Clearing up misconceptions about legal standards for police use of force
It has been said many times that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Along that same line of thought; inadequate or insufficient information can lead to misunderstanding, or dangerous misinterpretation. In recent travels, I have heard some “trends” being discussed regarding the legal standards and limitations of a law enforcement officer’s use of force. Some were harmless and even somewhat humorous. Others were disturbingly inaccurate that need further discussion with a different viewpoint brought out.
A law enforcement officer’s decision to use force in response to a suspect’s actions are sometimes made in a split-second with no time to contemplate multiple layers of decision points. The US Supreme Court understood this when they commanded all that choose to lend opinion about an officer’s use of force to heed this warning:
Establishing standards that: (1) do not exist, or (2) are so incomplete that they become misleading and will only lead to confusion in the minds of the law enforcement personnel in the field. If only a portion of a legal standard is discussed while leaving an important defining part out, it is an incomplete standard and therefore a false standard. These false standards are not necessarily taught with bad intentions. All the same, these false standards can cause hesitation when time is of the essence.
There are some dangerously incomplete statements regarding use of force standards being floated around. Most of these statements involve some type of sense of absoluteness that does not take into consideration the directions, guidelines and factors as prescribed by the US Supreme Court.
“Officers must use the least amount of force necessary”
There is a fiercely contested debate over the words “necessary” and “reasonable” as well. That is a much larger discussion for another article.
“Officers must be aware of the active versus passive resistance analysis under the Graham standards.”
Resistance, however, should not be understood as a binary state, with resistance being either completely passive or active. Rather, it runs the gamut from the purely passive protestor who simply refuses to stand, to the individual who is physically assaulting the officer. We must eschew ultimately unhelpful blanket labels and evaluate the nature of any resistance in light of the actual facts of the case.2
“Officers must consider less intrusive alternatives.”
If officers had to consider less intrusive alternatives in every situation, it would require superhuman thought. This absolute statement would violate one of the other force analysis rules as stated by the US Supreme Court:
“Officers need to consider if an event is tense and rapidly evolving.”
This is a far stretch from the absolute direction as written.
Imagine a situation that is “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.” How would an officer have time to consider this as part of their force decision making process (before the fact) in such an event? To require an officer to stop and consider if a situation is “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving” when it already is would waste precious milliseconds and could place that officer in more jeopardy.
In part two of this article we will explore other statements that need a little clarification.
1Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)
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