When can a police officer use force?


Public trust for police officers continues to erode in the wake of too many “excessive force” actions undertaken by law enforcement leading to death and injury to citizens across the United  States.  Police departments are updating “use of force” policies, conducting de-escalation training and reaching out to communities in partner programs to reduce ill-fated encounters.

Graham ruling.

The 1989 U.S. Supreme Court Case of Graham v. Connor is the supporting “go to” case law regarding force options for police officers.  Police brutality actions involving excessive force can be a violation of civil rights, but force is necessary to keep communities safe in some circumstances.  Actions by many officers are based on split second decisions hinging on life and death situations with multiple escalating factors involved. There must be a balance for ethical effective police presence in the community.  The Graham ruling recognizes that an officer may use the amount of force which is reasonable and necessary based on a balance test where an officer’s actions are “objectively reasonable” given the “totality of the circumstances.”  This means that the officer must consider what is often referred to as the “Graham Factors:”  Force may be used based on:

  1. the severity of the crime at hand;
  2. immediate threat to officer, others or suspect based on criminal action;
  3. suspect is actively resisting arrest or fleeing the crime scene.

Color of law.

Legal actions taken by police regarding force are supported “under color of law.” It is a crime to deprive another person of their protected rights under United States Constitution (18 U.S.C. §§ 241, 242), and criminal and civil legal action can be initiated to remedy the injustice with the possibility of fines and/or prison time when the use of any type of force is not warranted.

Objective reasonableness.

If the use of force did not breach the Graham Factors and was necessary to protect citizens from harm, officers may use necessary methods of force based on the objective reasonableness standard recognizing that officers must think fast and act fast. The facts available to officers at the time they are making their decisions to use force are what the officers are judged by, not anything else that might come to light after the fact. In other words, it doesn’t matter if it later turns out that the gun wasn’t loaded if an officer shoots a subject who is threatening him and pointing a gun at him. The officer would have been justified in their use of deadly force if they believed their life or the life of someone else was in danger at the time of the incident.  The objective reasonableness standard also establishes that officers are not necessarily limited to using the least amount of force possible. Police are called to use only the level of force that falls within the range of what might be considered reasonable in that particular scenario.

Legal counsel.

If you, or someone you love has been a victim of excessive force, you should seek legal counsel to review the incident and guide you through your legal options. You may file a formal complaint to the police department itself, and further civil or criminal lawsuits. with the court system if you have a strong case against the police brutality you have suffered.

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