Police Use of Force

Police enforce social order through the legitimized use of force. Use of force describes the "amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject" [1]. The levels, or continuum, of force police use include basic verbal and physical restraint, less-lethal force and lethal force.

Police officers should use only the amount of force necessary to control an incident, effect an arrest, or protect themselves or others from harm or death.

Police should also:

  • Ensure that those injured receive medical aid.
  • Ensure that the family of any injured person is notified.

Officers receive guidance from their individual agencies, but no universal set of rules governs when officers should use force and how much.

The level of force an officer uses will vary based on the situation. Because of this variation, guidelines for the use of force are based on many factors, including:

  • The police department's experience.
  • Federal and state mandates.
  • Available law enforcement technologies.
  • The complex relationships that may exist between the police and citizens in a given jurisdiction.

Excessive use of force is rare [2].

The frequency of police use of force events that may be defined as justified or excessive is difficult to estimate [3].


[1] Definition by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, see http://www.theiacp.org.

[2] Hickman, M.J., 2006. Citizen complaints about police use of force: Organizational, administrative, and environmental correlates. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Los Angeles, CA, November 1, 2006.

[3] Alpert, G.P., and Dunham, R.G., 2004. Understanding Police Use of Force: Officers, Suspects, and Reciprocity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Date Modified: January 20, 2012