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The Challenges of Police Use of Force

The authority given to police with regard to use of force, especially the use of deadly force, has long been a topic of discussion and analysis.  For decades, researchers, citizen groups, civil rights organizations, police administrators and the courts have been dissecting the issues surrounding police use of physical force, in an attempt to try to understand the causal factors leading to the need for use of force, as well as what constitutes excessive force.  The notion of justifiable use of force has been addressed by the courts in several landmark decisions, however, media scrutiny over a few highly publicized and emotive police use of force encounters, has continued to fuel the controversy of the appropriateness of police behavior during use of force incidents and continues to spark heated debate as to what level of physical force is reasonable and necessary.

Alpert and Smith (1994), in their research, examine the very issue of reasonableness and necessity with regard to police behaviors in use of force situations.  They outline and examine specific conditions that can lead to police use of force and make an attempt to understand and interpret the ambiguous Fourth Amendment concept of “objective reasonableness” and their Constitutional right to be secure in their persons, and the guidelines set forth in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989), regarding an arrest, investigatory stop or other seizure of a free citizen.  This legal standard has been one of the foremost guiding principles driving police use of force policy throughout the past several decades; however, Alpert and Smith bring to light the standard of “reasonableness” as a fundamental concept is an unrealistic standard when applied broadly, based on the vagueness of the interpretation of the definition.  What may seem reasonable and necessary to one person may be completely different to someone else.  Additionally, the reasonableness of an untrained citizen may be distinguished much differently than that of a highly trained officer, or even a poorly trained officer for that matter.

Critics of police use of force often analyze the situation well after the incident has occurred. Everything is analyzed from the officer’s frame of mind, the severity of the incident, the physical and social environment, the severity of injury, officer characteristics, suspect characteristics, the officer’s level of training and experience and consideration of discriminatory factors to name just a few.  However, something that appears to be overlooked by many critics is the fact that the analysis of these use of force incidents occur after the fact.  As such, those analyzing the officer’s behavior and decision-making are doing so in a sterile environment, free from the stresses and dangers that the officer felt at the time the incident was unfolding.  Most use of force decisions that an officer has to make are made in an instant, without the benefit or luxury of thoughtful consideration and the analysis of prior research or court decisions.  These instantaneous, life or death decisions must be made in response to rapidly evolving incidents occurring in highly charged and unreceptive environments.  This results in leaving the officer, who in the heat of the moment believes he or she is acting within the confines of policy, law and the standard of reasonableness, exposed to the consequences of analysis made by actors outside the paroxysm of the situation, to determine whether the force used was justified and reasonable.

Although Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635 (1987), provides immunity from personal liability to officers whose actions, although resulting in otherwise actionable injury, did not violate clearly established law, one of their biggest challenges remains to be the ambiguity of the “reasonableness” standard, especially when emotions are amplified through the inaccurate sensationalism of media reports that tend to surround a use of force incident.

In future posts, use of force management, use of force methodology and the use of force by police, dichotomized based upon theory and practice, will also be discussed.



Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635 (1987). Justia Law. Retrieved 2017-06-15.

Alpert, G. P. & Smith, W.C., (1994). How Reasonable is the Reasonable Man?: Police and Excessive Force. The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 85(2), 481-501.

Graham v. Connor 490 U.S. 386 (1989). Justia Law. Retrieved 2017-06-15.


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