Use of Excessive Force by Police

Use of Excessive Force by Police

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Use of Excessive Force by Police


Police officers are given a significant amount of discretion simply due to the nature of the job. Officers are faced with many threatening situations forcing them to react quickly yet appropriately. They have the power to infringe upon any citizen's rights to freedom and therefore they must use this power effectively. One major concern with the amount of discretion officers have is their power to decide when to use force or when to use lethal force. Manning (1997:295) argues that it is generally accepted that police should be allowed to use force. He also explains that there is an uncertainty among people as to what constitutes excessive force. The line between what is necessary and what is extreme is very thin. Use of force is no doubt one important aspect in policing; however, force should also be used with great discretion. If officers do not use force on every suspect they encounter they may be creating a negative environment for the community.

The community policing style is defined by David M. Allender as (2004:18-19),

?Community policing is a philosophy of full-service, personalized policing where the same officer patrols and works in the same area on a permanent basis, from a decentralized place, working in a proactive partnership with citizens to identify and solve problems.?

The most important factors to community policing include personalization, partnership and problem-solving (Allender, 2004:19). The idea is to create a relationship with citizens that is trustworthy and honest. When officers begin to use force to control the community, citizens began to view officers as authority figures instead of service officers that are there to protect and serve. This results in a break down of the relationship between officers and the community. In community policing force should only be used if other efforts are deemed ineffective.

The use of force can pertain many different actions a police officer participates in. Force can range from simply verbal commands to the dangerous use of lethal force. Police no doubt need to have discretion to use force to protect themselves as well as community. Guidelines need to be set so that officers continue to incorporate and maintain the concept of community policing. The purpose of this article is to inform readers that police discretion not only encompasses use of police profiling, responses to domestic violence, or choices in acceptance of gratuities but discretionary decision to use force.

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When debating the issue of police use of force we also need to address the issue of what action?s constitute too much force. Another concern is the possibility of corruption among officers. When given such great power the probability of corruption is high. Officers generally do not start out as corrupt; years of work on the force can create animosity between officers and suspects and lead them to decide to use force more quickly (McEwen 1996: 26). Many times officers patrol the streets alone creating, opportunity for potential abuse of power. (McEwen 1996:10). Although police officers need to be permitted to exercise some discretion, they also need limits and guidelines to follow when using their powers of discretion. (Manning 1997:295.) The decision to use force should not be taken lightly in that citizen?s lives are at stake. Police should be allowed discretion in decisions to use force: however, this discretion should be limited. In several cases her in Arizona officers have used deadly means of force. In all cases the officers involved dealt with ethical issues of whether or not to use such force. In many cases they were face with a highly stressful situation. By setting guidelines for these officers to follow, possibilities fro misuse or abuse may be reduced. This article will cover the use of force and the discretion police officers rely upon when deciding when to use such force. It will also examine possible guidelines set to limit too much discretion for officers to abuse.

Measurement of force:

According to the Center of Study of Ethics in the Professions (2003:7), force should only be used with restrictions and only after discussions, negotiations and persuasions have taken place and have been found ineffective. The use of force is inevitable sometimes; however, an officer must take all precautions when applying force. They must not inflict any pain that will cause the inhumane treatment of any person.

The decision to use force can be guided by the use of a continuum. (McEwen 1996:29). It cannot simply be seen as a black and white issue; an officer does not either kill a suspect or completely avoid physically. The continuum of force is the measurement of distinctive types of force used by police officers (Adams et al., 1999: 38). The Minimal force can be used and described simply as handling someone too roughly. Maximum force can be described simply as the use of lethal force: The use of tasers and guns. Because of this , it is pertinent to value the use of force on a continuum due to its ambiguous nature. The measurement of this continuum of force was intended to reflect the official policies of the Phoenix police department and to address the issues of the misconception that there was either force or no force (Adam et al., 1999: 27). Many people believe that there is no grey area to force. The continuum measurement captures all-important variations of actions police take when dealing with society (Adam et al., 1999: 38). At one end of the continuum there is verbal commands (Adam et al., 1999: 35). On the other deadly force. In between are actions that involve use of confrontational commands, restraints, tasers, and guns.

Types of Force:

An officer can be forceful just by using his or her voice. Verbal commands are considered a form of non-lethal force. Verbal force consists of conversational commands, shouting and/or cursing and verbal threats. According to the National Institute of Justice (McEwen 1996: 47), police reported they used a confrontational tone with more than half of suspects arrested. The core of understanding the use of force typically does not involve what is said; however, the nature of verbal communication especially if it involves threats, shouting , or cursing can be an element of force. In addition, verbal commands are a sliding scope in that they can escalate to an even greater amount of force. Because of this factor, police need to recognize and understand that verbal commands are an element and an escalator of force (Adams et al., 1999:35).

Restraints are used for a the reason of keeping a suspect calm and out of harm when an officer is doing their investigation. This is just one of the elements of force that officers alone use. Within restraints there are many possible types that include handcuffs, leg cuffs and body cuffs. The use of restraints appears to b frequent but not universal in police work (Adams et al. 1999: 33).

