Police Use of Force Part 1 – Understanding the Use of Force Continuum

TASA ID: 321

We are living in a time when our police force is coming under great scrutiny and criticism for their actions. One question that keeps coming up is “was the use of force utilized by the police justified”? While the public may not understand or even agree, law enforcement agencies do have policies and guidelines that cover their use of force. Officers who find themselves in a situation where they are required to take a criminal into custody or defend themselves must determine how to handle a potentially dangerous rapidly changing split second situation. These policies, known as the Use of Force Continuum, outline the correct actions that should be taken by a law enforcement officer if a situation should arise that requires the use of force.

The Use of Force Continuum was designed for the police who appeared before police review boards. It was originally used as an objective guideline to determine if the force utilized was “proper” and “justified.” It provides a standard for finding out the answers to questions like “Did the police follow the use of force steps in the proper order where escalation of use of force was utilized? Were any steps skipped and if so why?” While every situation may have many variables, the Use of Force Continuum is regarded as the gold standard to be utilized when determining the appropriate level of force for the situation. The Use of Force Continuum consists of many levels of escalating actions and allows an officer to move from one level to another level as necessary, even skipping a level if specific circumstances warrant it. Under the guidelines of the Use of Force Continuum officers are justified and permitted to use equal force to what they are encountering or even one level above the force they are encountering to de-escalate or neutralize the force that is being used against them.

Use of Force Continuum Levels

·         Officer Presence - No force is used. This is always the preferred method of resolving a situation or conflict. The mere presence of a police officer in uniform or in a marked police car is often enough to stop a crime in progress or prevent a situation from escalating.

·         Verbal Commands – If the physical presence of police is not enough, verbal commands can be added to achieve the desired results. A verbal command can be as simple as “stop” or “don’t move” or even “you’re under arrest.”  When using verbal commands, the content and the tone of voice used are very important. It should be non-threatening and calm, but firm.

·         Empty Hand Control – This is basically the use of bare hands and no weapons. If words and an officer’s presence are not enough, then the officers may need to get physically involved. This level usually involves what is called “soft empty hand techniques” or “hard empty hand techniques.”  There is no use of weapons or equipment at this level. Instead, an officer may use “soft empty hands techniques” by using his or her hands to hold or restrain in order to achieve the desired results. If the need arises for “hard empty hands technique,” they may use punches or kicks to subdue a suspect.

·         Less Lethal Alternatives - This is a level of force that many police forces have added to their Use of Force Continuum policies and procedures. It involves using less-lethal weapons as an alternative to lethal force. These weapons are designed to temporarily incapacitate, confuse, delay, or restrain an adversary in a variety of situations. They are often used in riots, prison disturbances, and hostage rescues. They can include pepper spray, batons, and Tasers. If soft or hard empty hand techniques don’t work, and if the suspect is violent or threatening, more extreme but non-deadly measures may be used to bring the suspect under control or to arrest them. These should only be used when other methods have failed. Less-lethal weapons are valuable when the use of lethal force is not appropriate and the hope is that lesser force will work. It is also used if lethal force is justified but its use could cause injury to bystanders or damage to property and environment.

·         Deadly Force - If a police officer believes that a suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to others, then the use of deadly force is justified. Police officers must believe that they have no other option but to discharge their firearm in order to protect their life or the lives of others.

Police officers put their lives on the line every day and their main objective is to keep the peace without using aggressive tactics or force. However, depending upon the situation, they can and do use justified force when necessary. The Use of Force Continuum is a wonderful training tool and guideline that can help them keep a situation from escalating. It is also utilized to clarify to law enforcement officers, the courts, and the general public that proper standards and justifiable use of force by officers was followed.

 This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.


This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

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