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What Does Reasonable Use of Force Mean in Policing?

Written by Chelsea Dunning

Every traffic stop, criminal encounter and investigative assignment a law enforcement officer is involved in will require him or her to assess the situation. In every situation an officer must immediately determine any risks to personal and public safety, threats to the safety of the person they are interacting with and the reasonable amount of force needed to handle the situation.

Law enforcement officers can come in contact with aggressive, violent people every day, as well as people who downright despise them.

For this reason, it is essential for law enforcement officers to be able to correctly identify the least amount of force needed for the safety of all involved, so that these officers can do one of the jobs they are employed to do: Keep people safe.

The use of force continuum is a training model that teaches cadets the following: when it is okay to use force against a counterpart; the amount of force that is accepting in situations they will come across in their day-to-day patrol; and when to resort to deadly force.

The use of force continuum outlines different categories of possible suspect behavior during a confrontation. These range from compliant to resistant to assaultive, with varying degrees in between. The continuum also outlines what the appropriate police reaction to each type of behavior should be. These options range from 'cooperative controls' to 'defensive tactics' to 'deadly force', and officers are to be highly trained in each tactic.

reasonable use of force by police officers

The model above shows that as the suspect's behavior becomes more violent and threatening, the force an officer may use increases. It also highlights that it is during these intense moments that an officer's perception may be compromised the most. This occurs as a reaction to fear, where fight or flight reactions and the release adrenaline affect an officer. As such, it is essential to train officers to minimize this biological reaction, and act from a controlled place when it comes to use of force.

One way agencies and academies work to instill consistent appropriate reactions by law enforcement is through the performance of drills to establish autonomous reactions to suspect behavior that allow an officer to gain control in an intense situation, while keeping all involved safe and, most importantly, alive.

In light of recent attention to officer-involved shootings in the media, the topic of perception is under hot debate. Perception of a situation can be argued as a means of defense for both the officer and the suspect in these situations.

One person's interpretation that a situation may be life-threatening, may not be the same perception across the board. Fear is a huge factor in causing misperception and possible overreaction, and can result in the use of lethal force in a situation where is it not needed. Psychological conditions, such as PTSD, previous mental health diagnoses and outside stressors can also impede an officer's judgement in high stress situations. This can highly influence how a law enforcement professional handles the situation on their end.

Psychological testing of officers before hire is common practice among many departments across the country. This is a means to combat many of these aforementioned conditions or issues that may cloud an officer's judgement.

While initial psych evals for police officers are routine, re-evaluations are rare, often occurring only after office-involved shootings, reported misconduct or after an incident that causes concern or harm to the police force.

Regular, yearly psychological testing may benefit these forces, identifying unfit or stressed officers before incidents occur. Law enforcement officers have very stressful jobs that require quick, astute and accurate thinking in high-stress, fast-paced situations. These types of psychological tests for police could be beneficial to officers as well as to the community.

With the development of and increasing access to tasers, also known as conducted electrical weapons or electronic control weapons in the criminal justice world, the use of force has changed slightly over the past few years. Tasers give officers the ability to gain control over a combative arrestee or suspect by discharging the taser and administering volts of electricity. This often renders the suspect unable to resist officers, while keeping both the officer and suspect safe and alive.

A downfall of tasers is that they may be ineffective in suspects who have used illicit drugs such as PCP or may increase the chance exacerbation of certain of medical conditions. However, they are still less lethal than an actual firearm and more effective than physical combat to gain control of an out of control, violent or dangerous suspect.

These non-lethal weapons have been developed to help an officer gain control of a violent offender are found in almost every single police force across the country because of their consistent success in exerting force, but not deadly force. More officers move to train in the use of tasers so they can be used in place of a service weapon. Placing more of these electronic control weapons in the hands of officers can help officers in intense situations who are faced with the decision to use lethal force or not. By requiring the use of the taser, which is a non-lethal weapon, law enforcement departments are trying to combat officer-involved shootings across the nation.

What do you think about the use of reasonable force, non-lethal taser use and officer assessments in the field of law enforcement? We'd love to hear your comments on social media, so please share!

You can also learn more about becoming a law enforcement officer on our site by contacting training schools.

Ms. Dunning has over 5 years of experience working with at-risk youth and vulnerable populations, has served as a family drug court case manager for the Oklahoma County Department of Mental Health Services and Oklahoma County Child Welfare Services, and enjoys educating the public about the criminal justice system.