It is an inherent risk when you interact with police during an arrest situation that the potential for violence exists. This has been the underlying concern that has animated much of the recent attention — through media coverage as well as by movements such as “Black Lives Matter” — that has focused on how and when police should use force when attempting to apprehend criminal suspects or to react to others present at the scene whom the police may believe are attempting to interfere.

The question is, when does the use of force by police shift from that which is reasonably necessary to the allegorical “police brutality?” The answer can seem simple at first, but can be subject to complex interpretations.

What is the standard for police use of force?

Despite many studies which have addressed the issue of how and when police can use force, no single rule has emerged on the subject. One definition is simply that the force required is that “required… to compel compliance by an unwilling subject.” Another attempt to identify an appropriate standard is “whether the police officer reasonably believed” that the force used was necessary to accomplish a legitimate police purpose. The trouble is, words like “reasonable” and “necessary” are themselves subject to different interpretations. What the police officer thinks is reasonable and necessary might involve the use of pepper spray, a taser, or even a firearm, while from the point of view of the person being detained the very presence of the officer may seem unreasonable.

Take, for example, what happened at a home in Muskogee, Oklahoma when multiple police officers pursued a suspect into it. The suspect, who police had initially pursued in his vehicle after he ran a stop sign, fled on foot into a residence where his 84-year-old mother lived, then refused to come back out when told to do so. The police then came in after him, forcing open a door and tasering him; shortly after that, the suspect’s mother entered the room, and after she allegedly refused commands to turn around and lie down on the floor an officer pepper-sprayed her, causing her to fall to the floor. Neither of the two occupants of the home evidently offered any physical resistance before the police use of force, and the suspect’s mother was ultimately not charged with any crime.

Was the use of force reasonable against these two individuals? The Muskogee police are conducting an internal investigation to see if the officers “complied with policy” and have stated that the reason for the use of force was the refusal of both the suspect and his mother to “comply with lawful commands” of the officers.

What are factors that can affect the use, and scale, of force by police?

The U.S. Supreme Court has provided guidance on what police need to consider when deciding whether and how much force to use when making a “seizure” of a person as the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution applies that term. The Court’s formulation takes into account elements such as:

  • The severity of the suspected crime
  • How much of a threat the suspect poses to police and others
  • How much resistance the suspect is offering

These elements, in turn, need to be viewed in light of what a “reasonable” police officer (who would have the same degree of experience and training as the officer in question) would do in the same situation. Additional considerations that enter into the “reasonable or unreasonable” use of force are the force that was used, how it was used, and what risk of injury it posed. These need to be viewed as they existed at the moment the officer engaged in the use of force; “20-20 hindsight” cannot be applied, even when facts unknown to the officer at the time come to light later on that could have had an effect on the decision.

What other considerations might influence the police decision to use force?

Some studies have suggested that the race of the suspect can play a role in the officer’s use of force. One such study indicates, for example, that Oklahoma has the second-highest rate in the country of police use of deadly force against African-Americans. Another study suggests that where the incident takes place can also have a bearing: police tend to resort to force faster, and with a higher degree of intensity, when they are operating in known “high-crime” neighborhoods. The gender of the officer can also come into play (a female police officer attempting to subdue a large, adult male suspect may resort to deadly force faster than a male counterpart who may be better able to use intermediate-level force).

In the vast majority of situations — about 99 percent of the time — if you come into contact with the police you will not be threatened with the use of force or have force used against you. You should also be aware that it is not only the conduct of the police, but your behavior as well that will be taken into account if force is used against you by the police. Still, if the police do resort to force, you will definitely want to consult with a criminal defense attorney to see if there are any circumstances that call into question whether that use of force was unnecessary or excessive.