A writer's helper: Use of Force by police in the USA


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Thread: A writer's helper: Use of Force by police in the USA

  1. #1

    A writer's helper: Use of Force by police in the USA

    I though this might be of interest to writers who plan to include police actions in their works.

    When can officers use force? To protect their lives, to protect the life/lives of a third party(s), to effect an arrest or search, or to maintain the public peace/safety (each state has its own legal code, so the terminology varies).

    What is maintaining the public peace/safety? The classic example is a homeless person brandishing a knife or club and shouting nonsense in a public place, say the parking lot of a grocery store. Is he breaking the law? Not necessarily. Is he placing others in fear for their safety? Yes. Is he disturbing the peace? Certainly. Will this end badly? Often.

    While the 56,000-odd police agencies in the USA are autonomous, all state and local agencies have the same rules on use of force (the Feds have their own). These rules are known as the Use of Force Continuum, and are set by case law from the higher (Federal) courts.

    In this context, force is generally described as ‘any action which is intended or designed to affect the actions of another’.

    Think of the Continuum as a ladder, starting at the bottom. Different agencies do sometimes use different terms and make small adjustments, but this is an applicable, if general, guide.

    The Use of Force Continuum
    Officer Presence. The presence of a police officer will usually impact peoples’ behavior.

    Verbal commands. Telling people what to do, or not do.

    Soft Hand. Slapping, pushing, restraining, pressure point control, and the like.

    Chemical Devices. OC pepper spray, pepper balls, and the like. I don’t know if any agency in the USA still uses Mace, but if they do, that will fall higher in the Continuum because some people have strong allergic reactions. Some agencies rate Chemical Devices equal to Heavy Hand.

    Hard or Heavy Hand. Punching, kicking, head butting, stomping, and the like.

    Electronic Control Device. Tasers, stun guns, and the like. Because this technology is relatively new, some agencies put this between Soft and Hard Hand, or equal to Hard Hand. Case law has not fully nailed this down.

    Blunt Impact. Hitting with batons, rocks, handcuffs, portable radios, or anything else. Shotgun beanbag rounds sometimes appear here, although they also get put into Deadly Force.

    Deadly Force. This is any use of force which is intended, or by its nature designed, to inflict serious bodily harm or death.

    Pretty simple, right? Now let’s throw in some modifiers:

    Each use of force is taken in context to the totality of the circumstances, and also the perception of the officer at the time the force is used. If the officer perceives that a subject had a handgun, and employs deadly force, the fact that the subject’s weapon was unloaded, a toy, or something else entirely is not relevant so long as the conditions were such that a reasonable person in the exact same circumstances could make the same perception.

    There is no requirement to proceed literally up the Continuum. An officer can transition directly from Officer Presence to Deadly Force if the situation requires.

    Devices such as Chemical Agents or ECDs, which require very specific conditions, can be excluded from the Continuum in a situation where they cannot be brought into effective use.

    An officer can employ one level of force higher than that which is being used against him. In other words, if a subject tried to slap an officer, that officer is justified in body slamming them or punching them. Note that the officer does not have to employ this extra force; it is simply an option. Officers often use less force than is being brought against them, if it can be done safely.

    An officer is never required to place their life or physical safety at risk.

    Deadly Force
    Note that Deadly Force doesn’t mention weapons. Can you beat someone to death with your bare hands? Obviously, it happens literally every day. The circumstances of each use of force are weighed on their own merits.

    Nearly all agencies prohibit the use of the choke hold, but if an officer is in a deadly force situation and uses the hold, is that a violation? No. The final tier of the Continuum (Deadly Force) can be taken very simply as ‘what is needed to survive’.

    People often ask ‘why didn’t the officer just shoot him in the leg’? Besides the danger of missing (or have the round ricochet or over-penetrate) and strike a bystander, the simple fact is that a firearm is always deadly force. There’s no ‘limb shot’ stage in the Continuum, because the courts recognize that it is utterly unviable.


    Anyway, that’s a brief overview. Normally, the basic course on this subject is 40 hours. Please excuse any typos.
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  2. #2
    Excellent and accurate. Good job.

