Police Use of Force Policy and Excessive Force

vol2 no2 police use of force res

Evin Carmack, University of New Haven

This paper seeks to examine use of force policy and its impact on instances of excessive force.  Use of force policy has been an ongoing national issue, as high-profile cases of officer-involved shootings are being increasingly reported.  As police departments have become more formalized, so have their rules and regulations.  Use of force policy was seen as a strategy to regulate the amount of force officers used when attempting to subdue an unwilling subject.  The research on this subject has been mixed and has shown some training techniques to be more effective than others.  Research findings also suggest that it is the encounter characteristics of the interaction that are most likely correlated with use of force decisions.  Therefore, future research should focus on encounter characteristics and on training officers in dealing with those different encounter characteristics.

Use of Force Policy

Use of force is a key component of policing and one of the most controversial issues in law enforcement.  Although use of force has existed in policing since its inception, it was not until this profession became more formalized that use of force policy also became more prevalent (Atherley, 2014).  As use of force became more of an issue, we began to see important decisions in use of force cases.  In 1989, Graham v. Connor set the stage for the essential use of force rubric.  Numerous other use of force cases would follow, all addressing different aspects of use of force: Tennessee v. Garner, Plakas v. Drinski, Thompson v. Hubbard, Bush v. City of Tallahassee, etc.  In response to these incidents, officials began putting more resources into use of force training and education.

The basic design of use of force policy consists of two components: the policy itself and the training/education.  The components of the policy aspect consist of the guidelines that are meant to be followed in interactions involving use of force.  Although these guidelines may differ depending on the department, they generally guide officers in how to approach, interact, de-escalate, and gain control over the situation.

The training aspect of use of force involves in-class lectures, weapons and training exercises, de-escalation training, and more recently, real-world exercises.  The in-class lectures involve understanding what use of force is, the philosophy behind it, and learning the general techniques and spectrum of use of force.  The weapons training involves practice and use of all forms of force: verbal, hand-to-hand, non-lethal devices, lethal devices, etc.  De-escalation training has also been a more recent addition to the curriculum.  This involves training and understanding in behavior and negotiation-style tactics in order to de-escalate intense situations.  The real-world exercises have shown more potential benefits, as they attempt to mirror real world situations and interactions that officers may encounter.  Although again, the quality and duration of the training differs depending on the department/agency.  According to Terrill et al (2011), many policies have tended to focus more on use of force training than anything else.

The goals of use of force policy are to reduce the number of officer-involved injuries or death and to reduce the use of excessive force.  Through training and education, police departments attempt to increase police officer and public safety while reducing potential injuries.  Research conducted by Terrill et al (2011) found that 80% of 1,083 of departments surveyed reported using some type of use of force continuum in their policy.  Although a majority of departments surveyed employed some type of use of force continuum, there must be something missing if use of force is still a prevalent issue.

The target population of the policy is police officers.  Police officers are the ones who are employing the use of force policy itself in interactions with citizens.  The resources required for this policy include training (staff), equipment (non-lethal and lethal devices), and educational resources and supplies (books, paper, videos, etc.).  The costs would mainly include the training for officers and the person administering the training, actors for real-world scenarios, and the cost of any equipment (e.g., non-lethal and lethal devices, books, paper, videos, and other supplies).  The total costs of implementing or altering a use of force policy would be manageable.

More recently, efforts have been made to collect national data on use of force incidents to provide an aggregate picture of use of force.  Led by the FBI:UCR, a national use of force collection database is being established and is planned to begin operation this year.  Overall, the project has received positive feedback from the law enforcement community.  The database’s intended use is not to analyze the lawfulness of use of force, but rather to give a wider picture of what use of force looks like in the U.S.  The agencies and organizations involved in the use of force collection database include:

-Local, tribal, and federal agency representatives

-Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies

-Association of State Uniform Crime Reporting Programs

-International Association of Chiefs of Police

-Major Cities Chiefs Association

-Major County Sheriffs’ Association

-National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives

-National Sheriffs’ Association

-Police Executive Research Forum

Although this does not directly address the problems that arise from use of force and excessive force, it is a step in the right direction in order to be able to further research and analyze this phenomenon.  The database will collect information such as incident characteristics, subject information, and officer information.  These include details such as date and time of incident, reason for contact, age, sex, race, ethnicity of subject and officer, injuries, type of force used, etc.  This will provide researchers and practitioners with a more detailed picture of what use of force looks like in the US.

The Problem

The specific problem that use of force policy seeks to address is the increases in incidents of officer-involved injuries/deaths (excessive force).  The nature of the problem stems from a history of interactions between police and citizens.  Specifically, interactions between police and racial minorities has been an ongoing struggle.  Strain has always existed between racial minorities and authoritative majorities.  According to Carter, since the 1960’s, police-citizen relationships have been a swinging pendulum.  From the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam protests, and the War on Drugs, police-citizen relationships have gone from trust to mistrust and back again.

