Force: When and Why We use It

Police use of force is a hotly contested issue and is debated throughout the profession as well as the general public. You would think something that has been is use and has been the subject of untold studies, books, courses, etc., would be a little more sorted out than it seems to be. Perhaps we are perpetually trying to reinvent the wheel. Maybe we should go back to the basics and Keep It Simple Superstar.

When I started in law enforcement, I was introduced to the force continuum. At the time it was presented as a linear model, with officer presence being the first use of force followed by verbal, open hand, intermediate weapons (baton, pepper spray, ERD, etc.), and ending with lethal force. This was later modified to reflect a wheel, so officers didn’t feel they needed to escalate through force in a linear fashion. If lethal force needed to be used as soon as you arrived, it should be used as soon as you arrive. The continuum provided an order or schedule of events for the use of force, but it left open what type of resistance or noncompliance warranted which level of force. This should be intentional since the use of force is dependent on many variables that can only be weighed and evaluated in the event.

However, during my career, use of force training was focused on developing our “flow chart” of what force to use, and when. An additional critical component is why we should or shouldn’t use a certain level of force over another.  Critical incident decision making is a vital part of police training. We must present officers with a variety of scenarios with subtle changes, so they can build up their understanding and experience of how, when, and why to use force against another human being.

Witnessing some of the tragedies recently, I see a lack of comprehensive preparation and development of police decision making skills in the use of force. We have seen multiple incidents of officers using the wrong tool (gun instead of Taser), Taser instead of open hand control, gun instead of…well, many other tools. It appears, by observed actions, there are vital principles and concepts being omitted in police training.

The first deficiency I see is the understanding of what force to use when. We see officers drawing their guns in situations where they clearly will not need them. Dealing with a person wearing a bikini or even naked, there is a low likelihood they can produce a weapon that will necessitate you shooting them. At any rate, it would be a crappy situation. By jumping to lethal force, officers who are not well trained in the “flow chart” decision making may feel locked in to using that force, since they believe it must be necessary because they accessed it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They now look for a reason or justification to use that level of force, rather than reducing their level of force option.

In a team setting, more than one officer, I have seen the issue being that all officers have one level of force, usually lethal. They do not vary force options, limiting their ability to respond effectively and reasonably. Or, since they do not train team tactics enough, they do not allow less lethal options to deploy, or worse, they perceive a less lethal shot sound to be a lethal force option and react sympathetically. Officers using too much force, not enough force, or misinterpreting when to use force can be traced back to a lack of understanding of why to use force.

Police use of force is used for a few main reasons. Really two. Lethal force is used to stop a person from using illegal force against another human being that may seriously injure or kill them. That’s very simple, but accurate. It is not used to kill the person using the illegal force, just stop their action. Lethal force is very significant, carries much responsibility, and must be well trained in its application and decision to use.

Less lethal force is used to gain compliance. Again, simple but accurate. It is the force used to stop a person from becoming resistive. This is key. Less lethal resources should be applied before a person becomes physically assaultive or resistive. I talk about this more in the blog “4 Less Lethal Reminders”. But essentially, officers are trying to tase people when they should be going hands on. Tasers are minimally effective even when they are maximally accurate. The cycle or electricity that “locks up” a person’s muscles only lasts for 5 seconds, then must be reapplied, as long as the contact probes are still in place. It’s not like the movies, where people need hours of recovery time.

I believe if we spend more time with officers teaching them the concepts that impact use of force, we will see a reduction in the use of force, the use of excessive or inappropriate force, and a reduction of liability and officers being charged with crimes because of their wrongful use of force.

In turn, I know we will see an increase in effective and successful uses of force, greater officer performance and confidence, and most important, an increase in public perception, image, and trust. In any case, what do we have to lose? The “I was in fear for my life” panicked shooting a person when you thought you were tasing them, or the shooting a person walking towards you with a cell phone isn’t having a positive effect. Let’s try something different.