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The Use of Force by Police Officers

The Force Continuum

The use of force is one of the most important decisions a Police Officer faces in the course of discharging his or her duties as a Law Enforcement officer.

For those of you that don't understand what we go through on a daily basis I will try to give you an incite as to what we deal with daily, how we are trained, and what goes through our minds. I will try to answer the following.

What are the legal boundaries an officer should consider in the decision to use force?

What actions justify the use of force? What are the warning signals related to force upon which an officer should rely?

What is the emerging standard of law upon which an officer should rely in employing force?

What types of conflict resolution should be employed to reduce the risk of unnecessary uses of force?

This topic, the use of force, is important because the consequences of an uninformed action are enormous: a citizen may be killed or injured: and an officer and his department may face criminal or civil action.

It is necessary to employ standards and strategies that enable officers to reduce the risk of unnecessary force, exercise maturity and professionalism in decision-making in the use of force during encounters with potentially violent citizens.


Non-deadly force is not likely to result in or produce serious bodily injury or death.
Deadly force
is that level of force that would lead a reasonable police officer objectively to conclude that its use poses a high risk of death or serious injury to its human target, regardless of weather or not death, serious injury, or any harm actually occurs.


Police professionals have developed a number of frameworks describing armed encounters to help officers define the appropriate level of force in a particular situation.

Assessment Process:

One method of understanding the use of force involves the PEDA principle. According to this model, the officer's behavior is the result of a four-step process:

1: Perception-- the officer observes the scene and the elements of the situation. These create an impression on the officer's senses. From these impressions< the officer makes an..

2: Evaluation-- the officer integrates the impressions observed with his knowledge, experience, and training. At this point, the officer processes information as rapidly as he must given the situation. At the appropriate time, the officer then makes a ..

3: Decision-- the officer selects from among alternative courses of action based on the evaluation process. This is the most crucial point in the model because subsequent events will flow from the decision reached. The courses of action available again reflect the officer's experience and training. Once the decision is taken, new information (perceptions) or re-evaluation may cause the officer to pause and reach a different decision. But at some point a final decision is reached and the officer moves to..

4: Action-- based on the above steps of the process, the officer acts in response to the level of threat he must counter. The action will be dictated by the decision, but may be halted or delayed by new circumstances.

Social Influences upon Officer Behavior in Armed Encounters:

A second method of viewing the encounter involves an analysis of officer behavior through five phases. The phases, thoughts, and behavior of the officer, and possible influences are summarized in the table below:

Anticipation Assessment of situation prior to encounter (How dangerous/ what type of danger does the opponent represent?) Mode of information (dispatch, citizen, other police officer or direct observation) Belief in the accuracy of the information Officer's prior mind-set toward information.
Entry and initial contact Initial positioning and direct information gathering (Confirmation or revision of earlier information; attempts to maximize options/minimize the opponent's option?) Physical appearance of opponent. Distance between self and opponent. Safety and cover, Timing.
Dialogue and information exchange Information dispensed to opponent and received (Intentions of both police officer/opponent are clarified/elaborated.) Information given by opponent (others) Body language of officer/opponent. Type of officer's communication. Extent of situation where officer controls changes
Final decision Shoot or decide against shooting. Movement by opponent. Immediate threat by opponent. Danger to others implied by decision to shoot.
Aftermath Coping with the decision (How does officer effectively deal with the actions taken?) Certainty of officer in reasonableness of decision. Presence of supportive citizens/officers. Presence of psychological support for officer.

Force Continuum/Escalation-De-escalation:

A third framework for considering the force encounter focuses on the options for action that are available to the officer

Officers receive training in response methods for different types of threats presented by a subject in a use of force situation. The types of situations which may evolve into a less than lethal or lethal force response vary in different locations. In some situations the behavior of the subject may escalate, requiring increased levels of force by the police officer. in other situations, the option of the use of force may present itself almost immediately. The following questions should be kept in mind while reviewing the force continuum.

