Perhaps no other issue has a greater impact on the trust and confidence a community has in its police force than the use of force by police officers. The Internet, social media, and the viral nature of smartphone videos have made uncomfortable—and sometimes downright awful—images of police officers using force commonplace. This can lead people to believe that the incidence of police using force is much higher than it actually is and that the depicted officers should be criminally charged. When the use of force is judged to be “reasonable” and “justified”, these images, coupled with a lack of common understanding about the laws relating to the use of force and the procedures for investigating it, can cause viewers to conclude that the system is corrupt.
The Police Foundation has produced this Use-of-Force Infographic as a means of educating the public about when the police are allowed to use force and how those incidents are investigated. We found our task of making such a complicated issue easily understood through the use of an infographic to be a daunting one for a variety of reasons. America’s policing “system” is not actually a system. It is a collection of 50 different state laws bound together by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that try to clarify when the police can use force. To complicate matters further, each of the more than 17,000 independent policing organizations in this country has its own policies and procedures relative to investigating the use of force by its officers. And finally, our cultural, regional and political differences, and the differing mental models the police and the public have about the justified use of force, create emotionally charged debate.
Accordingly, this infographic is intended to provide the reader with a broad, high-level understanding of when the police use of force is legally viewed as reasonable and justified and how these incidents are generally investigated. There will undoubtedly be local differences, but this graphic follows the industry “best practices” wherever possible.
Police officers are unlike any other public employees in at least one significant way. They are the only class of governmental agents that, without prior judicial review, are permitted to use force – up to and including deadly force – against members of the communities they are sworn to protect. As such, it is vitally important that we: 1) create a common, plain language understanding of when the police can use force and what happens when they do; 2) develop investigative and accountability processes that are as transparent and responsive to community expectations as possible, and; 3) take the steps necessary to scientifically understand this phenomenon and take every possible action to minimize it. We hope this infographic helps advance these imperatives, and we welcome input about its future iterations.
Within the infographic, we have used 2008 data because that is the most recent year for which direct, face-to-face contacts between the police and the public was collected. We use data from The Washington Post because it maintains, in our opinion, the most accurate data base of fatal police shootings in America. The FBI is currently revamping its data collection system relative to police shootings, and we are encouraged by the results its effort are intended to achieve.
For brevity, we have used terms that have common understandings. Some of these may have a specific meaning in policing. For example, under the different types of force used by police, we use “physical” to mean any type of “hands-on” physical force an officer might use, such as grabbing an arrestee or using a pain compliance hold; “chemical” means the use of a chemical spray like oleoresin capsicum (OC) or tear gas; “impact” means the use of fists, police batons or flashlights to strike an individual to gain compliance or overcome resistance; “electronic” means the use of an electronic control device such as a “Taser”; and “firearm” means the use of an officer’s sidearm, rifle, or shotgun.
International Association of Chiefs of Police. (2001). Police Use of Force in America, 2001. [PDF Document]. Retrieved from http://www.nij.gov/topics/law-enforcement/officer-safety/use-of-force/pages/welcome.aspx
Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2011). Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2008 [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=2229
Lowery, W. (2014, September 8). How Many Police Shootings a Year? No One Knows. The Washington Post. Retrieved fromhttps://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/09/08/how-many-police-shootings-a-year-no-one-knows/
We would like to offer a special thanks to the following individuals who provided invaluable expertise, comments, reactions, and guidance during the development of this infographic:
Chief Debora Black
Chief Rick Braziel (Ret.)
Chief Jane Castor
Chief Ken Corney
Chief Thomas Engells
Commissioner Robert Haas
Former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy
Captain Tim Hegarty
Chief Ronnell Higgins
Deputy Commissioner Nola Joyce
Chief Robert Lehner
Undersheriff Bernard Melekian, Ph.D.
Sheriff Sue Rahr (Ret.)
Chief Michael Schirling (Ret.)
Chief Scott Seaman
Chief Ronal Serpas (Ret.), Ph.D.
Chief Jeffrey Silva
Chief Hank Stawinksi
Chief Frank Straub (Ret.)
Dave Thomas, Ph.D.
Chief Walter Tibbet (Ret.)
Chief James Tolbert
Chief Paul Walters (Ret.)
Reprinted with permission of the Police Foundation, Washington, D.C. www.policefoundation.org
About the Police Foundation
The purpose of the Police Foundation is to help the police be more effective in doing their job, whether it be deterring robberies, intervening in potentially injurious family disputes, or working to improve relationships between the police and the communities they serve. To accomplish our mission, we work closely with police officers and police agencies across the country, and it is in their hard work and contributions that our accomplishments are rooted.