A second aspect to the nature of the problem is that there is no universally agreed upon definition of use of force.  This can create a host of problems related to policy, training, and implementation, if no one truly knows how to define the concept.  Therefore, police departments may have different types of training/techniques based on how they define use of force.

Citizens also feel they are being excessively targeted or unjustly stopped by police officers.  This history of interactions has in a way set the precedent for minority citizen and police relationships.  Thus, we end up with strained relationships and actions seem impulsive.  This results in instances of police use of force that result in injury or death.  Although this directly effects minority citizens, it also effects everyone else.  Incidents of excessive use of force strain police relationships with all citizens.  They also call into question police legitimacy.

This strained relationship has become apparent in recent decades, as the number of high-profile incidents of police use of force reported in the news has increased.  Incidents such as Michael Brown, Jeremy Mardis, Alton Sterling, and Walter Scott have called into question current use of force standards.  Based on reports from the Washington Post, there were 991 people shot and killed by police in 2015.  Of those 991, 94 people were unarmed.

There are numerous factors working to cause this problem.  The first cause is poor or inadequate training.  Although many police departments have implemented use of force policies and training, there is no universally applied curriculum of training.  Therefore, the content, quality, and duration of the training may differ depending on the department.  There could be several issues occurring here, such as not enough training, poor quality training, or omission of certain types of training (Phillips, 2015).

Poor or inadequate training could also involve not being trained in interactions with certain types of people or for certain situations.  For example, people suffering from mental illness.  Since the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities, police have had increasing interactions with people suffering from mental illness.  In many cases, these officers are not trained in how to interact with these individuals, which increases the risk for an officer-involved injury.

Another cause of the problem may be police culture.  A department itself may be known for being “tough on crime” (both in the figurative and literal sense).  Therefore, it may have more incidents of use of force.  Many people are also aware of the “blue wall” or “blue code of silence.”  That is, officers keeping within the group in terms of what happens both on and off the job.  It is also the notion that officers will protect other officers.  In this case, the police culture is pervasive and can be damaging to the department.  This may apply to officers who believe they are above the law or who believe that their badge protects them.

The last cause, while not a direct cause, results in substantial public attention and scrutiny.  Increased media and public attention have aided in further straining police-citizen relations.  As mentioned earlier, it also puts increased pressure on police departments and calls into question their legitimacy.  How a news outlet reports on an officer-involved incident can have drastic effects on how that officer or police department is viewed by the public.  If the news outlet paints the officer or department in a negative light, the public only sees the negative aspects.  As the saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Previous efforts to reduce the incidents of officer-involved injuries or death have resulted in mixed results.  According to Stickle (2009) and Michael et al (2009), efforts such as increases in training and education are generally beneficial, but the content, quality, and duration of the training affects how beneficial the training is.  Therefore, even if a department implements new use of force training, if it is of poor content, quality, or duration, it tends to have little or negligible impact on the problem.  Other efforts such as the use of force continuum also can be beneficial, but again it depends on the quality of the continuum (Bolger, 2015).  For example, most departments use a linear design (kind of like a number line), that shows the different levels of use of force and when they may be appropriate.  Other departments use matrix-style designs that allow multiple factors to be considered when deciding on what force is appropriate (Terrill et al, 2011).  Therefore, there are differing designs when it comes to how use of force is taught.

From a theoretical perspective, use of force policy can be explained using Routine Activities theory and Self-Control theory.  As Gottfredson and Hirschi suggest, low self-control directly contributes to whether or not a person commits a crime.  In this case, police officers who have low self-control are more likely to act impulsively and therefore are at a higher chance of using excessive force.  However, looking through a Routine Activities lens, the officer would need a suitable target in the absence of a capable guardian.  The officer becomes an ineffective guardian as they become the likely offender, although low self-control seems to fit use of force policy and excessive force more easily.  According to Ariel (2015), the likelihood of force being used significantly decreased when police officers were wearing body cameras.  This may suggest that, in the lens of Routine Activities, the body camera may act as a capable guardian.  Therefore, when an officer is wearing a body camera, they are less likely to use excessive force because they know they are under “supervision”.  Body-worn cameras have become a hot topic in recent years, and with more research, they may be found to be more beneficial in reducing use of force incidents.


