When can police use force?

It’s no secret, police often get “hands on” when they are performing their jobs.

Lately, there has been a lot of new coverage about the use of force by police officers.

Especially when force results in the death of a suspect.

But when can police legally use force, and what types of force are they permitted to use?

Well, that is what we are going to cover today.

If you are interested in learning about police use of force, then keep reading.

Types of Force Used by Police

Police use 6 different types of force when handling suspects. Each type of force will be applied to a situation based on a variety of factors.

The 6 types of force police use are:

  1. Verbal
  2. Physical
  3. Chemical
  4. Impact
  5. Electronic
  6. Firearm

Almost all police interactions begin with verbal communication with an officer. It’s true, most end before an officer is required to use force at all.

But when police must begin to control a situation, they will first issue verbal warnings or orders. If a lawful order is not obeyed by a subject. Police may escalate their use of force depending on what is “reasonablefor the situation.

We will get into what reasonable use of force from law enforcement looks like in a moment. But first, let’s evaluate why police use force to begin with.

Why do police use force?

Before we look at what reasonable use of force looks like, we need to look at why police use force to begin with.

In general, there are 3 main reasons that police will use force:

  1. Establish control
  2. Protect themselves or others
  3. Make an arrest.

The bottom line is that when police use force properly, they do so to control a situation and protect others. A properly trained and experienced officer will only escalate their use of force in proportion to the situation they are handling.

Additionally, they will also de-escalate a given situation when possible. But unfortunately, that does not always happen.

When is police use of force justified?

So, here is the million-dollar question: when is force justified, and how does an officer know how much force to apply in a given situation?

Well, there is no simple, one size fits all answer.

Police need to use force to apprehend suspects who may be violent or aggressive in order to maintain the lawful order of society. However, that does not mean that they can simply batter someone because they feel like it.

Here’s the deal, each situation must be independently evaluated with a few factors in mind.

When judges, prosecutors, and jury’s are asked to determine the reasonableness of a use of force.

3 factors they need to consider are the:

  • Officers training,
  • Officers experience,
  • And the objective facts of the situation.

Determining Reasonable vs. Unreasonable Force

What is reasonable and unreasonable when it comes to use of force by police is something that is a huge topic of discussion. With marches and protests calling to defund the police, the topic has been entering households across the nation.

The bottom line is that what is reasonable in one police department may be seen as unreasonable in another. Simply put, not all police agencies have the same policies, not all states have the same laws.

For example, some agencies implementing the “8 can’t wait” changes to policing that protestors and activists are calling. One of these changes would be a ban on chokeholds. This police restraint has long been used and is seen as safe when applied properly.

At a department in North Carolina, a chokehold may be seen as reasonable. While the same restraint applied in California may be seen as unreasonable as it is a violation of the agencies policies.

Some officers do not use force lawfully:

Despite what movies may portray, police can not simply make commands to individuals without proper reason to do so. Even simple verbal commands by an officer can be seen as “force”.

When done properly “lawful orders” from police officers are legally enforceable.

Unfortunately, as can be seen in many first amendment audits, police officers don’t always know what a lawful order is. Or willingly obfuscate the situation to unlawfully command a suspect, or make an arrest.

Officers often use unlawful orders, or skew the facts of a situation to make an arrest out of personal interests. And not for the purpose of enforcing the law. As a result, we should each be vigilant and take the time to familiarize ourselves with what the law actually says.

When can police use deadly force?

In certain scenarios, officers may need to defend themselves or others at the point of a gun. Unfortunately, some police interactions end with the use of deadly force by a police officer.

These scenarios are sometimes cut and dry self-defense, but other times the facts of what happened are more difficult to determine.

But as a rule of thumb, police can use deadly force to defend themselves or others. If they reasonably believe that they can prevent serious injury or death to themselves or others.

At the End of The Day: The Future of How Police Use Force

The policies surrounding what is reasonable, and what is unreasonable are rapidly changing.

It’s needless to say, that there is no perfect, objective way to accurately determine what is reasonable force in every situation. But there is also no denying that police need to use force in the performance of their duties.

As a result, there will be situations where it is difficult to determine what amount of force is reasonable. While we all strive to improve the standards in policing, the harsh reality is that policing will likely never be a perfect system.

Illustrations were created by the Police Foundation.