Considering the Use of Force

What we think we know about use of force ...

By Richard Hough  |   Jun 15, 2018

[Publisher’s note: The following is an excerpt adapted from Dr. Richard Hough’s The Use of Force in Criminal Justice, available now from Routledge. You can learn more and purchase the book here.]  

The role of law enforcement officer in a Western society has evolved over the past 200 years. A unique aspect of this role is the ability that society grants to officers to detain fellow citizens even to the point of using physical force. Probation and parole officers as well as corrections officers can find them in circumstances where force seems called for. All three branches of government work to prescribe powers and actions officers may wield as well as to monitor and correct officers and even entire agencies when such actions do not meet the legal or ethical expectations of the community.

The authority to use force on behalf of citizens against other citizens must necessarily be done with careful deliberation and adequate oversight. While these officers utilize their guided discretion, the agency maintains the responsibility for training officers in proper force selection options as well as performing in ways that can reduce the potential for confrontation that may and in force usage. The public has every right to expect that even in a decentralized police model, such as that which exists in the United States, that officers will remain aware of the trust that the public places in them. It would be difficult to find a rational adult to disagree with this proposition. However, as we are well aware, officers face a variety of circumstances that has an unlimited number of combinations to test the knowledge, practices, and physical and mental reflexes of novice and expert officers.

Because there is no way to describe all of the various combinations of officer-individual interactions, we can think of the approach as a 360-degree response options model. This model takes into account relevant factors that officers become aware of in a given situation, while also acknowledging that a great deal of information arrayed before the human officers senses can be missed, misinterpreted, or so voluminous as to impair or overwhelm decision-making abilities. Force usage is fluid. The event can stop and start, turned sharply in unexpected directions, and loop back on itself in a deadly few seconds. The individual encountered by the officer is often acting from moment to moment and in unpredictable ways. This reality finds the human officer behind a curve as they attempt to direct or control the person.

The one or more individuals encountered by the officer bring more to this rapidly evolving or disintegrating reality then a one-dimensional or single resistance behavior. And while the officer is bound by law and procedure, the subject or potential arrestee rarely recognizes a boundary when they intend escape or imminent harm to the officer or others. I know of no legitimate claim to who envisioned the first model of force options. Most agencies incorporate into their training some combination of officer and subject factors and actions to help illustrate general principles that come into play during encounters.  Nevertheless, many trainers offer their services for pay to present a particular view of how to explain officer and subject actions and reactions.

What We Think We Know

The view that many members of the public have about what constitutes appropriate officer behavior when it comes to using force is varied. Individuals and groups also vary in what they believe to be correct behavior by law enforcement officers. The television set, the movie screen, individual websites and blogs, along with second hand experience of others can form and reform the views and opinions of these different individuals and groups. This is neither fair nor unfair. Frankly, most would observe that this reality is also no worse than it has been for several decades, at least in the United States. It simply is what it is. Professional law enforcement officers and responsive agencies who are committed to their communities know this and work each and every shift to follow the law, do what is right, and deserve the granted authority from the public.

Because it is rarely possible to present in the news a full depiction of a force event, and it is equally challenging for the average citizen to intimately comprehend the physical, psychological, and biological factors during force usage, agencies must also work to educate groups and individuals using many mediums. It would likely be impossible to find a teenager or adult who has not viewed multiple replays of force being used by law enforcement. Body-worn camera footage, when shown with supplementary information about context, has the potential to educate people.

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Hiring the right people, training those people, supervising those people, correcting them when they have made mistakes, and holding them accountable when their actions were intentional and inappropriate, is a tall order for the contemporary law enforcement agency. Yet recruitment, hiring, training, development, and retention of employees, is crucial for agency effectiveness, to include insulation from much liability, and earning the ongoing trust of the public.

Law enforcement, corrections, or private security positions are important in a free society. These jobs matter and the people who perform them must be selected and supervised in ways that meet contemporary standards of law and practice. Soft-skills such as critical thinking, verbalization, non-verbal recognition and response, are tied to the officer’s ability to react or respond correctly. Hiring and developing humans is challenging. Selecting the right person to be the right officer may appear to be a straightforward endeavor, yet people, including law enforcement officers, may also change and in ways that are not always desirable.

Who’s in Charge?

Many people would like to believe simplistically that the answer to this question is “obviously the officer.” The reality is that each person and officer is vulnerable to various dynamics as the interaction unfolds. Feelings and emotions are unpredictable in human behavior and that must be remembered at all times by the officer. Quickly taking control of a situation can prevent or short-circuit what may be moving toward an uncontrolled situation.

When an encounter is unmanageable, risk increases for everyone involved. Verbal directions from officers, including pace, pitch, and volume, can establish control. This use of forcefulness, can be tenuous and officers should not believe that a situation will remain static. Likewise, a person who is visibly upset, perhaps even screaming and swearing, may be in the grip of intense emotion and does not present the threat an untrained person might believe that they do.


Considering the use of force does not only consider options that others think were available to the officer or what particular technique may have been used. The officer empowered to detain another citizen may only face this possibility infrequently. Humans in conflict or beset by emotion and physiological agitation is a predictable component of an officer’s professional experience. Because the officer too is human, there is no reasonable expectation of perfect responses where no one is ever hurt or inconvenienced. The more those officers can expand their knowledge of psychological and physiological factors affecting humans, the safer and more effective they will be.

Agency policy and training are critical to guiding officers on when and how to apply force. This responsibility includes systematically reviewing the actions of employees when they use force. If gaps in training are identified, additional training should be offered. Reviewing individual officer force use with an eye toward identifying any problematic pattern of force usage will improve the officer, the agency, and help maintain the trust of the community.