Levels of Managing the Use of Force:

1: Officer's Presence:

2: Dialogue:

3: Gas or Pepper Spray:

4: Hands on ,or Physical Control:

5: Intermediate Weapon, ( night stick,ASP):

6: Lethal Force:


In actual field situations, the application of the frameworks introduced in the previous section may happen very quickly or the officer may have time for consultation. In order to illustrate the application of force, this section will utilize the PEDA model to trace an officer's actions.

A. Perceptions:

As previously outlined, the first step in the PEDA model involves the officer's perceptions. Another way of describing this step is by reference to the subject's actions. The officer observes these actions and this basic information becomes "input" to the following steps. In some departments, this is the first step in the "threat assessment" process.

Just as the officer has a range of actions open to him/her, so does the subject of the encounter. It is also possible to consider those actions as part of a "resistance" or "threat continuum". For example, subjects may exhibit any or all of the following behaviors:

Intimidation (hard stares)

Non-compliance/Passive Resistance

Defensive actions (run, push, shove)

Active aggression (actions to harm the officer)

Aggravated aggression (use of a weapon)

Observations of the subject's actions and the ability to articulate each perception is an important part of an officer's explanation if he/she is called upon to explain a particular use of force.

B. Evaluation.

The evaluation phase of the encounter requires the officer to consider three important elements regarding the subject: ability, opportunity, and jeopardy. for each element, there are indicators useful to the officer's evaluation:

1: Ability: did the subject have the means to do bodily harm to another person?  Indicators are:

age, size, weapon(s), mental status, drug or alcohol use, threatening gestures, known prior history, apparent skill level.

2: Opportunity:  Did the subject have the opportunity to seriously injure or kill the officer or another person? Some indicators are:

positioning,  timing,  proximity,  action.

3: Jeopardy:  Did the subject's action expose the officer to a perceived danger or was there a reasonable perception that the person would seriously injure or kill the officer or other persons?  Indicators include:

imminent harm,  fear of death or bodily injury.

C: Decision:

Once the officer has "collected" the facts (through perception) and evaluated the situation, he/she must move to a decision. At this point, it is useful to revue an officer's obligations or priorities in making the decision to act:

1st priority -- To protect all innocent citizens in your community.

2nd priority -- To protect yourself and fellow officers.

3rd priority -- To protect the subject.

Given these priorities, the officer decides on a course of action that:

1: Selects the level of force that is reasonable and apparently necessary at the moment it is used.

2: Is based on the totality of circumstances.

3: Responds to the perceived levels of resistance.


The police officer in the course of his career encounters fast moving situations that signal the need for the use of force against subjects. Under these circumstances, the officer must decide quickly and correctly, the degree of  force which is appropriate to the situation. The situation posed by a use of force encounter requires complex judgments   and tactics. According to one recent publication: "Law enforcement officers may use no more than the amount of force reasonably necessary to protect themselves, a private citizen or to complete an arrest". A working definition of deadly force is: "force creating a substantial risk of causing death or serious bodily injury". The following information includes:

1) General guidelines.

2) Self defense.

3) Protecting others.

4) Effecting an arrest.

5) Preventing flight or escape.

A. General Guidelines:

1) The decision to use force must be based or reasonableness and necessity, not on emotions.

2) Force should be used only when it is reasonable to believe that it is necessary.

3) An officer must know the weapons issued for his use.

4) An officer must avoid the use of unnecessary menacing actions. It is generally wrong for an officer to use his weapon as a means to intimidate or bluff when confronting a person. Such actions as firing warning shots and unnecessarily drawing and pointing weapons should be avoided. A warning shot additionally poses a threat to innocent persons who might happen to be in the path of the bullet. However, in some emergency situations, for example, to stop an attack on another officer by a riotous mob, a warning shot may be appropriate. Of course, when an officer fires warning shots, his prime consideration must be to avoid injuring innocent bystanders. Similarly, under some circumstances, it may be reasonable to draw or point a weapon even though there is no immediate need to shoot. For example, it might be reasonable for an officer who is searching a building for a burglar, or arriving at the scene of a robbery in progress, to draw his weapon and point it at a suspect.

