There are some situations in which police officers must use force to protect themselves or subdue a suspect. They are supposed to use only enough force to deescalate the incident and regain control of the situation. Generally, the amount of force should be proportionate to the threat that prompts it.
But in some cases, law enforcement officers use more than the minimum amount of force necessary. They may react to a relatively small threat with a disproportionately heavy use of force. This is referred to as excessive force, and it is a very controversial issue.
Understanding excessive force
The use of excessive force was first brought to the Supreme Court in the case of a teenager who was fleeing the scene of a robbery, only to be shot in the head by police officers. The Court ruled that the officer involved had used excessive force to subdue the young man. The case established a precedent for the use of physical force from law enforcement when handling an incident:
- Deescalate the situation simply with their presence as police officers
- Verbally control the situation with requests, discussion, questions and orders
- Use empty-handed control, or grabbing, holding, punching or kicking
- Incorporate police-approved weapons such as batons, tasers, pepper spray or canine officers
- Use firearms or other lethal weapons
Whatever the type of force used, law enforcement is supposed to halt or deescalate it when the situation is under control. Using physical force against someone who has been subdued generally constitutes excessive force.
In some cases, police officers claim that the only way to take control of a situation was to use lethal force. The court case involving the teenage burglar who was killed set the precedent that police should only use deadly force when:
- It is necessary to prevent a suspect from escaping
- The officer has probable cause to believe that that the suspect poses a threat of death or physical injury
What counts as excessive force?
It is not always easy to determine when excessive force has been used. Law enforcement agencies usually have a very narrow definition of excessive force. Civil rights advocates and alleged victims of excessive force tend to feel otherwise. This side contends that any unnecessary use of force, especially if it causes long-lasting physical harm, is excessive. The court system often provides qualified immunity to law enforcement officers, which protects them from civil penalties. Nonetheless, some citizens and their families choose to file civil suits against local or state authorities in hopes of holding the offending officer accountable for their use of excessive force.