Police Use of Force


You should always attempt to resolve situations without the use of force. However, you'll soon learn that a lot of people have no appreciation for your conflict resolution skills.

Detective Lieutenant Barry M. Baker (ret.) is a 32 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department.

Police use of force will always be present in any society. The only question is how to manage that force for the maintenance of civilization. Your decision to use force should always be based on the reasonable need for force. Another consideration is the desired effect on the person who is the recipient of police use of force. However, as you begin your police career, you have more to consider than previous generations of police officers.

You should always attempt to resolve situations without the use of force. However, you’ll soon learn that a lot of people have no appreciation for your conflict resolution skills. When you become a police officer, get use to the fact that you will, on occasion, be required to exercise physical force. Some people simply make that decision unavoidable.

No matter how much training you receive, you must remember that everybody else knows your job better than you. It doesn’t matter what their profession; occupation, or life experience may be. When it comes to police use of force, the experts will come out of the woodwork.

Media; Social Media and Litigation are all part of Police Use of Force

Police use of force is, and should be, a serious concern of citizens in any free society. Today, that concern and interest has been increased dramatically through media and litigation. More than ever before, the “experts” have tremendous support from the media and lawyers. The media’s purpose is news and ratings. Social media’s purposes range from curiosity to political activism, and the lawyers…well, money…what else?

Police departments have been placed in a pretty tight spot. The Top Cops are only top cops because of their political connections. The politicians they work for are super sensitive to bad press. When it comes to money, it’s always easier to settle litigation with other people’s money — in this case the taxpayers’ — and move on.

Follow Police Department Guidelines for Police Use of Force

Now, you might think that as long as you follow your departmental guidelines for police use of force, you’ll be okay. In most instances, you’ll be correct in that assumption. However, many factors, or questions, can come into play anytime force is used. 

Some of these questions could include: Who is the person upon which the force was exerted? Can your police use of force be placed into a political or agenda context? Does your past record regarding frequency of your police use of force make you more vulnerable to exaggeration and embellishment?

Of course, there will be some reasonable standards applied as well. Any use of force should be viewed solely in relation to reasonable standards. You’ll learn that, when it comes to police officers, reasonable standards are okay. They’re okay as long as there are not more pressing social or political circumstances present.

Two Groups of Critics

When you use physical force, you’ll potentially face two groups of critics. The first group is comprised of people who have never been in a fight since grade school…if then. They’ll view themselves as intellectually superior, and they’ll boast their educational achievements as evidence of that superiority.

The second group will be comprised of the less achievement oriented segment of society…sometimes referred to as criminals. The second group will often display their underestimated intelligence by their clever and total manipulation of the first group.

Police Review Process for Police Use of Force

When you use force, your department will have a process to review the appropriateness of your actions. The level of the force used, and its outcome will determine the extent of the review. The use of deadly force will obviously receive the most extensive and rigorous review as it should.

Whatever level of force you use, you may well be subjected to review by people who have very little understanding of force and its application. Today, there are quite a few police officers in supervisory and command positions who possess very little personal experience in police use of force. A few, outside of training, have never put handcuffs on a person.

Just Act Reasonably to the Circumstances

When I was a patrol sergeant, one of my officers received a call for a “mental case” in the middle of the street attacking passing motorists. The primary officer and two back-up officers arrived simultaneously. They observed a young woman, of considerable physical stature, rushing up to passing cars and pounding her fists against the vehicles.

When the officers approached her, she grabbed one of the officers by the lapels of his coat, and she literally threw him across the hood of his police car. When I arrived seconds later, I saw the woman surrounded by the three officers. The officers were not hitting her with sticks or making any attempt to grab her. Instead, every time she’d lunge at one of the officers, he’d move and another officer would attract her attention. It was quite a sight watching the officers duck and weave as the woman repeatedly tried to grab onto them. Police use of force was never a part of this incident.

A Tragic End

What was immediately obvious to me, as well as to the officers, was that she was tiring. Almost as quickly as it began, the street dance ended when the woman collapsed onto the pavement. While it was not apparent that the woman was in any physiological distress, she was immediately transported to a nearby hospital for what was initially intended to be an emergency psychiatric evaluation.

Sadly, the woman died in the hospital’s emergency room during emergency medical treatment. The autopsy would reveal her cause of death to be cocaine intoxication. Incredibly, the level of cocaine was so high that it should have precluded exertion of any physical activity let alone attacking cars and police officers. According to the Medical Examiner, her fate was sealed even before she went on her rampage.

One can only imagine the criticism and assumptions which would have been immediately leveled at the officers had there been any police use of force. In this particular case, she was unarmed, contained, and she was no threat to others, or to the officers, as long as they kept out of her way.

You’re Being Watched Closer than ever before

Some men might think it embarrassing to have a woman chase them in circles in front of an audience. In this case, one member of the audience was appreciative of the officers’ actions. One of the motorists who were attacked approached me. He complimented the officers for the restraint they showed — especially following the assault on the first officer.

Today, police officers are being watched closer than ever before. You should never let this fact prevent you from police use of force when necessary to protect yourself or others. However, you should remain mindful of the responsibilities you assume when you resort to police use of force.

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