What Is Use of Force, and What Is a Use-of-Force Continuum?

Sidebar to the article Police Use of Force: The Impact of Less-Lethal Weapons and Tactics by Philip Bulman

"Use of force" refers to the "amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject."[1] The Fourth Amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures, and various other legal and policy controls govern how and when officers can use force. Most agencies tightly control the use of force, and supervisors or internal affairs units routinely review serious incidents.

Many law enforcement agencies instruct officers in, and have policy guides for officers regarding appropriate responses to an escalation of activities in an encounter with a civilian. "The use-of-force continuum" is a phrase to describe this kind of guide. The continuum of a particular agency may cover a full spectrum of actions from no-force, in which having officers present is enough to defuse the situation or deter crime, to lethal force, in which officers use deadly weapons. For a sample continuum, see NIJ's Use-of-Force topic page.

When any kind of physical use of force is required, there is always a chance of injury to the officer or the suspect. When police in a democracy use force and injury results, concern about police abuse arises, lawsuits often follow and the reputation of the police is threatened. Injuries also cost money in medical bills for indigent suspects, workers' compensation claims for injured officers, or damages paid out in legal settlements or judgments.

Back to: Police Use of Force: The Impact of Less-Lethal Weapons and Tactics.


[1] Definition by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Police Use of Force in America, 2001 (pdf, 88 pages) Exit Notice.

Date Created: March 3, 2011