technique has a minimal chance of injury to the individual being restrained. Hard techniques may include the use of punches, kicks and other striking techniques to restrain an individual. This technique has a moderate chance of injury to the individual being restrained (National Institue of Justice, 2009).

Level Four: Less Lethal Force

Officers may admit less lethal force with; blunt impact, using an object such as a baton, chemicals such as pepper sprays, and conducted energy devices such as Tasers, to immobilize an individual that is difficult to restrain.

Level Five: Lethal Force

It is justified for officers to use deadly force, with weapons such as firearms, to stop an individual's actions if the officer believes that the individual poses a threat of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or others. In these instances, where an individual poses a lethal threat, officers will have no other option but to discharge their firearm in order to protect their life or, the life of others.

Police Discretion

Police discretion, in simple terms, is the decision-making power afforded to police officers that allows them to decide if they want to pursue police procedure or simply let someone off (Hirby, 2012). Possibly, the most crucial characteristic of police work is their ability to use force to enforce the law (Bittner, 1974). They are legally authorized, because of their unique job mandate, to use varying levels of force to compel specific responses from citizens and keep society under control.

Case: Scott v. Harris (05-1631)

In 2001, police witnessed Victor Harris driving 73 miles per hour in a 55 miles per hour zone. When they tried to pull him over, Harris sped away. Officer Timothy Scott joined the chase and after approximately six minutes of pursuit at average speeds between 80 and 90 miles per hour and an unsuccessful attempt at stopping Harris, Scott received authorization from his supervisor to stop Harris by force. Using his push bumper, Scott made direct contact with Harris’s car, causing him to lose control and roll down an embankment. Harris suffered serious injuries. Harris argues that under Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), which set forth circumstances in which deadly force is reasonable to prevent escape, Scott’s use of force was unreasonable and unconstitutional. Scott argues, however, that the force used should not be characterized as “deadly force” and that a simple reasonableness, and not the more specific test of Garner, should apply. Nevertheless, Scott argues that he should be entitled to qualified immunity. The Supreme Court, reviewing the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in favor of Harris, will determine the standard to be applied to uses of force in vehicular pursuits which will in turn affect police officers’ discretion in such situations (Scott v. Harris, 2005).

In the case above, Tennessee v. Garner was mentioned. It was a case that made an impact on the police use of force and the fourth amendment. Tennessee v. Garner states that when an officer is pursuing a fleeing suspect, the officer may not use deadly force to prevent escape unless the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others (Tennenbaum, 1994). The Scott v. Harris case is an example of the way police officers have to use their discretion when making decisions of what level of force is needed in a situation. In the case, Scott received authorization from his supervisor to use force to stop Harris from fleeing. This is an example of an imperfect duty; he was obligated to carry out a command with no specific acts. Therefore, Officer Scott used his discretion and chose to use “deadly force” by directly making contact with Harris’ vehicle.

When an officer has to use force in a situation, they have to use their discretion and appropriately choose what level of force is needed at that time. The issue with this is that each police agency has their own subculture and therefore officers’ views on what is the appropriate level of force will differ. Another aspect that is needed to consider is that each officer, as an individual, also has their own personal views on what is the appropriate level of force when situations arise. In the case of Scott v. Harris, Officer Scott merely used his discretion and applied a force that was excessive, “unreasonable and unconstitutional” but in hopes that the consequences would be just. The teleological ethical system justifies this notion.

Teleological Ethical System

In the minds of many officers, their jobs are good in nature and therefore the procedures they do, to fulfil their duties for their job, is also good. With this mentality, it is easy for officers who believe that whatever actions they do it is done for the greater good. This could lead to excessive force, as in the case of Scott v. Harris. Excessive force is every kind of force that is excessively or unnecessarily used (Gül, Hekim, & TerkeÅŸli, 2013). It is unethical and illegal to use force excessively. An officer’s duty is to follow the use of force continuum and act in a way that fits the offence being done. However, many officers ignore the continuum and abuse their power of discretion and validate their actions by saying that they did what seemed right to get the job done.

Another issue that arises out of that notion is the ‘Dirty Harry’ problem which is based on the idea that a 'good' end can be achieved only by using 'dirty' (unconstitutional) means (Elliston & Feldberg, 1985). The question of ethics asks, ‘is it still considered a good deed when the means are morally wrong but the consequences turn out right’ (Dempsey & Linda , 2011)? Teleological ethical system (utilitarianism), developed by Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873) explains that the ends justify the means. In other words, it means that the outcome or consequences justifies the initial action that was done, making it inherently good; the focus is on the consequence of the act and not the act itself. This however, does not mean that the act is not unconstitutional; it is against the law.


Police officers are part of a service that has the duty to protect and keep an order in society. To fulfill this duty, the use of force is needed and discretion is used to decide what level of force should be exercised by the officer. When an officer uses force that is unnecessary or out of proportion to the situation at hand, it is considered excessive force, which is unethical and illegal. This essay concentrated on explaining and justifying the use of excessive force done by police officers. By making mention and clarifying the use of force continuum one can see that the amount of force exercised by an officer must be proportional or equivalent to the situation at hand. To make these decisions, police officer exercise discretion which, as presented in the essay, does not always turn out for the best; there are instances where excessive force became a result, but officers validate their actions by saying it is for the greater good. The teleological ethical system justifies the use of excessive force, which is used for the greater good, by stating that the ends justify the means.

Although the teleological ethical system justifies excessive force when used for the greater good, it is still illegal to do so. This concludes that ethics and legality are not areas that go hand in hand with each other. While something may be ethical it does not mean it is legal and when something may be legal it does not mean that is ethical. It is a very particular subject of thought because we now have to question what is truly moral; being ethical or following the laws that tells us what is “right and wrong.” Police officers should be careful of the way they fall into the subculture of their jobs and remember that everyone, including criminals, have rights as human beings, regardless of what they have done. He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster (Nietzsche, 1886).


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