Without a doubt, the most controversial issue in American policing is the use of force by police officers. On too many occasions, we have seen newspaper headlines reporting that an individual has been brutalized or, worse yet, killed by the police. The consequences of excessive and deadly force have been severe, affecting both police organizations and the communities they serve.
To reduce the occurrence of such incidents, better training and accountability mechanisms have been put in place. Police recruits are being taught that the level of force that they employ should only rise to the level of resistance being offered by a suspect.
Officers are trained to employ a continuum of force that ranges from the least amount, which would be the officer’s mere presence, to the other extreme, the use of deadly force. Often the mere presence of a police officer will get most citizens to conform to the law. When an officer meets resistance from a suspect, that officer is legally authorized to escalate the level of force employed, depending on the resistance received from the suspect. The continuum of force ranges from an officer’s presence to verbalization, command voice, firm grips, pain compliance, impact techniques and, finally, deadly force.
The continuum of force ranges from an officer’s presence to verbalization, command voice, firm grips, pain compliance, impact techniques and, finally, deadly force.
In addition, officers are taught to control their emotions in volatile confrontations and to utilize force only as needed. The most important issue regarding use of force is whether it was justified and consistent with the resistance being offered. The decision of whether or not to use force is an instantaneous one — and one of the most challenging situations a police officer may encounter. An incorrect decision by a police officer cannot be recalled.
In the vast majority of confrontations requiring the use of force, officers respond in a professional nature and utilize force that is justified. It is the few exceptions where officers overreact and use inappropriate force that seem to capture the media’s attention.
Police organizations have gone to great lengths to minimize the number of instances where officers employ excessive force. The stringent hiring processes employed by police agencies exemplify this. Competitive testing, psychological screening and extensive background checks are being employed. Both recruit training and in-service training for seasoned officers focus on making good choices, maintaining professional standards and bridging the gap that has existed for many years between the community and the police.
Law enforcement and police behavior have come a long way in the past decade and will continue to improve, so long as there is full disclosure and analysis of police conduct — both positive and negative.