  3. #3
    WF Veteran Bloggsworth's Avatar
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    From a distance it would appear that American police can use force when they see a black person...
    A man in possession of a wooden spoon must be in want of a pot to stir.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Bloggsworth View Post
    From a distance it would appear that American police can use force when they see a black person...
    I've heard the same thing said about the police in the UK....
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  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Bloggsworth View Post
    From a distance it would appear that American police can use force when they see a black person...
    Interesting, especially considering that a significant portion of law enforcement personnel, both street cops/deputies and in Corrections are black. It's not a race thing. It's a LAW thing.

  6. #6
    Global Moderator Squalid Glass's Avatar
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    MOD NOTE: THE OP HAS PROVIDED SOME EXCELLENT INFORMATION ABOUT POLICING. DO NOT HIJACK THIS THREAD AND TURN IT INTO A POLITICAL DISCUSSION.
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  7. #7
    I have a question for my own story about the police using deadly force, if this does not hijack the thread, but I thought it would still be informative to discuss if that's okay. For my story, I was thinking the police could use that martial arts move, where you put a guy in a headlock and then use his weight against him to lift him and snap his neck. I learned this move in my martial arts class, which I also took for research as well, but I also saw Schwarzenegger use it in Total Recall. But would the police know this move?

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by ironpony View Post
    I have a question for my own story about the police using deadly force, if this does not hijack the thread, but I thought it would still be informative to discuss if that's okay. For my story, I was thinking the police could use that martial arts move, where you put a guy in a headlock and then use his weight against him to lift him and snap his neck. I learned this move in my martial arts class, which I also took for research as well, but I also saw Schwarzenegger use it in Total Recall. But would the police know this move?
    They definitely know it - as something not to ever friggin' use. Police officers aren't supposed to kill suspects unless absolutely necessary, and whenever that happens, guns are much safer and reliable way to go about it. If the situation doesn't call for a lethal force, they have plenty of other tools like tasers, OC sprays and nightsticks to incapacitate the suspect with. In short, there's just no sane reason why a cop would opt to tackle an opponent with his bare hands and try to snap his neck when he's got plenty of other tools to kill or incapacitate the suspect without taking pointless risks to his own safety. Not to mention the risk of legal liability in case of a wrongful killing or maiming.

  9. #9
    Oh okay, well the way I wrote it in my script the cop gets into a fight to the death with one of the villains after they both run out of bullets, plus the cop figures if I don't kill him now and get him out of the way, then one of his buddies, can just gain up on me too. Unless the cop should kill him a different way? But at this point, the cop character is in the state of mind, I'll just kill them and say it was self defense, and hope for the best.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by ironpony View Post
    Oh okay, well the way I wrote it in my script the cop gets into a fight to the death with one of the villains after they both run out of bullets, plus the cop figures if I don't kill him now and get him out of the way, then one of his buddies, can just gain up on me too. Unless the cop should kill him a different way? But at this point, the cop character is in the state of mind, I'll just kill them and say it was self defense, and hope for the best.
    Two things: Firstly, police officer's right to use appropriate force up to and including killing a suspect is and forever will be protected so long as the threat justifies it. One of the big changes (still ongoing) is reducing the times when the officer can inaccurately claim they were in fear of their safety in order to use a disproportionate level of force -- such as in the Eric Garner case. A lot of that is solved with body cameras, if/when they are mandated. But in principle the police can absolutely kill a suspect using any means at their disposal who presents an existential threat to them/other officers/civilians and that is essential for effective police work. Otherwise you have a United-Nations-Peacekeeper-In-Rwanda problem.

    Depending on the jurisdiction and role, officers may be trained in some martial arts but in my experience that training usually stops at simple restraints and ways to suppress a suspect without killing or seriously injuring them. Unless we're talking SWAT or something, it's unlikely they would have any serious training. I've met Deputies who are 300 pounds and other Deputies who are 90 pound women and those guys are physically limited with a lot of this stuff. That doesn't mean they don't know it, but it's not a requirement for their job, especially in small town units. Tasers are pretty universal for a less-than-lethal solution and there's always a firearm and a way to call backup from SWAT or whoever, so this is mostly irrelevant.

    Second, always remember in a story the emotional is more important than the procedural. A cop who is in a fight to the death with a villain is a human being who is scared, angry, whatever it is. In those kinds of situations, the process goes to shit. Nobody is going to buy a cop telling himself 'well I can't do this but I can maybe do that' in a situation where he/she is seconds from death.

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