Excessive force is a problem — one which always receives lots of media attention — but failure to use an adequate level of force is actually a bigger problem that causes officers to get injured and killed every year.
If you’ve been in law enforcement for many years, you may have witnessed a case of excessive force. But it is almost a given you have seen many occasions when more force could have — and should have — been used.
When officers fail to use adequate force early in a confrontation, things have a tendency to spin out of control, leading to injuries to both suspects and officers, and sometimes leading to even greater force being required.
He (or She) Who Hesitates...
Officers fail to use legally justified force for lots of reasons, but one is fear of being sued or having administrative action taken against them.
Another reason — and the one I believe to be the primary one — that officers are reluctant to use adequate force is that they are not confident in their use of force decision-making, and this leads to hesitation and timidity.
Per Graham v. Connor, the most critical element in a use of force incident is if the subject poses an immediate threat to the officer or another. In an identical situation, experienced officers are typically more adept at recognizing a threat than rookies. Where the new officer might not see any threat, an experienced officer may identify multiple threats.
I show an actual use of force incident video for one of my presentations. What becomes immediately apparent to me is new officers sometimes fail to recognize or articulate the threat depicted in the video.
They often focus almost entirely on the officer and the subject involved and do not believe any real threat exists.
However, more seasoned officers and police executives look at other factors such as a hostile crowd forming, many unknown people walking in close proximity to the officer, others reaching into their pockets and pulling out metallic objects.
Perception and Subsequent Action
The more senior groups tend to see and identify these as threatening and, therefore, recognize the officer is legally justified in using a higher level of force than those officers who do not perceive a threat.
If you perceive the subject to be an immediate threat to you or someone else, then you are justified in using an ECD, personal weapons, pepper spray, etc.
Once you've used that appropriate and justified level of force, be sure to detail in your report why you felt threatened and why your response to the subject’s threatening resistance was reasonable.
Also recognize you are not just writing the report for your department, but also for the judge and jury who may review it later.
To be confident and committed in the use of force, officers must be knowledgeable regarding the law and their department’s polices. If you are confident that your use of force decision is reasonable, then you are more likely to use that level of force more effectively.
If you are authorized to strike someone with a baton, how hard should you hit the subject? As hard as you can!
Are you better off hitting someone with one strong blow that immediately has an effect, or striking the subject multiple times with weak, ineffective strikes?
If you are legally justified in using personal weapons, how hard should you strike? As hard as you can!
It’s the same for any use of force option. If you are legally justified is using that level of force, then use it to the best of your ability. Eliminate the threat as quickly and efficiently as possible, obtain control or compliance, and then be done with it.