Follow the news for any length of time and you will not have to wait long before you find examples of police using a variety of forceful means against individuals to detain, arrest or otherwise control them. Here in Oklahoma, for example, there have recently been news accounts of a Midwest City police officer who shot and critically injured a man, and another officer in Owasso who use the butt of a shotgun in an attempt to subdue another.
One of these officers is facing criminal charges for his behavior. The other is not. What makes the difference between them is not necessarily the level of violence used – the officer who is being criminally charged is the one who use the butt of his shotgun, and not the one who fired his weapon – but rather the judgment they employed when making the decision to use force.
Police are subject to rules governing the use of force for different reasons. One of them is the potential negative consequences all concerned if the officer uses force inappropriately under the circumstances. The ability of the prosecution to press charges against a criminal suspect can be jeopardized if excessive force is used, and indeed allegations of excessive force are often the basis for civil lawsuits against municipalities, counties and even the state government. The individual against whom unnecessary force is used may be subject to needless injury or even death. And finally, the police officer accused of using too much force can be subject to both claims of civil rights violations as well as being subject to sanctions from the department that he or she works for, which can range from suspension to criminal charges carrying sentences of up to in prison.
One of the ways that police departments attempt to reduce incidents of excessive use of force is to establish circumstance-based guidelines for officers to use to help them determine what force level is appropriate for a given situation. One expression of these guidelines is known as the “use of force continuum.”
The use of force continuum can be viewed as a scale, with no force at one end and deadly force at the other. In between there are a number of gradations of escalating force. There are different variations of the continuum. The National Institute of Justice provides one example:
At the low end of the scale is the simple presence of the police officer. Sometimes simply seeing a policeman is sufficient to either deter a potentially violent situation or to de-escalate one. From there, the continuing progresses through the following steps:
- Verbalization: at this point, the officer will attempt to assert control over the situation by issuing verbal commands such as to request a person’s identification. Although these are initially intended to be non-threatening in nature, if need be the officer can increase the control factor by increasing vocal volume and by shortening the commands to imperatives such as “Stop” or “Don’t Move.”
- Empty-hand control: at this point the officer moves from the verbal to the physical in terms of control measures. These can include a variety of soft and hard techniques, ranging from simple grabs and holds to punches and kicks.
- Less-lethal control measures: if empty-hand control means are insufficient, the officer may next move to a variety of assisted measures, such as the use of a baton or chemical spray or even a Taser.
- Lethal force: this represents the top end of the continuum, and is the measure of last resort if a suspect represents a serious threat to the officer or to someone else.
Excessive use of police force at any point during the continuum cannot not only lead to consequences for the officer involved, but may also may present Oklahoma criminal defense attorneys with opportunities on behalf of their clients to challenge an arrest.