The research has shown mixed results in terms of how use of force policies influence the use of excessive force.  Factors including the type of training and encounter characteristics appear to be the most correlated with decisions of use of force (Bolger, 2015; Stickle, 2016; Terrill, et al. 2016).  In terms of training, the amount of training received and pre-employment screening was found to be strongly associated with lower use of force complaints (Stickle, 2016).  Therefore, the research would suggest that the content, quality, and duration of the training is important in implementing effective use of force policy.  In addition, Smith et al. (2009) and Taylor et al. (2009) found that the additional use of chemical sprays and CED-devices resulted in reductions in suspect-injury.  This would suggest that the types of devices used in force training (chemical sprays, CED-devices, etc.) have some impact on the likelihood of officer-involved injuries or death. 

Research by Bolger (2015) suggests that the characteristics of the encounter and the potential target are most correlated with use of force decisions.  Characteristics such as seriousness of offense, resistance of suspect, force occurring during an arrest or during citizen conflict, or when more officers are present were most related to use of force decisions.  This is not surprising in that these are the obvious factors that officers must take into account when deciding to use force.  The factors that increase the likelihood of harm increases the likelihood that an officer may use force.

Bolger’s (2015) research also suggests that the suspect’s characteristics impact an officer’s decision to use force.  He found that those who were male, minorities, and lower class were more likely to have force used against them.  He also found that the suspect’s demeanor (if they appeared intoxicated or aggressive) also influenced an officer’s decision to use force.  Additionally, Andersen et al. (2016) found that the use of realistic (real-world) scenarios produced positive benefits in officer performance.  This type of training included realistic scenarios such as suicidal, mentally-ill, or distressed suspect encounters.  These scenarios are more “real-to-life” than the standard video training scenarios.  These realistic scenarios involved real actors playing the role of the distressed individual and the police officer must navigate the interaction to a successful outcome.

Bolger (2015) and Andersen’s (2016) research would suggest that more training in use of force should involve understanding encounter and suspect characteristics.  A step further would include training in the context and characteristics of the neighborhoods they are policing.  However, it should be reiterated that although these techniques and types of training are beneficial, the quality of the training might differ depending on the department.  This cannot be stressed enough.  Any policy can be a great, but if it is not implemented correctly, then it can never be effective.

While research findings have been promising in guiding policy, they are all affected by the context of the police department.  As Smith et al. (2009) found, different departments had different approaches to use of force policy, and therefore varied in types of training and use of force philosophy.  Therefore, it may be important to look at specialized use of force training depending on the area the department is located.  For example, a police department may want to have specialized use of force training concerning the characteristics and context of the neighborhoods they serve.


The purpose of this paper was to examine use of force policy and how it may impact officer-involved injuries/deaths (excessive force).  The research findings appear beneficial, but have some mixed results on the effectiveness of use of force training.  The type of department, quality of training, and context of the encounters are the most important factors in use of force decisions.

Overall, it appears that the encounter characteristics of the interaction have the most impact on an officer’s decision to use force.  Although not a surprising finding, it aids in guiding future use of force training techniques.  This also relates back to the realistic (real-world) scenarios that would help officers prepare for varying encounter characteristics.  According to Andersen (2016), by training officers more effectively in navigating different encounter characteristics, we may minimize the chance of an officer deciding to use more force than necessary.

Future research may also want to more closely examine how the “Blue Wall” or “Blue Code of Silence” influences decisions to use force.  If police culture is found to be correlated with use of force decisions, it may make finding solutions a lot more difficult.  As has been established, the policing culture is generally resistant to change. Therefore, changing police culture would make addressing the problem that much harder.  However, unless more research is done in relation to the “Blue Wall” and use of force, we cannot make any causal statements regarding the blue wall and use of force.

The implementation of a use of force database is also crucial for further understanding use of force.  As discussed earlier, the FBI recently began implementing a use of force collection database that collects national data on use of force incidents.  Although the need for a national reporting system was discussed briefly by Koper (2016), the FBI was a step ahead of him and already began the implementation process.  This database could provide researchers with a substantial amount of use of force data.  With more data, we may conduct more research.

Based on the findings regarding chemical sprays and CED-devices, future research should examine more non-lethal options for police officers to use.  Positive findings by Taylor et al. (2009), Smith et al. (2009), and Terrill et al. (2011) on the use of non-lethal devices would suggest that they are better alternatives to conventional use of force tactics.  Therefore, more research should focus on the use of non-lethal devices and use of force.

Overall, current research findings are helpful in guiding future use of force policy and reduce the likelihood of an officer-involved injury.  As discussed earlier, there are many factors that may contribute to the effectiveness of a use of force policy, many of which need to be taken into account when designing and implementing such a policy.  Police departments adopt use of force policies and employ use of force continuums without fully understanding use of force.  This is why training and understanding the philosophy of use of force and how use of force interactions effect the public and police departments are crucial to effective policy. In addition, in future use of force policy design, some modifications regarding the type of training, quality of training, and focus of the training should occur.  For example, officers should be trained on de-escalation techniques, mental-health, how to better read the context of the situation, and how to communicate more effectively.


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