Criminal Law: When is Police Use of Force Justified?

  • James Notaris

    CPA, ESQ. Legal Editor

  • Steve Longo

    Executive Editor

    In Brief:

  • Police use of force is a hotly-debated topic in the United States today.

  • The use of force by police is justified under certain circumstances. 

  • We explore this controversial topic in detail below.

Police use of force is one of the most controversial and little-understood issues in criminal law today. In recent years, the United States has been rocked by a number of high-profile incidents in which police use of force turned deadly, sparking nationwide controversy and national outcry. These incidents have led to some reforms, but the public debate still continues in earnest. 

But just when is police use of force justified? We take a closer look at this topic below in detail to help you better understand. 

What is Police Use of Force?

Although there is no universal definition of police use of force, it’s commonly described as the “amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject” by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Police officers receive training and guidance on use of force with their respective agencies, though no single set of rules governing it exists anywhere in the United States or worldwide. 

When is Police Use of Force Justified?

Generally speaking, police use of force is considered justified when a police officer deems it necessary to arrest someone, detain someone suspected of a crime, or to defend themselves or someone else when they feel threatened. 

The Model Penal Code provides that officers are advised to use force to make an arrest if the officer “believes that such force is immediately necessary.” However, a number of requirements are also added into this provision. 

These include:

  • The justification of force must be available to the officer
  • The officer must have reasonable grounds for believing that a suspect could have committed a crime
  • Any use of force must be immediately necessary to protect public safety 
  • Any use of force must be proportional compared to the threat involved 

In sum, the law authorizes police officers to use force in the line of duty to uphold the law and to protect the public. However, the excessive use of force and the use of deadly force by police officers has continued to generate much controversy. 

Riot police use force at night on a city street

What is Excessive Force?

Excessive force, sometimes called police brutality in certain situations, is when a police officer exceeds the minimum use of force needed to protect themselves or the public from a threat. 

In an ideal situation, a police officer would try to deescalate a potentially-dangerous incident using a series of gradual methods:

  • Physical presence
  • Verbal orders
  • Using bodily force, such as holds and grabs
  • Non-lethal force, such as batons and tasers
  • Lethal force involving a firearm

What is Deadly Force? 

Deadly force, also known as lethal force, is the use of force by police designed to cause serious injury or death to another person. In almost all jurisdictions the use of deadly force is justified, but only as a last resort in extreme circumstances when all other methods have been tried and failed. 

Use of deadly force is very controversial in the United States and has been the subject of many high-profile incidents in recent years, such as the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014 and the death of George Floyd in 2020. 

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