Use of Force and Building Mutual Trust

use of force image Policing is a challenging profession that frequently requires split-second decisions in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and can change rapidly. The application of force is an essential part of the job of a law enforcement officer. Force is needed to control situations, arrest criminals, and to ensure the safety of both the law enforcement officer and the public. Fortunately, force is rarely used by police in the performance of their jobs. The Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report “Contacts between Police and the Public, 2005,” April 2007, NCJ 215243 (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/cpp05.htm) states that an estimated 1.6 percent of police contacts with the public involved the use or threat of force. However, these few instances can dramatically shape the way a community views the police.

For the purpose of this discussion, force includes contacts in which law enforcement officers push, grab, kick, hit, or use physical restraints or a weapon on a suspect to gain control or compliance. Conducted energy devices (Tasers™ and other stun gun devices) and OC spray (also known as pepper spray) are force options, as well. Force alternatives include voice commands, warnings or threats to use a force option, and (possibly) canine or equine deployment.

The physical and mental state of the suspect can decrease the amount of time the officer has to decide on what level of force to use. Factors such as geography, lighting, weather, and other environmental hazards also come into play. The balance between officer and citizen safety (including the suspect) shifts in milliseconds, often appearing excessive or unnecessary to people who have not experienced the situation from the perspective of the officer on the scene. This misperception can be exacerbated when a community has a historical distrust of law enforcement.

Case law, departmental policies and procedures, training, sound tactical considerations, and community expectations of the law enforcement agency determine the appropriateness of force options. Community expectations cannot be overlooked or understated as law enforcement organizations periodically review their use-of-force policies, procedures, and training. While the use of certain force options may be legally justifiable, they can create tension and mistrust within some communities if left to uneducated perception. Educating the community is critical, because if the community does not understand why a force option was used, they may tend to believe that the option used was inappropriate or excessive.

Successful law enforcement agencies embrace community policing as their operational philosophy and this is reflected in their policies, procedures, training, and organizational structure. Far-reaching benefits result when law enforcement leaders manage the use of force in a transparent, collaborative environment based on community policing principles. Improving the trust relationship with citizenry is one notable benefit that provides the opportunity for a shared understanding of events built on facts rather than on misperceptions. Communities with a historical mistrust of law enforcement often have a disproportionate share of crime and socio-economic and social disorder problems, so they would benefit from being a major focus of activities on the part of law enforcement agencies to build trust.

By establishing partnerships with key community stakeholders, law enforcement agencies can engage and educate all citizens on police operations and uses of force. Holding a dialog with key faith, business, and other community representatives, as well as the news media, to raise their collective understanding and appreciation of the operation of the police agency is critically important. The most effective dialog is proactive and ongoing, and embraces the principles of community policing and problem solving. The potential benefits include fewer complaints and lawsuits, increased citizen cooperation in crime prevention and criminal investigations, and more effective community policing.

The COPS Office has supported an array of publications, webcasts, and presentations on use of force. Please check the COPS Office web site at www.cops.usdoj.gov.

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