Handcuffs Legcuffs

Handcuffing alone is not typically perceived as an act that involves force, but it is important to understand that the force involved in the use of restraints has been associated with the injury and the death of some suspects (McEwen 1996:47). An example, of a case where an individual suspect was injured due to the use of restraints was the case involving New York Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. In this case officers restrained Louima and brutally attacked him (Banks, 2004: 31-32). Although Louima was not injured from the use of restraints alone, the officers used the restraints to aid their cruel attack on him. Officers have an ethical duty to understand the reasoning beyond the restraint technique and the proper way to apply it. By understanding the use of the restraint, officers can reduce the risk of injury to the suspect. The use of restrains requires a significant but not deadly amount of force; therefore, an officer must understand all aspects of this type of force in order to apply it appropriately.

The controversial use of tasers as a form of force is an issue for many police departments (Anglen, 2004). Many people department?s claim that they can take down suspects without inflicting any pain or suffering through the use of tasers. This technique is used by police on drunks, shoplifters, and the mentally ill (Anglen, 2004). Taser guns in some instances can be a form of deadly force. Companies that manufacture these weapons claim that tasers are a safe form of force. Scottsdale Arizona?s Taser International Inc., claims that taser guns are good alternatives to deadly force (Anglen, 2004).

Taser Guns Police Use

On the other hand some studies have shown that certain deaths have been linked to the use of tasers (Anglens, 2004). The Arizona Republic?s review of autopsies found that in three Arizona cases medical examiners ruled that tasers were either the cause or at least a contributing factor the the suspects? deaths (Anglen, 2004). In two other cases tasers could not be ruled out as the cause of death. The taser companies tried to address this issue by stating that these were simply the opinion of medical examiners and that they did not have enough knowledge to claim that tasers cause these deaths (Anglens, 2004). Groups concerned with human rights such as Amnesty International argue against the use of tasers (Anglen, 2004). They argue that there are a number of deaths that are caused by tasers and they urge police departments to avoid using this technique at least until more studies are performed to ensure safety (Anglens, 2004). Although tasers are said to be a safe alternative to deadly force, it still may be deadly to some people. The technique involving the use of tasers is not fool proof and has been found in some cases to be the cause of death.

As stated before, the use of force should be carried out with precautions and should not cause pain that would be considered inhumane to anyone. Police practice in the use of tasers does not take account of these precautions and their practices still causes pain and even death to individuals who may not pose any immediate threat to officers. It is not appropriate to use this form of force if the suspect does not pose an immediate threat because it may cause pain or death. Officers are given too much discretion when choosing to use tasers as it is said to be a form of non-lethal force (Anglen, 2004). Unfortunately, it is not fully safe and may still cause harm to individuals. Given the lack of proper training and policy guidelines in the use of these weapons, police officers should not be permitted such discretion with techniques that are not fool proof.

The ethical issue at hand is one of whether police officers should use deadly forms of force without the existence of and enforcement of departmental guidelines. The decision to use taser?s should not be taken lightly. Officers must consider a taser as deadly force and they must take the same precautions as they would when using a gun. All other forms of subduing an individual suspect must be exhausted before a taser gun is used because of its potential harm that it could cause. Simply by allowing officers to use taser guns, the police department is sending the message that tasers are an easier and quicker way to handle situations, rather than first resorting to verbal techniques in subduing an individual.

As mentioned above, force can be measured on a continuum scale. The highest level of force on the continuum, is the use of deadly force. The most commonly used form of deadly force is the use of firearms to stop a suspect from harmful civilians or an officer. The authority to use deadly force was defined by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tennessee v. Garner. The Supreme Court concluded that the use of deadly force is permitted when the suspect poses an immediate threat to officers and/or society. The Supreme Court also held that deadly force is permitted to prevent escape as long as the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others (McEwen 1996:9).

Some commentators have argued that officers sometimes use unnecessary deadly force when there is no immediate threat to the officer themselves or to society (McEwen 1996:54). An example of one such situation is the case of Detective Dan Lovelace from Chandler Arizona. Lovelace killed Dawn Rae Nelson at a drugstore drive-through window while her 14-month-old son was in the back seat. Witnesses stated that Nelson ran into Lovelace?s parked motorcycle; however, Lovelace was not in any danger as he was standing outside of her path (Jensen 2004:1). Was Lovelace in any immediate danger? Could he have used a technique other than deadly force? Whatever the answers may be to these questions, it was at Lovelace?s discretion whether or not to use deadly force. As one explanation for Lovelace?s decision, a police psychologist testified that he was under a lot of stress and at that moment felt his life was in danger (Jensen, 2004:1).

In another case in Mesa, Arizona a 15-year-old boy was shot to death after police responded to the boy?s parents? call for help (Scarborough 2003:1). Mario Albert Madrigal Jr.?s parents called the police after their son grabbed a knife and threatened to kill himself. The family and the police?s account of what happened differed. The police claim Madrigal was advancing towards the officers in a threatening manner. Madrigal?s parents, on the other hand, said that their son dropped the knife after police had shot him with a taser and was not a threat to officers. His parents claimed that officers shot Madrigal after he was already down on the ground (Scarborough 2003:2).

