By Mike Bauman
It is a difficult truth that police officers sometimes have to use force in the performance of their duties. Most often police use of force ends with no injuries and a safe arrest. At other times, it can end with serious injuries or even death.
All police departments have strict policies governing the use of force. These policies vary by department, but often share common threads.
Police officers use force to affect an arrest, prevent a suspect’s escape, protect themselves or others, or protect property. Officers carry a variety of tools to accomplish these ends. Police are charged with using the minimum amount of force necessary in any given situation.
Police officers use something called the “Force Continuum” as a guide to determine what level of force is appropriate based on the seriousness of the circumstances they are faced with. Force Continuum delineates the officers’ level of control and the suspect’s level of resistance.
By default, police use of force is always reactive. An officer must encounter resistance prior to using force. However, officers are trained to perceive and react to resistance in its earliest stages. Resistance doesn’t have to be active. Resistance can be as simple as refusing to comply with an officer’s orders.
Typically, police officers are allowed to use a level of force that is one level above the suspect’s level of resistance. For instance, if a suspect attempts to punch an officer with a fist, the use of an intermediate weapon such as a baton or chemical irritant would be warranted. Other factors do come into play. For instance, if the suspect in our scenario was an 11-year-old child, intermediate weapons would likely not be reasonable. On the other hand, if the suspect was a professional wrestler and the officer was somehow incapacitated and believed himself to be in danger of serious bodily injury or death, deadly force might be an appropriate response.
All of these factors must be weighed in a split second by the officer on the street. Failure to get it absolutely right can lead to serious criminal and civil penalties. Every officer knows that a decision that is made in a dark alley with adrenaline pumping can be criticized and reviewed by the public and the courts for days, weeks, months, and even years.
Deadly force is an interesting concept in itself. Deadly force can be defined as force that is likely to cause serious bodily injury (broken bones, permanent disfigurement) or death. By that definition, a police officer who strikes a suspect on the head with a flashlight or a baton is using deadly force. A kick to the genitals is also deadly force, as is shooting someone with a firearm, or running them over with a car!
The use of deadly force is the ultimate tool in an officer’s arsenal. It is reserved only for the direst of situations. Officers may only use deadly force in self-defense when the suspect shows the intention of causing serious bodily injury or death, is capable of doing so, and has the opportunity to do so. Officers use deadly force, not to kill, but with the intention of neutralizing the threat.