5) A weapon should, generally, not be fired from or at a moving vehicle.

6) Before arriving at the scene of a potentially dangerous and highly charged situation, an officer should think about possible developments and his reactions to different situations.

7) An officer may not use force merely to prevent the use of offensive or insulting words.

8) In general, the use of deadly force is not authorized merely to protect property, but only when the safety of human beings is in jeopardy.

B . Use of force in Self Defense:

1) An officer may use only the degree of force which is reasonably necessary to protect himself.

2) An officer may use deadly force in self defense when he reasonably believes that:

a) he is in imminent danger of losing his life or receiving great bodily harm.

b) he reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to save himself from that danger.

C. Use of Force to Protect Others:

1) An officer may use only the degree of force necessary to protect another person or property in another person's lawful possession against forcible offense.

2) An officer may in some instances use deadly force to prevent a violent or forcible felony involving danger to life or great bodily harm.

3) When an officer uses force to protect another person, the officer may use only such force as was reasonably apparent that the other person could have lawfully used to protect himself under the circumstances.

D. Using Force to Effect an Arrest:

1) A person must submit peaceably to a lawful arrest, but there is no requirement that he submit to an unlawful arrest. The courts have taken the position that a person has the right to resist an unlawful arrest. An officer, therefore, should do everything possible to ensure that any arrest he plans is lawful and that he proceeds in a lawful manner in making the arrest.

2) When making a lawful arrest, an officer may use only reasonable force to effect the arrest and detention. He may not use unreasonable force or subject the arrested person to unjustified violence.

3) One making a lawful arrest may use reasonably force to overcome any resistance or threatened resistance of the person being arrested or detained.

E. Use of Force to Prevent Flight or Escape from Arrest:

1) An officer may use reasonable and necessary force to prevent the flight or escape or a criminal suspect.

2) Deadly force may be used against a criminal suspect who is attempting to flee or escape when the officer reasonably believes there is a substantial risk that the suspect will cause death or serious bodily harm to the officer or a third party if apprehension is delayed.

F. Use of Force to Prevent Flight or Escape from Custody:

1) A guard or other law enforcement officer is justified in the reasonable use of force to prevent the escape from a state correctional facility, parish (county) prison, or the physical custody of a guard or other law enforcement officer of a person under arrest, sentence or awaiting trial.

2) A guard or other law enforcement officer may use deadly force to prevent the escape from a state correctional facility, parish (county) prison, or the physical custody of a guard or other law enforcement officer of a person under arrest, sentence or awaiting trial where there is a reasonable belief that there is a substantial risk that the escaping person will cause serious bodily injury to the officer or third party if the escape is not prevented.



Addressing fear:

Fear is the natural, automatic response to one's perception that he/she is in a dangerous situation. the key here is the officer's perception based on the degree of "preparedness" training. An inexperienced officer may experience fear when in fact no threat of danger exists. Even a seasoned officer may become fearful if his/her emotional or mental faculties are in any way diminished, impaired or distracted. Reasonable fear is common to all officers. It can be triggered by legitimately dangerous situations: conducting a building search at night for an armed suspect, confronted by a mentally ill person predisposed toward violence or facing an armed attacker. Therefore, reasonable fear is a survival technique. It can be thought of as your mind sending warning signals to the rest of your body.

However, here is a distinct difference between controlled, legitimate and manageable fear, and uncontrolled panic. Uncontrolled and inappropriate fear is not only unreasonable, but dangerous to the officer and everyone in his immediate environment. It is this sort of fear for which officers make take inappropriate action or use excessive force. For situations like these, the legal ramification can be enormous for a law enforcement agency and the community. It is essential that officers and their supervisors develop techniques to distinguish between these two types of fear, to determine how fear affects a trained officer's responses and to evaluate what preventive steps should be taken.

