Use of Force in Arrests

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

In law enforcement, the “use of force” refers to the amount of effort required by police to compel an individual to comply with an order. It can range from verbal commands to physical restraint, less-lethal force (like tasers or batons), and in some extreme cases, lethal force.

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The Legal Framework for the Use of Force

The use of force by law enforcement is governed by the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable seizures. In the landmark case Tennessee v. Garner (471 U.S. 1, 1985), the Supreme Court ruled that police could use deadly force to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect only if the officer has a good-faith belief that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.

The Continuum of Force

Law enforcement agencies typically use a “continuum” or scale to understand and determine the level of force appropriate to a specific situation. This typically starts with officer presence, moves up to verbal commands, then to hands-on force, less-lethal methods, and, as a last resort, lethal force.

Use of Force in Arrests

During an arrest, law enforcement officers have the right to use reasonable force to overcome resistance. What constitutes “reasonable” force depends on the circumstances of the arrest. In Graham v. Connor (490 U.S. 386, 1989), the Supreme Court stated that the “reasonableness” of force used during an arrest must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

Protections Against Excessive Force

Even during an arrest, individuals have rights. Law enforcement officers cannot use excessive force or treat the arrested person cruelly. This is protected under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. If a person believes they were subject to excessive force during an arrest, they can seek legal remedies.


The use of force during arrests is a complex issue, balancing the need for law enforcement officers to protect themselves and the public with the rights of individuals to be free from unreasonable and excessive force. Understanding this balance is key to comprehending the broader landscape of procedural law and underscores the importance of the principle that every person should be treated with dignity and respect under the law.

Modification History

File Created:  08/07/2018

Last Modified:  07/14/2023

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