Police Practices and Excessive Force 101

TASA ID: 2403

As a semi-retired police officer with 47 years on the job, 25 as a chief of police, I know a few things about police practices and excessive force.  I know too that many do not understand the dynamics that come into play when police officers use physical force. 

Research indicates that less than one-half of one percent of all police encounters involves the use of physical force, and in the majority of these cases, the force is lawful and reasonable.  The major test in determining whether or not police force is lawful and reasonable was established by the United States Supreme Court in Graham vs. Connor (1989).  In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that the major determining factor in deciding whether or not the force is lawful and reasonable is whether or not the force was objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances present.  The Court also stated that the reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.  Most importantly, the Court ruled that the measure of reasonableness must consider allowances for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions in tense, uncertain and rapidly-evolving circumstances, and that such factors are important in determining the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.

Statistically, it has been shown that approximately 10 percent of excessive force complaints filed by citizens are valid.  From my experience, including over 40 years as a police supervisor, manager and chief of police, there are generally four reasons why in some cases the use of force by the police is not objectively reasonable:

  1. Inadequate Training:  Quality police academy training for rookie police officers, followed and reinforced by quality in-service training, is an absolute must.  I have been of the opinion for many years that quality in-service training for police officers should consist of at least 80 hours each year.  The type of in-service training that officers should receive must include at a minimum the following topic areas:
  • Arrest control tactics
  • Officer survival and field tactics
  • Off-duty police encounters
  • Legal updates including constitutional law, civil and criminal legal updates, and the laws of arrest, search and seizure
  • Firearms training, safety and qualifications
  • Routine and emergency driving
  • Crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques
  • In-custody deaths, excited delirium and positional asphyxiation
  • Required re-certifications in such areas as Tasers, radar units, Intoxilyzers, K-9's, etc;
  • Legally-mandated trainings, e.g. in Colorado, anti-bias policing, witness protection and DNA collection and preservation.

Without such annual in-service training, police officers are ill-equipped to effectively handle the variety of demands placed on them, and may be inclined to use physical force that is not objectively reasonable under the circumstances.

      2.   Accidental Application:  Occasionally, while involved in a physical altercation, a police officer may accidentally apply physical force that in most circumstances would be considered objectively reasonable.  For example, if an officer is using a baton to defend himself or herself, and in an attempt to strike the suspect's forearm actually makes contact with the individual's neck or head because of a sudden movement by the suspect or some other physical reason, the force may well be classified as accidental.  Normally, absent a life and death struggle, head and neck strikes with a baton are not objectively reasonable, but in the example provided here, the accidental strike is understandable and can actually occur in a highly-charged situation.

    3.   Adrenalin Overload:  Sometimes, a police officer can simply be out of control because of an adrenaline overload, the heat of the moment, the anxiety, and the combat-like atmosphere. As a result, the officer may simply apply force which is not objectively reasonable under the circumstances.  The risk to citizens and officers is quite obvious in these kinds of situations, and it is important that officers receive sufficient training to recognize and effectively manage their adrenaline overloads so that they become inoculated over time against such over-reactions.

    4.   Retribution:  Sometimes a situation occurs where a police officer decides to take care of business and administer what I refer to as "curbside justice."  Such scenarios do in fact occur on occasion, and they are not simple mistakes of the mind.  They are mistakes of the heart, and police administrators should deal with these kinds of police officers quickly and decisively.  It is never the officer's job to punish people.  Those who do so need to be removed from the police service, de-certified, and criminally prosecuted.  Failure to do so may well result in a police sub-culture where such actions are condoned and become commonplace.

Unfortunately, police officers do on occasion use physical force that is not objectively reasonable under the circumstances.  But by providing effective in-service training, helping circumvent accidental applications, teaching officers how to recognize and effectively manage adrenalin overload, and denouncing and removing officers who engage in retribution, police departments can help ensure that their police officers are prepared for the dynamics of police work.

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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