Controlling Unreasonable Fear:

A certain amount of agency participation and cooperation is required to address the issue of unreasonable fear while individual action will also be necessary. An officer can utilize a group discussion on to evaluate his own fears in comparison with those of his colleagues. Therefore an attempt is made to establish a "normal" mode of behavior. It is the responsibility of the department to create the environment which encourages honest, candid discussion among its members. The practice of open discussion should begin at the recruit level (prevading throughout). It may be necessary for a department to provide professional counseling services to officers who may not be able to discuss their fears openly. The department should offer to support anyone who requires professional counselling without any stigma attached or reprisal. It is often the field training officer who will be in the position to first observe the new recruit in action. the field training officer can identify possible symptoms and suggest corrective actions, additional training or guidance before the problem becomes entrenched.


When a police officer faces a situation involving a possible use of force, he/she must recognize the factors that could effect performance in facing this complex and difficult task. Understanding the forces of stress and inner conflict that can effect performance in the encounter is essential to mastering this situation. Some of the most common sources of stress and conflict in this type of performance environment include:

1: Long term stress: divorce, ill child.

2: Short term stress: last call for service, hunger.

3: Anger: created by loss of control or loss of self esteem>

4: Fear: created by real or exaggerated threats.

5: Prior mind-sets: racial, gender, political, economic.

6: Health considerations: weight, blood pressure, etc.

Each of these "risk factors" present unique issues which may have a profound impact but are hard to recognize. Stress can be incremental and often unobserved. Also the combination of small hassles with a spouse, child or supervisor can raise stress levels. Anger can be targeted at others who are not the source of anger. Fear is often a hidden dimension. Fear of injury, humiliation or generalized danger may be directed at types of persons, neighborhoods or situations. Mind-sets about fear or danger can change one's perception of a situation. Believing that a particular housing area is dangerous may influence the approach that an officer takes toward the encounter. Health concerns may effect body positioning, gait, mobility, and sense of competence.

Recognizing these risk factors and learning to control oneself are important components in any approach to a possible use of force encounter. What will help you subdue these performance inhibitors is your ability to deal with a force encounter and your rapid response to correcting these inhibiting factors. Specific steps include your ability to:

1: Recognize and control your emotions prior to being able to control others:

2: Balance your mind and body while anticipating your approach to the encounter:

3: Avoid impulsive words or trigger terms:

4: Reaffirm your sense of dignity in approaching the situation:

5: Have a realistic sense of what one may encounter; verbal abuse, oppositional behavior, blood, etc:

6: Avoid the need to be right. Focus on resolving the encounter rather than affirming your authority or sense of false honor:

7: Avoid tunnel vision caused by anger, loss of control or esteem:

In addition, employ techniques which model mature conflict resolution strategies with the people you encounter.

 There are some events that can not be resolved in the first 20 minutes of the conflict. We then regard the passage of time as a tactical ally. Also when dealing with people do not react to their dialogue or manner; respond to control the situation. Attack the problem, not the person.

Your attitude is the first obstacle to resolving the conflict. Maintaining a sense of inner control and translating it into appropriate street problem solving is a step towards facing a possible use of force with maximum professionalism and minimal risk.

Officers should employ self-assessment on a regular basis. Self-assessment is the standard for evaluating job performance, tactical maneuvers and attitudes toward the community. After each incident or citizen contact, an officer should mentally recap and evaluate:

1: His tactics and approaches;

2: His command presence in terms of controlling the contact;

3: His demeanor, personal feelings and emotions;

4: His conversation patterns;

5: Most importantly, his emotional levels.

Most likely only the individual officer will be aware of determining the presence of fear. It is the officer's responsibility to his job, his family and his community to accurately identify his fears, prevent injury and seek help when necessary. The ramifications of either personal or departmental denial of the existence of a problem, or even the potential for a problem can lead to injury or death of an officer and/or a citizen.





Compiled under the direction of the Honorable Charles Foti, Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff, Chairman of the POST Council and michael Ranatza, Executive Director of the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement.