Use Of Force


Laura Milligan
August 25, 2007

Victor Harris, ignoring the blue lights and siren of the officer trying to stop him for speeding, led officers on six-minute chase speeds exceeding 85 miles per hour on two-lane roads. When Harris turned into a shopping center, officers positioned their cars in an attempt to block him. He collided with Deputy Scott’s vehicle before escaping. Followed by, Deputy Scott, now the lead car in the pursuit, requested and received permission to use a precision intervention technique (PIT) maneuver to stop Harris. However, because the speed was so great, Deputy Scott instead decided to hit Harris’s car with his front “push” bumper. In the ensuing second collision, Harris suffered significant injuries, leaving him a quadriplegic. He brought a lawsuit, alleging use of excessive force. (Risher, 2007)
Because the intentional collision of a law enforcement officer’s vehicle with another constitutes a Fourth Amendment seizure, objective reasonableness at the time of the seizure in light of the circumstances remains the standard by which courts determine whether the seizure is constitutional. The 11th Circuit Court, relying on Tennessee v. Garner, concluded that the facts and circumstances here did not justify use of deadly force. The court focused on the fact that Harris’s “crime” was speeding. In addition, the court rejected the argument that, as a matter of law, Harris’s driving was “sufficiently reckless to give Scott probable cause to believe that he posed a substantial threat of imminent physical harm.” (Risher, 2007)

This case is just one chapter in the history of the excessive use of force by some members of the criminal justice system.
In 1996, the Census Bureau conducted a Police-Public Contact survey. In this survey the Bureau interviewed a representative sample of 6,421 people aging from 12 or older. The 6,421 sampled represents nearly 216 million people. The interviewers determined that 1308 out of the 6421 sampled had some form of face to face contact with police during the year. 14 out of these 6421 sampled indicated that they were hit, punched, choked, threatened with a flashlight, restraint by a police dog, threatened with or sprayed with pepper spray, threatened with a gun, or they experienced some other form of force by police officers. (Chaiken, Travis, 1996)
The lack of reliable data on the extent of excessive force received the attention of the U.S. Congress by enacting the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This act requires the Attorney General to collect data on excessive force by police and to publish a report annually. In April 1996 the first report to congress entitled The National Data Collection on Police Use of Force summarized what was found from studies that examined the use of force by police agencies. The report found that some of the problems researchers encountered were the variations in the definitions in what use of force is, police agency reluctance to provide accurate data, and the detail needed to describe the incidents of use of force. (Greenfield, Langan, Smith, 1996)

This study found that the lack of adequate training is one of the major factors behind the rising instances of excessive force. Law enforcement use-of-force training traditionally has been rather incoherent. Officers learn shooting as an isolated skill, baton qualification occurs annually, handcuffing skills are taught rarely, and defensive tactics training often takes place only to try out a new technique or weapon. Departments frequently
depend on field training officers to teach rookies decision-making skills and how to select the appropriate level of force. In addition, most instruction focuses on increasing the efficiency of an isolated element in the force continuum but
often fails to demonstrate other techniques, such as verbalization and the use of cover. Law enforcement needs to adopt a training model that include the entire scope of the use of force and that also teaches officers how to present the rationale and justification for the levels of force they apply. (Arnspiger, Bowers,1996)
What can officers do to protect themselves from false allegations of excessive force? The use of technology is one way officers can protect themselves. By using car installed video cameras, officers will have a video record of what transpired during an encounter with a suspect. Officers can also protect themselves by calling for assistance if the suspect appears to be defiant.
Police officers can be thrust into any point on the use of force scale without any warning. Their training should give them the skills to make and implement appropriate decisions that consider the safety of both officers and subjects, as well as the constantly changing conditions. The training must be realistic, updated regularly, and contain a system of proficiency testing and evaluation. It must include the use of knowledge, attitude, physical skills and the ability to make reasonable decisions.
The US Supreme Court has further defined the reasonableness standard for all states in Graham v. Connor. This 1989 landmark case mandated that the determination of objective reasonableness must be judged from the perspective of the officer on the scene, allowing for the fact that force situations often call for split-second decisions, and must be reviewed without regard to the officer’s underlying intent or motivation. The Court understood that not every push or shove is unreasonable in the final analysis if they are judging it through the eyes of the officer at the scene. (Johnson, 2)
So, who decides what the rules are when deciding what is appropriate use of force. There are many individuals at various levels that have input into deciding what is reasonable force. Many are civilians with no law enforcement experience. They may be members of civilian review boards, civil service boards, district attorney offices, attorney general, justice department or part of other outside agencies. They may be civilian administrators, elected officials, politicians, judges, attorneys, members of a grand jury, or trial jury. And this does not include community activists, special interest groups, and members of the media that impact public opinion and may influence official rulings on force incidents.

Some of these people will have had training and experience in the use of force, but most will not. Some will depend upon police experts to explain and clarify the legal, policy and procedural issues, tactics, equipment, and force training, as well as the psychological factors that influence incidents.
What goes through police officers’ minds when they are involved in shootings or using any kind of force? How does facing deadly force affect what they see, hear, and feel? Prior research has found that many officers involved in shootings suffer from “post shooting trauma”—a form of posttraumatic stress disorder that may include guilt, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. However, it may be that officers are more resilient than previously thought. One study has found that most suffer few long-term negative emotional or physical effects after shooting a suspect. (Klinger, 2006) This study found that many officers involved in the use of force incidents experienced a range of psychological, emotional that distorted time, distance, sight, and sound. Many officers found their recollection of the events of the shooting to be imperfect. In extreme cases, officers could not recall firing their guns. In the days, weeks, and months that follow a shooting, officers may suffer adverse reactions such as sleep interruption, anxiety, and depression.
When we are talking about inflicting injury or even taking someone’s life, of course individual officers and police agencies need to be willing to submit to scrutiny. However, the scrutiny must be fair, and based upon an objective standard. Our officers and our communities need to be able to count on the rules being consistent, and that they won’t change or vary if the incident happens to be a high profile one.
The use of excessive force affects us all. Police officers that continue to misuse their power are subject to criminal and liable prosecution. The criminal prosecution of these officers will affect us by casting doubt on a whole section of the criminal justice system and possibly leaving a staffing shortage. The liable prosecution of these officers may lead to higher taxes, less money for needed equipment for the officers, and staffing shortages.


Arnspiger, B. & Bowers, G. (1996, Nov.). Integrated Use-of-Force Training Program. Law Enforcement Bulletin, 11, 1-2. Retrieved Sept. 10, 2007, from
Greenfield, L. A., Langan, P. A., & Smith, S. K. (1998, Jan. 6). Police Use of Force. U.S. Department of Justice, 5-8. Retrieved Sept. 20, 2007, from
Johnson, J. (2007, Apr.). Use of Force and The Hollywood Factor. AELE Law Enforcement, 501(4), 2-5. Retrieved Sept. 17, 2007, from
Klinger, D. (2006, Jan.). Police Responses to Officer-Involved Shootings. National Institute of Justice Journal, 253, 1-3. Retrieved Sept. 7, 2007, from
Risher, J. (2007, July). U.S. Supreme Court Decides “Ramming” Case: Force Was Reasonable under the Circumstances. The Police Chief, 74, 1-2. Retrieved Sept. 10, 2007, from

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