A type for Deadly Force

Officers are, no doubt, put into difficult situations that may result in injury or even cost them their lives. This is the risk officers take everyday; however, with the coercive power they possess they must react with the greatest precautions. The Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution and has provided general guidelines for police officers to follow Although these guidelines are set, police officers are not strictly bound by these guidelines. Accordingly, police departments and officers are free to use their discretion in choosing to apply even more restrictive procedures than the standards set by the Constitution (Hall, 1994). There are practical reasons for certain policies; however, departments and officers need to ensure that they only use deadly force if the suspect poses an immediate threat to officers and/or society (Hall, 1994).

With these guidelines in place officers face the ethical issue of deciding when to use deadly force. This can be a difficult decision given that they must take all aspects of the case into consideration in a very short period of time. They must decide whether they feel there is an immediate threat and they must react to it in a matter of minutes and sometimes even seconds. The ethical issue is not whether officers should follow the guildelines; rather the critical issue is whether officers have been adequately trained and prepared to deal with threatening situations. Had Officer Lovelace been properly trained to handle stressful situations he may have first tried other tactics instead of immediatly firing his weapon.

During situations in which the use of force is exercised, whether lethal or not, the police officer is faced with the ethical dilemma of how to exercise his or her discretion. On the one hand, they can use force in an attempt to secure the situation as well as their lives; yet on the other hand, they have a duty to the individual and to society to not over step their powers or use force until all other options are exhausted first. This dilemma is created by the idea that police are allowed a wide amount of discretion in the course of their everyday functions. Police discretion is necessary because of the various situations in which an officer is faced with everyday; nevertheless, it still remains a very difficult ethical dilemma. This ethical dilemma becomes even more distressful when the use of force becomes lethal for the individual.


Chandler Arizona?s Police Department Use of Force Policy

Employees of this department shall not use more force than is reasonably necessary to accomplish their lawful purpose (Chander Police Department 1996:1). In any analysis of a use of force incident, consideration must be made for the fact that officers are often forces to make spilt second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.

The use of any force is typically reactionary in that the officer is responding to a suspect?s actions. The officer?s goals may change during the process of responding to the subject?s actions. The decision will normally increase from simple verbal persuasion through to the use of lethal force. However, officers may immediately use any authorized option if justified. A verbal warning that force will be used against the non-compliant suspect must precede any use of force (Chandler Police Department 1996:2). The warning is not necessary if it is perceived that such a warning will endanger an officer or take away a tactical advantage (Chandler Police Department 1996:2). The officer employing the force does is not required to be the officer giving the warning.

Chandler Police officer Daniel Lovelace appears to have used this authority in the wrong way (Jenson 2004:1). He was called to a situation at a Chandler Walgreen?s one afternoon for a woman who was trying to fill a false prescription. Dawn Rae Nelson and her fourteen-year-old son were at the store and did nothing at the time to justify the loss of her life. According to the Chandler?s Police Departments Use of Force Policy, Dan Lovelace?s life was not at risk and nor was any citizen standing by. His decision to shoot and fire was unnecessary because she was not a threat to anyone.


The use of force policies for many departments are somewhat vague. This leaves room for maximum discretion on behalf of the individual officer who must decide when to use force. In most situations officers have the discretion to decide not only when to use force but also about which type of force to use. Four different types of force have been discussed in this article. Each type requires an officer to analyze a particular situation and apply his or her training and moral values when choosing how to react. One study examined the effectiveness of different types of force.

Police officers hold the lives of each individual that they come into contact with in their power everyday. There is no doubt that the policing job is a difficult one; one which deserves much respect and admiration. Nonetheless, police officers have the capacity to injure more people than almost any other occupation in the country. Because of this, officers must be trained appropriately ensure that they are using these powers in the best interests of the community. Too often the use of force has been exercised unnecessarily. Police officers perceive a threat and immediately react to that threat. Of course, it is necessary for them to protect their lives and the lives of those innocent bystanders in a situation; yet they must use their discretion.

All other non-forceful tactics must be used prior to any decision to use force. It cannot be claimed that bullets are the only cause of severe harm to an individual suspects. As stated earlier, taser guns can also result in death. The use of a police batton on the ?right? spot of an individual can leave him or her permanently injured if not dead. Police officers are thus faced with the difficult ethical dilemma of whether or not to use force in these situations. In order to protect society it is necessary that police departments and individual officers make this decision with caution in every circumstance. Discretion is a fundamental aspect of policing; however certain police discretions must be limited. In community policing officers must have a good respectable relationship with the community. When officers abuse their power and discretion this relationship weakens. Police officers who use too much force or use force when it is not needed create a negative image for themselves. The community no longer views them as service officers but as brutal police officers. Guidelines must be established and follwed in order to prevent a breakdown in officer's relationship with society.


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