Police use of force standards: Policymaking targets

Despite police use of force being a low-occurring event, well-publicized incidents can evoke widespread concern among community members and policymakers alike. Despite this, the police are still a primary agent of coercive force, and typically when police are called there is a strong possibility that coercive force may be necessary. From a legal perspective, the most important consideration in police use of force is the U.S. Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, which provided a professional and legal understanding of reasonableness viewed as an objective evaluation of the totality of prevailing circumstances at that time. The formulation of the reasonableness standard has been controversial on several fronts, though, mostly because there is ambiguity of what a “reasonable officer” is and what is deemed reasonable likely differs between police officers and the general community.

In addition to Graham v. Connor, a primary mechanism employed to deter excessive police force is through department policy.  Law enforcement agencies (LEAs) desiring national accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) must have well-developed policies that clearly govern use of deadly force, less-lethal force, the rendering of medical aid subsequent to force, the training and proficiency with authorized weapons, and the reporting and review of of uses of force. Police departments typically have established use-of-force continua to guide officer decisions regarding what type of force should be used for a given level of subject resistance. Continua include varying levels of resistance and force arranged along an ordinal scale in terms of the severity of harm it presents to the other person. Typically, continua specify the highest level of force allowed for a given level of subject resistance. Despite the widespread use of these continua by LEAs though, little research has been conducted to evaluate the accuracy of force continua with underlying ordinal rankings.

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