police use of force | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Policing

Police use of force refers to the physical coercion or violence used by law enforcement officers in performing their duties, which may include everything from verbal commands to deadly force.

The term “use of force” sounds pretty serious, and it is. In simple terms, it’s the way police officers use their power to make sure people follow the law. This can range from giving commands to using tools like batons, pepper spray, tasers, and even guns. Above all, the use of force should be lawful and reasonable, meaning officers should only use as much force as needed to do their job.

Why Do Police Use Force?

Many people wonder why police can’t always resolve situations peacefully through conversation. While it’s true that communication is often the first step and can be very effective, it isn’t always enough. Imagine a scenario where someone is acting violently or poses an immediate threat. Talking may not be sufficient to deescalate the situation. Officers are trained to assess risks and act quickly. In such high-stakes moments, their primary responsibility is to protect the public as well as themselves. Accordingly, using force becomes a necessary option to quickly control a dangerous or unpredictable situation and prevent harm.

In addition to addressing immediate threats, police may also use force to establish control and compliance in various circumstances. For example, during an arrest, a certain level of force may be required to restrain a suspect, especially if they resist. It’s also possible that the police may encounter individuals who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or perhaps dealing with mental health issues, making them less responsive to verbal commands. In these instances, the use of force serves as a tool for officers to accomplish their duties effectively while maintaining safety. However, it’s crucial that the force used is proportionate to the situation, as excessive or unnecessary force can lead to serious consequences, both for the individual involved and for the community’s trust in law enforcement.

Levels of Force

When we talk about police use of force, it’s essential to understand that it doesn’t mean just one thing. Law enforcement agencies usually have what’s known as a “continuum of force,” a kind of scale that helps officers decide which level of force is most appropriate for different situations. At the simplest level, an officer’s presence in uniform can act as a deterrent to potential wrongdoers. If that doesn’t work, they may resort to verbal commands, calmly asking a person to comply with the law. The idea is to start with the least forceful methods, resolving the situation without physical coercion whenever possible. If those less intrusive means are ineffective or inappropriate, the officer can escalate to more forceful techniques like an “open hand,” which could involve grabbing, holding, or pushing.

Afterward, if the situation continues to escalate and less forceful methods aren’t working, officers have more intense tools at their disposal. These may include “intermediate” types of force like batons, pepper spray, or tasers, designed to incapacitate someone temporarily without causing long-term harm. In the most extreme scenarios, where lives are in immediate danger, officers may employ “deadly force,” such as discharging a firearm. It’s crucial to note that each escalation in force comes with increased risk, both to the officer and to the people involved. Therefore, officers are trained to constantly assess and reassess the situation, advancing along the continuum only as the situation demands. The goal is to resolve the situation safely, using the minimum level of force necessary.

When Is It Acceptable?

You may be asking, “When is it okay for cops to use force?” That’s a great question. Generally, the rule is that force should be “proportional” to the situation. That means if someone is running away, a cop can’t just shoot them. But if that person is a threat to others, higher levels of force could be used. The key is balance. The use of force should be just enough to control the situation but not so much that it causes unnecessary harm.

Legal Standards

When discussing the legality of police use of force in the United States, we must look at the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which safeguards citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This amendment serves as the cornerstone for assessing whether an officer’s use of force was appropriate or not. Courts weigh in by applying the “objectively reasonable” standard. In simpler terms, this means judges and juries evaluate whether the actions of the police officer were reasonable given what the officer knew at the moment the force was used. This is a critical aspect because it takes into account the immediacy and uncertainty that officers often face in stressful situations. It’s not about what we know after the fact but what the officer reasonably believed at the time.

This “objectively reasonable” standard isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule, as it considers various factors like the severity of the crime, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat, and if the suspect is actively resisting or evading arrest. All these elements come into play when a court examines a case involving police use of force. It’s a complex analysis designed to balance the rights of individuals against the state’s interest in effective law enforcement. If, after considering these factors, the court determines that the officer’s actions were reasonable, then the use of force is generally considered justified. If not, then the officer could face a range of consequences, from disciplinary actions to criminal charges.

It’s important to note that while the Fourth Amendment provides a federal standard, each state also has its laws and policies concerning police use of force. Sometimes, these state laws offer more restrictions or clarify when an officer can use specific types of force. Therefore, both federal and state laws contribute to shaping how and when police can use force, and officers are trained to understand and adhere to these complex legal frameworks. Above all, the legal standards aim to ensure that police use of force is applied justly, safeguarding both individual liberties and public safety.

Accountability and Oversight

What happens if an officer uses too much force? Ideally, there should be consequences. Police departments have internal reviews, and sometimes there are also independent investigations. Officers could face disciplinary action, loss of their job, or even criminal charges. All in all, oversight is crucial to making sure the system is fair.

Community Impact

The way police use force doesn’t just affect the individual involved; it reverberates throughout entire communities. When incidents of police use of force come to light, especially if they appear excessive or unjust, it can severely damage the community’s trust in law enforcement. Trust is a cornerstone of effective policing. Officers rely on community members for information, cooperation, and even eyewitness accounts to solve crimes and keep neighborhoods safe. If that trust erodes, people may become hesitant to report crimes or cooperate with police investigations, making the community less safe for everyone.

Moreover, perceptions of unfairness in police use of force can disproportionately affect certain communities, particularly those of color or economically disadvantaged areas. When specific groups feel targeted or unfairly treated, it deepens social divides and fosters resentment. It’s not only a matter of perception, either. Statistics often show that police use of force is disproportionately higher in these communities, which feeds into a cycle of mistrust and fear. In these instances, the consequences extend beyond individual encounters with law enforcement and become a broader social issue, demanding attention and action from policymakers, community leaders, and law enforcement agencies alike.

To rebuild or maintain community trust, transparency is key. Many police departments are adopting body cameras and community policing strategies to enhance accountability. Transparency about how and when force is used, as well as fair and open investigations when force is questioned, can go a long way in restoring community faith. Public forums, oversight committees, and collaboration with community leaders can also help establish a dialogue to address concerns. All in all, the way police use force has a significant and lasting impact on the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve, making it essential for that force to be applied fairly, lawfully, and transparently.


Police use of force is a complex topic. Officers have a range of options, from verbal commands to deadly force. Above all, their actions should be lawful, reasonable, and proportional to the situation. There should be accountability and oversight to ensure fairness, and the community’s trust is also a key factor.

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Terrill, W., & Reisig, M. D. (2003). Neighborhood context and police use of forceJournal of research in crime and delinquency40(3), 291-321.

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Last Modified: 08/26/2023


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