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Use of Force-Policy and Training Considerations

Jack Ryan

The law enforcement community has been scrutinized and criticized on a regular basis for incidents involving use of force. Perhaps part of the lack of understanding on police use of force comes from the fact that most people get their perspective on police use of force from television. The reality of police use of force is that it is not the pretty picture that Hollywood creates.

From a policy perspective many agencies nationally are beginning to do away with the term “use of force” in terms of policy and reporting. New terminology emphasizes the defensive nature of police use of force. The term, “Response to Resistance” is beginning to appear on agency policies that were once labeled “use of force.

The term “Response to Resistance” may seem like semantics at first glance, however when one considers how officers view their conduct, benefits can be found in this terminology.

The single most important case on police use of force is Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). In Graham the United States Supreme Court concluded that all uses of force in the course of an arrest will be judged by the Fourth Amendment standard of objective reasonableness. The Court also held that uses of force will be viewed from the perspective of an officer on the scene and without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

In determining the reasonableness of a particular use of force the Court announced a three– part test:

How serious is the offense?

Did the suspect pose a threat to the officer or others?

Was the suspect actively resisting or trying to evade arrest?

Reasonableness is determined by the answer to these questions. The more serious the offense the greater the degree of force will be reasonable. If the suspect poses a threat or is actively resisting, more force will be reasonable. The opposite is also true, if the offense is minor, the suspect does not pose a threat and is not actively resisting, force will not be justified.

The term “response to resistance” contemplates the defensive nature of police use of force and at the same time, reminds officers of one of the reasonableness requirements that will be considered by a court in reviewing an officer’s actions.

As a practical matter officers should be regularly reminded of the three-part test from Graham. Officers can then consider these factors when deciding what degree of force is justified in a particular set of circumstances.

It is also advisable to consider the three-part test when completing use of force report forms. By reporting in terms of the three-part test, officers will be reminded to articulate the justifications for their use of force in the legal terms by which these acts will be judged.

Use of Force review panels and Internal Affairs investigators would also benefit from analyzing use of force cases in terms of this three-part test. By using the Supreme Court’s analysis, consistency will be achieved in these reviews and findings will be consistent with the law as it relates to use of force

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