When Is Police Force Excessive?

Answering the question of whether “police brutality” has occurred is a two-step process.  The first issue is whether the use of force was even justified.  The second is whether an unreasonable or excessive amount of force was used.

Most law enforcement agencies have a “use of force” policy.  That policy will describe when and what type of force may be used.  “Force” can include anything from verbal commands to firearms (potentially “deadly force” depending on where the firearm is aimed).  Other examples of force are minor physical contact (pushing and control maneuvers, like arm bars), more serious physical contact (actual strikes with hands or feet), pepper spray, batons, and tasers.

The United States Supreme Court evaluates law enforcement use of force under a reasonableness standard.  Whether or not force was justified or excessive is determined by considering whether the officers’ actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to the officer’s underlying intent or motivation.  Thus, a law enforcement officer must reasonably believe that force is necessary and must also use only the level of force that the officer reasonably believes is required.  The officer’s actions are viewed from the standpoint of what a reasonable person would have thought, not what the officer actually, subjectively believed.

The “objective reasonableness” standard means that the officer’s decisions regarding the use of force and the amount of force must match the situation.  The greater the force used, the greater the officer’s justifications need to be.  It is easier to justify using an arm bar to bring an arrestee to the ground than it is to justify the use of deadly force, which for obvious reasons is justified in only the most extreme situations where the officer is confronted with the possibility of serious injury or death to the officer or a citizen.

Please feel free to contact me if you or a family member have suffered personal injuries or a wrongful death because of police brutality.


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