By Jean Reynolds

Policies and practices for police use of force are under review in many agencies and police training programs. Issues under discussion include the following: How is “police use of force” defined? When should police use of force be documented? How should police be trained in the use of force? Where should police direct their loyalty when an officer uses force? What policies should govern police use of force?

In light of recent news stories, many law enforcement agencies and training programs are reviewing police use of force policies and practices. It is clear that law enforcement sometimes has to use force to maintain control of a dangerous situation. Officers undergo lengthy training in both defensive tactics and the use of weapons.

But in the heat of the moment, mistakes can be made, putting both officers and citizens at risk. The introduction of Tasers into police work has added another layer of complexity: Because Tasers are different from traditional law enforcement weapons, additional policies and training are necessary. Questions under discussion include the following:

  1. How is “police use of force” defined?

Some agencies do not yet have clear definitions of “force,” “excessive force,” and “deadly physical force.” As a result, officers do not always know which actions need to be documented. For example, is shoving a citizen considered police use of force? What about taking a suspect to the ground?

  1. How should police use of force be documented?

Vague report writing practices can create problems for an agency. Experts recommend that officers avoid vague language like “hands on suspect,” “forced victim against wall,” and “force was used…in order to overcome resistance.” Instead they need to describe specifically what actions were taken. It’s also important to specify which officer at the scene should document police use of force. The consensus among experts is that the officer applying force should be the one to write and submit the written report.

  1. How should police be trained?

To ensure the safety of both the public and officers, a number of agencies are conducting training in the use-of-force continuum and in de-escalating (slowing down) encounters with suspects.

  1. Where should police direct their loyalty when a fellow officer seems to be using excessive force—the agency, citizens, or other officers?

In some instances, officers have been reluctant to get involved when an incident seems headed for excessive use of force. One widely adopted recommendation is that officers be trained to intervene when a fellow officer’s use of force seems excessive.

  1. What policies should govern police use of force?

There has been a great deal of movement on this front. New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner William J. Bratton recently held a press conference to announce that the NYPD is making a number of changes regarding police use of force. According to Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, agencies in Oakland, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada have also instituted changes in their police use of force policies. More are likely to follow.

Professional policies and practices for police use of force are important for the safety of both law enforcement officers and the public. Officers should be familiar with the use of force continuum and their own agency’s policies. Training in de-escalating incidents is another useful step in reducing risk. Police administrators need to review policies to see if revisions and updating are necessary. Officers need to be held to a high standard whenever police use of force is necessary.