What are the costs of raising police use of force to a ‘higher standard’?
Modifying use of force policy by insisting that officers exercise restraint when dealing with objectively threatening and dangerous individuals comes with enormous risk
By Patrick J. Solar, PhD
Police use of force is a serious issue in any democratic society. Citizens expect police to keep the peace, but when citizens see the violence this sometimes requires, they often feel compelled to voice their shock and outrage.
When a police officer is compelled by circumstance to use deadly force it is a tragedy both for the target of the force and for the police officer. However, there is a premise underlying the current push to “raise police use of force to a higher standard” as outlined in the 2015 PERF report that is misguided.
The public seems to believe there is an epidemic of police use of force in this country, but that belief lacks any objective support. Passion rather than rationale is driving current discussions with little informed thought about the likely consequences of further limiting the power of the police.
The risks of policy modification
Modifying police use of force policy by insisting that officers exercise restraint in dealing with objectively threatening and dangerous individuals comes with enormous risk. This is not just risk to the officers themselves, but to the community, to the police agency and to the municipality.
This risk comes in the form of injury and death to the police officer(s) involved, and in the form of civil liability lawsuits directed at the community as a whole, something that police chiefs, city managers and public officials try to minimize whenever possible.
As for the latest PERF publication, “Use of Force: Taking Police to a Higher Standard,” the document is a continuation of the politically motivated, irrational and unrealistic approach to use of force that was presented at the conference in May 2015. Perhaps this lack of understanding is based on isolation in academia, or perhaps it has to do with a pure political agenda. It certainly is not premised on any concern for the safety of law enforcement personnel or even for the law abiding citizens that are in need of the assistance of law enforcement protection. Law enforcement officers must be confident in their actions as they respond to situations which require split-second decisions in life threatening circumstances. Hesitation and doubt, coupled with fear of potential consequences, are seriously problematic in such circumstances. The decision-making process and the choices officers face are tough enough without adding the ridiculous and impossible criteria proposed by PERF.
Raising police use of force to a higher standard is a noble goal. Progressive and practical police chiefs have recognized this for decades and have already incorporated the following elements of this goal into their operating procedures:
- A duty to intervene if officers witness colleagues using excessive or unnecessary force;
- Requiring officers to render first aid to subjects who have been injured as a result of police actions;
- Prohibiting use of deadly force against persons who pose a danger only to themselves; and
- Specific limits on shooting at vehicles.
The push to do more under the premise that there is an epidemic of police use of deadly force means the need to incur additional costs to off-set the increased risk this impetus potentially creates. The very real and practical considerations for a municipality include the following:
- How much more money needs to be spent on police training to try to avoid a deadly force encounter? This question assumes that any given situation stands a chance of being avoided in the first place, but most are unavoidable. 
- How much more is the municipality willing to spend to defend the community against the multitude of complaints and lawsuits that will result from alleged departures from these “higher standards?” 
- How much more will a municipality be willing to spend to support the needs of officers involved in these tragic situations that would not have occurred absent the “higher standard?” 
- How much more will the municipality be willing to spend in salary and benefits to attract brave officers willing to work under such conditions? 
All of this has to be paid for with real money. Who will proclaim their taxes need to be raised to support these initiatives? What programs should be cut at the municipal level in order to shift money to these goals?
Police use of force is decreasing
A recent Pew survey found that 76% of officers surveyed indicated that they are more reluctant to use force when the use of force is appropriate. 
How many people in the U.S. have any contact with the police at all? In 1999 approximately 20.9%, that is roughly 66 million individuals. In 2008, that percentage dropped to 16.9 % or 40 million individuals.
Between the years 2005 and 2008 the percent of residents who actually had any contact with the police in enforcement situations and experienced the use or threat of force by police dropped from 2.3% to 1.9 %.  The U.S. Department of Justice reported that an estimated 776,000 persons experienced force or the threat of force by police at least once in 2008. This total represented an estimated 1.9% of the approximately 40.0 million people experiencing face-to-face police contact during 2008. 
For those who were confronted by the police for alleged unlawful conduct, the number reporting any use of force dropped significantly.  Despite this, many individuals and groups are contemplating a major change in public policy that will dramatically increase costs to the public and it will only impact the 2.8 % of the U.S. population who choose to use force against the police. 
What we know about police use of force
Here are some additional facts on police use of force:
- Known with substantial confidence is that police use force infrequently. The data indicate that a small percentage of police-public encounters involve force.
- Researchers and practitioners both tend to presuppose that the incidence of excessive force by police is very low. If use of force is uncommon, and civilian complaints are infrequent, and civilian injuries are few, then excessive force by police must be rare.
- Use of force is more likely to occur when police are dealing with persons under the influence of alcohol or drugs or with mentally ill individuals.
- A small proportion of officers are disproportionately involved in use-of-force incidents. 
Where should we focus our attention given the premise that police use of force is a serious public policy concern and that officers sometimes use excessive force?
Based on the fact that use-of-force incidents are most common in the context of inebriated and mentally ill individuals, we should:
- Develop and mandate progressive police training programs in how to safely handle those individuals.
- Identify behavioral characteristics common to those officers who use force disproportionately and manage that risk with early warning systems, remedial training, re-assignment and discipline.
Increasing risk without benefit is not reasonable or responsible public policy. Knowing that the police represent the first line of defense against those who seek to do us harm, we cannot judge their decisions with 20-20 hindsight. Doing so represents a profound injustice for the police themselves, something that the court clearly recognized in Graham v. Connor.
Any assertion that there is a “police problem” needs to be localized, not generalized, with a keen eye toward the character of the community itself. The police react to situations, they do not cause them nor do they have the ability to manipulate the context of most police use-of force-incidents. 
1. Selby N, Singeleton B, Flosi E. In context: Understanding police killings of unarmed civilians. CIAI Press, 2016.
2. Lawsuits cost money! Even when the municipality and police department is completely vindicated, the municipal government incurs enormous costs to defend the community.
3. Costs here include ongoing mental health and counseling services related to PTSD, substance abuse, worker’s compensation, medical leave, sick leave, and death benefits and ongoing pension costs for officers killed in the line of duty and their families.
4. Police officers have choices on where to work. They can shop around for the best departments more so than ever. Attracting competent officers into agencies where the already difficult work is made more so by these ambiguous UOF standards will mean the need to offer much more than the neighboring community in salary and benefits.
7. McEwen T. National Data Collection on Police Use of Force. U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs, 1996.
8. Use of Force by Police: Overview of National and Local Data. U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs, 1999.
About the Author
Patrick J. Solar, PhD, has been a police officer for nearly 30 years serving as a street officer, detective, sergeant, lieutenant and small town chief. His has a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s degree in public administration and a doctorate in political philosophy. He is also a graduate of the 188th session of the FBI National Academy.
He is currently engaged at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville where he teaches courses on policing and law enforcement at the undergraduate and graduate level. He is currently working on the development of a new process for police performance assessment reflecting the values of 21st century policing, and is the primary author of a new book titled “Police Community Relations: A conflict Management Approach,” coming soon from West Academic Publishing. Contact him at email@example.com.