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Understanding police use of force: Right vs. reasonable

It’s not a question of whether or not the force was right that matters, only that it was reasonable

In a front page article from the New York Times titled “Training Officers to Shoot First and He Will Answer Questions Later”, the author attacks Dr. Bill Lewinski. Dr. Lewinski is a use-of-force expert, police trainer and researcher. Through Force Science Institute, he has examined controversial use-of-force scenarios and explained why police react within the constitutionally reasonable realm in most instances.

The comments in articles, the letters to the editor and national media commentary on police use-of-force incidents don’t reflect the reality of what would really happen if those critics were faced with any of those use-of-force situations. There have been several tests proving this, and even some news reporters, activists and private citizens have gone on camera to undergo use-of-force scenario training. Every one of those involved were shocked and reacted differently than they thought or suggest for others. Take for instance the Cincinnati police officer who was attacked with a knife in his vehicle. The mere suggestion that the officer should have let the knife attack occur without using force goes against human nature and the will to survive.

Part of the problem is that police officers don’t share with the public the challenges and dynamics of use-of-force situations. Officers face these situations every day and accept them. It is often difficult for officers to explain this particular aspect of the job, either in reports or to the public.

Graham v. Connor is the seminal use-of-force case in the United States and has guided court decisions, police use-of-force training and policy since 1989. It’s the perfect case in the sense that Graham had committed no crime yet the foundations for officers being judged in those “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving” circumstances are not based on the thoughts and facts known after the situation is under control. Instead, officers are judged based on if they reacted reasonably on the scene with the knowledge they had at the time, with consideration given to the fact that officers must make split-second decisions about how much force is necessary in the moment.

In analysis after analysis, what is asked by the media, certain groups and even some law enforcement organizations is whether what the police did was right. Is it right for a 12-year-old boy brandishing a realistic looking toy gun to be shot and killed by police? Is it right to shoot a person who is armed with an unloaded or non-functioning weapon?

To focus on whether a use of force incident was right is misguided. The real question should not be about whether or not an incident was right, but if it was reasonable. Graham v. Connor lays out as many guidelines as possible for determining whether force was reasonable and decision after decision by prosecutors, judges and juries show that once the actual standard is explained to those people, the correct conclusions are made.

The next time you discuss use of force with your department, the public or your friends, try using the correct language. It’s not a question of whether or not the force was right that matters, only that it was reasonable.

Tim Barfield is the Chief of Police in a small midwestern Ohio town. He is in his for 37th year as an officer. Prior to his appointment as chief he spent 32 years in an inner ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. He is a husband, father and grandfather who has a love for police work and police officers with a goal of helping them succeed in a great profession. His responsibilities and desires have included patrol, traffic, DARE, SWAT, training and supervision. He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and Chairman of the Board of the Law Enforcement Training Trust. He continues to learn and instruct on subjects with an emphasis on awareness, police survival mindset and ethics.

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