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3 Basic Guiding Principles on the Use of Force in Law Enforcement

by Olufisayo
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The question of where and how the use of force is appropriate in law enforcement is as old as modern law-enforcement, itself. It’s a matter that resonates with most of us because we can identify with the fear of being accidentally hurt or having our property damaged.

We also understand that police officers are often physically more capable of hurting us in a fight. If the issue of police brutality ever came up, we might suffer serious bodily harm if we were on the receiving end.

Join us as we break down the use of force in law enforcement, and what three guiding principles are put in place to help keep it in line.

What Is Use Of Force?

Law enforcement is a complicated process. Difficult situations can arise, quickly, leaving officers very little time to react appropriately. This brings us to the question of police use of force.

In the context of law enforcement, the use of force is defined as how much effort a police officer needs to compel an unwilling subject to comply. It’s a reactive thing, a measure these officers can use to make difficult or potentially violent criminals follow their orders.

Even trained officers are just humans, and accidents or misjudgments can happen. The use of force doctrines can be employed by any law enforcement officials authorized to do so. It needs to be kept in check, much like any other workplace safety issue.

Use of force doctrines balance out the needs of law officials with any ethical concerns for the well-being of the suspects themselves. Also, it has to be said that injuries to civilians are a concern, as well. Whether the use of force emanates from a police officer or a civilian in self-defense, there are three guiding principals in place.

Let’s take a closer look at these rules for the use of force.

1. Necessity

Before literally anything else, the use of force has to be absolutely necessary. Law enforcement should only force when the situation strictly calls for it. Even then, that force should only be exercised to the extent that it is actually required for the officer to carry out their duties.

The idea, here, is not to leave any room for miscommunication. The keyword, here, is “necessity”. Where possible, the use of force and of firearms is to be avoided. Non-violent means should be opted for and exhausted before the officer in question resorts to violence of any sort.

Taking a closer look at the issue, firearms are not to be used unless in the following specific circumstances:

  • the officer is acting in self-defense
  • the officer is acting in defense of others who are, themselves, under imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm
  • prevention of a serious crime that itself poses a grave threat to life and bodily health
  • arresting a person who presents a danger to themselves or others

Ultimately, the use of force has its time and place. First and foremost, however, it has to be absolutely necessary. Otherwise, it begins to verge into the realm of police brutality.

Officers may end up being physical with a suspect where there is actually no real need for that physicality. For more on the specifics of this kind of issue, you may wish to consult with a police brutality attorney.

2. Proportionality

When force is used, it must also be completely proportionate to the objective that needs to be achieved. Not only that, but the objectives must be provably legitimate in order to warrant the use of force.

In the event that lethal force is actually used, it must be restrained at all times. Damage to human bodies and lives, as well as any and all property, must be mitigated as far as possible. Some examples of this kind of care include:

  • calling out a clear warning of their intent to use force so nearby bystanders have time to respond appropriately
  • providing enough time for everyone affected to respond
  • offering medical assistance as soon as possible

When it comes to law enforcement and using deadly force, officers risk their lives and others when saving or protecting someone. That power comes with some responsibility.

Like the principle of law and necessity, proportionality limits how much lethal force a police officer can use. The primary aim, here, must be to save a life, so proportionality is key in order to minimize risk.

3. Precaution

As a final note, the use of force must also be tempered with reasonable precautions. To prevent the loss of life during a forceful standoff, it’s important to include command and control structures for safety.

The whole process starts with providing proper training for law enforcement officials when it comes to the use of force. This includes less lethal techniques, issuing assertive warnings, and various bargaining strategies.

Another element is ensuring medical assistance is available and making it clear that the suspect has options. This helps to make it clear that the situation can be de-escalated.

Often, that’s all they need and the entire conflict can be completely averted.

The Use Of Force

We live in increasingly complicated times. In this day and age, police officers are under increasing pressure to perform their job and be considerate of how much force they use. There’s a lot of criticism going around, as more stories come to light about the ongoing misuse of power in many states.

There are three guiding principles that impact the use of force. Police officers should make sure their use of force is completely necessary, in the moment. Proportionality needs to be exercised in order to avoid brutality and abuse. And there needs to be some amount of precaution exercised in order to avoid accidents and serious injury.

Police officers have a difficult job to do. Whether or not they do, however, there needs to be checks and balances in place to make sure the use of force is never excessive and always appropriate. That is why we have these guiding principles in place.

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