Use of Force in the Police Officer's Malpractice
Law Enforcement is one of the most difficult and rewarding occupations out there. Millions of hard-working men and women risk their lives every day to serve and protect those in their communities. Unfortunately, like any profession, there are bad apples in Law Enforcement. Every profession has members that do not follow the rules and end up being let go. This phenomenon is more pronounced in policing due to the media reporting on everything the police do. One bad officer can ruin the reputation of an entire department. A reputation they spent decades building. There are many ways that officers break the rules and end up getting fired. Unlawful arrests, unlawfully shooting suspects, stealing from evidence, taking bribes, etc. The most common, and the most popular in the news these days, is unlawful use of force.
Use of force is a widely debated topic in law enforcement. Many people do not even agree on definitions which makes understanding it that much more difficult. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has described use of force as the ‘amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject.” Context is also crucial in determining the legality of a questionable use of force case. No two situations are the same and must be looked at on a case by case basis. Therefore, people have a hard time agreeing on use of force because every situation is different. Creating a set-in stone legal standard would be difficult and may even be dangerous for officers.
When it comes to use of force in policing there must be a structure of force depending on the situation. A use of force continuum is a standard that provides law enforcement officers and civilians with guidelines as to how much force may be used against a resisting subject in a given situation. In a National Institute of Justice article about of the use of force continuum it states “Most law enforcement agencies have policies that guide their use of force. These policies describe an escalating series of actions an officer may take to resolve a situation. This continuum generally has many levels, and officers are instructed to respond with a level of force appropriate to the situation at hand, acknowledging that the officer may move from one part of the continuum to another in a matter of seconds.” An example of a use of force continuum reads as follows: The officer shows their presence in hopes to diffuse a situation. If that does not work the officer can use verbal commands to diffuse the situation. If those efforts are not successful the officer can get physical by using restraining techniques and in more serious cases, using punches and kicks. Officers also have several tools they can use to diffuse a situation. Mostly batons, pepper spray, stun guns, and tasers. If all the above efforts are unsuccessful, an officer has the authority to use lethal force to control a given situation. That is the sad reality of being a police officer. Sometimes the hardest decision is the best decision. The use of force continuum is used by police departments all over the United States and must be followed step by step. It would be unlawful to immediately jump to tasing someone or even shooting someone if the situation did not call for that level of force. They must be assessed in sequential order.
Every department seems to do things a little differently. Their rules and regulations always vary in many ways. Departments have different rules when it comes to use of force. However, fundamentally they are very similar. Each department has its own use of force system that officers employ during their duty. Every state has different laws and departments within those states create their rules and regulations accordingly. There are Supreme Court cases that departments use as precedent when commanding officers. One of those cases is Graham v. Conner (1989). The court decided from this case that an objective reasonableness standard should apply to a civilian’s claim that law enforcement officials used excessive force in the course of making an arrest, investigatory stop, or other ‘seizure’ of his person.
Earlier we discussed the use of force continuum and one of the steps of the continuum was the use of policing tools to control a situation. Batons, pepper spray, stun guns, and tasers and the most common non-lethal tools that police officers have access to. These tools should only be used if the officer has extinguished the other options in the continuum. Officers are required to be subjected to the use of these tools in order to carry them. For example, if an officer wishes to carry a taser he or she must be tased with one. The same standard applies to pepper spray. The purpose of this is to prevent an officer from using these tools when the situation does not call for it. This standard is very likely to reduce unlawful use of force cases.
Use of force and ethics in policing are closely intertwined because the performance of the police is a reflection of the department in which they are employed. When officers do their jobs well by following the rules and they do good police work, the public is more likely to view them positively and support them. When the police perform poorly and break the rules the effects are the opposite. The public looks at them with suspicion and fear and does not support them. At the end of the day this makes the work of the good officers much harder because the public makes up their mind very quickly and paints all officers with the same brush. It is critical that all officers have an accurate moral compass that guides them throughout their careers.
Regardless of how much money and time departments sink into new recruits there will always be ones that make mistakes and make poor choices. In use of force investigations all the evidence is collected, and a formal investigation is performed just like any civilian case. The accused officer is generally placed on leave during the investigation. As stated earlier, context is crucial because every situation is different. After the investigation is completed the department makes their decision to reinstate the officer or let them go. In many high-profile cases the officers are reinstated because the investigation could not determine any kind of wrongdoing. This usually puts the media in a frenzy and sometimes even causes riots. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t it seems.
Use of force is a critical part of policing because officers need to be able to enforce the law by any means necessary. This requires a set of rules and regulations that officers can apply at their discretion. These rules and regulations were implemented to officers to use the necessary amount of force while still complying with the law. It is a line in the sand so to speak. Officers are provided with all the tools they need to control a situation. Unfortunately, we have a select few that make bad decisions and that reflects poorly on officers across the country. Luckily, we have divisions within departments to investigate and weed out these troublemakers.
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