Use of Force by Law Enforcement

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

In policing, there are circumstances where officers are faced with situations that necessitate the use of force. While the vast majority of encounters with suspects end without physical resistance, some scenarios can escalate, requiring a response.

Historically, the principles of ancient common law provided distinct guidelines concerning the degree of force law enforcement could utilize during the process of arrest, hinging on the classification of the crime. When officers were confronted with individuals accused of misdemeanors, which are generally viewed as lesser offenses, they were sanctioned to employ nondeadly force to subdue and arrest them. The underlying rationale was that these offenses, often non-violent in nature, did not warrant a forceful or potentially life-threatening response.

Conversely, felonies, which encompass more serious crimes, were treated with a heightened sense of gravity under ancient common law. Given the potentially severe implications and public danger associated with felonies, law enforcement officers were permitted to use deadly force if necessary when arresting individuals accused of such crimes. This allowance was not arbitrary but was based on a calibrated response aligned with the severity and potential harm associated with the crime in question. In essence, the common law aimed to balance public safety and the principle of proportionality in the use of force.

The “fleeing felon rule” was a corollary that emerged from these ancient common law principles. This rule essentially granted law enforcement officers the authority to use deadly force to prevent a suspected felon from escaping. The underlying premise of the rule was rooted in the belief that all felonies were serious crimes, and thus, any individual who committed such a crime posed an immediate threat to society. Preventing escape was deemed so crucial that the use of lethal force was considered justified, even if the suspect posed no immediate threat to the officer or others. Over time, as the legal and social landscape evolved and the definition of felonies expanded to include non-violent offenses, this rule became the subject of scrutiny and criticism. Its application in modern times raised significant ethical, legal, and moral concerns about the appropriate use of force, leading to eventual reforms and adjustments in many jurisdictions.

Modern Framework

Over the years, the legal landscape governing the actions of law enforcement has seen significant transformation. Whereas ancient common law once served as the primary guidepost, today, the U.S. Constitution stands as the paramount authority that delineates the boundaries for the use of force by the police. This shift represents a move from somewhat nebulous, broad-brush guidelines to a more nuanced, rights-focused framework, which ensures that both the safety of the public and the rights of individuals are respected and protected.

The watershed case of Tennessee v. Garner played a pivotal role in redefining and refining the standards associated with the use of deadly force. In this landmark case, the Supreme Court scrutinized the parameters of law enforcement’s use of deadly force, particularly against a fleeing suspect. The court’s ruling introduced the “reasonableness” criterion, asserting that the constitutionality of such force is not based on rigid categories of offenses but instead on an assessment of its reasonableness in light of the totality of circumstances surrounding its application. This marked a profound shift from the “fleeing felon rule” and anchored the use of force, especially deadly force, in a context-sensitive evaluation. The outcome emphasized the need for a balance between the interests of law enforcement and the rights of individuals, ensuring that the gravity of the situation justifies the force used.

State Statutes on Reasonable Force

Transitioning from a solely constitutional framework, most states in the U.S. have since taken proactive steps by codifying guidelines on law enforcement’s use of force. These statutes shield officers from potential legal ramifications provided their use of force during an arrest or when chasing a fleeing suspect is deemed “reasonable.” However, these laws are not blanket permissions. Echoing the principles set in Tennessee v. Garner, state statutes generally mandate that deadly force be reserved for situations that are potentially life-threatening.

Ramifications of Excessive Force

Officers who overstep this boundary, choosing to deploy force that is disproportionate to the situation, find themselves in precarious legal and professional terrains. These transgressions are not taken lightly within the justice system. Excessive or unwarranted force can, and often does, result in criminal charges being filed against the officer in question. Such charges underscore the principle that those entrusted with the power to uphold the law are not above it themselves. Depending on the gravity of the excessive force used and the resultant harm, an officer might face varying degrees of criminal sanctions, from misdemeanors to felonies.

Beyond the realm of criminal liability, officers who employ excessive force can also find themselves embroiled in civil litigation. These civil lawsuits serve as a mechanism for victims, or their families, to seek redress and compensation for damages and violations of their constitutional rights. A particularly formidable legal challenge for law enforcement is the Section 1983 lawsuit. Originating from the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a Section 1983 claim allows plaintiffs to bring forward lawsuits against government officials, including police officers, for the violation of their constitutional rights under the color of law. When officers are alleged to have overstepped their bounds, particularly in ways that breach the Fourth Amendment’s stipulation on the use of reasonable force, they can be held accountable not just criminally, but also civilly, emphasizing the multiple layers of oversight and accountability built into the system.


In the context of law enforcement, the use of force has historically been guided by ancient common law principles. These principles distinctly categorized the kind of force permissible based on the seriousness of the alleged crime: nondeadly for misdemeanors and deadly for felonies. An offshoot of this was the “fleeing felon rule” that allowed officers to use deadly force to halt a fleeing felon, emphasizing the severity attributed to felonies. However, modern legal standards have evolved. Today, the Constitution, especially as interpreted by the landmark case Tennessee v. Garner, sets the standard, focusing on the “reasonableness” of the force used given the situation.

Many states have codified this “reasonableness” criterion, while also stipulating that deadly force is reserved for potentially lethal situations. Officers who misuse their power by using excessive force face not only criminal charges but also civil litigations, such as the formidable Section 1983 lawsuits, which address violations of constitutional rights. This layered legal framework ensures that law enforcement is held accountable and acts within the confines of both law and ethics.

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  09/26/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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