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5 use of force studies cops should know

Research backs up the reality that unlawful shootings by police are extremely rare; here’s what you need to know

Can we make the skeptic believe the realities of police use of force?

You know it. I know it. Unlawful shootings by police are extremely rare. The question is, can we make the skeptic believe the realities of police use of force?

Line officers, police leaders and public information officers can get educated about the facts behind such encounters if they read these studies.

1. Klahm C, Tillyer R. Understanding police use of force: A review of the evidence. Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, 2010, 7(2) 214-239.

When researchers want to know if other researchers have arrived at similar conclusions, one method is to do a meta-analysis.

In Klahm and Tillyer’s review, the reader can conclude that many of the assumptions about what precipitates a police officer’s decision to employ force – such a race, nature of the offense, and the number of officers present – are not universally true.

Force encounters are an anomaly in police conduct, influenced by so many factors – many of them unresearched – that prediction is impossible.

Core quote: “Based on the empirical evidence summarized, it appears that few suspect and encounter characteristics are highly influential in determining use of force by police.”

2. Police Executive Research Forum for the National Institute of Justice. Comparing Safety Outcomes in Police Use-Of Force Cases for Law Enforcement Agencies That Have Deployed Conducted Energy Devices and A Matched Comparison Group That Have Not: A Quasi-Experimental Evaluation, September 2009.

This study compared multiple agencies, some of which used conducted energy devices (CED) and some of which did not, in nine categories covering death and injury to subjects and police officers. The outcome of the research is a clear justification of these devices.

Core quote: “LEAs should consider the utility of the CED as a way to avoid up-close combative situations and reduce injuries to officers and suspects.”

3. Phoenix Project: Predictors of Suspect Use of Force, April 2001.

This study is valuable because of the number of factors examined, and the author’s comparisons to other research.

Three general categories are summarized: those factors that have no apparent influence in predicting use of force, those that are inconsistent and those that are consistently associated with use of force during arrest situations.

Among the interesting findings is that the number of officers at the scene is not a predictor of less force, thus the critique that an officer is at fault for not waiting for backup is refutable.

Core quote: “Groups are likely frustrated by their inability to obtain complete and reliable information on incidents of police use of force.”

4. Restraint in the Use of Deadly Force. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 2012, 81:6.

This insightful article gives a statistical glimpse at how many times law officers were legally entitled to use deadly force but choose not to.

Written within the context of the FBI’s statistics on officers killed in the line of duty, a key finding is that while using deadly force is a rarity, the majority of police officers have been in situations where they had a deadly force decision to make.

Core quote: “The authors’ experiences have revealed that a large number of officers have been in multiple situations in which they could have used deadly force, but resolved the incident without doing so and while avoiding serious injury.”

5. National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Use of Force by Police Overview of National and Local Data, October 1999.

This report is a good summary of use of force research from several perspectives, including citizen complaints.

Core quote: “About 1 percent of people who had face-to-face contacts with police said that officers used or threatened force. In 7,512 adult custody arrests…fewer than one out of five arrests involved police use of physical force. That can be considered a low rate in view of the study’s broad definition of force.”

There are lots of good resources on this issue, as will certainly be pointed out in readers’ comments. Most research tells us the following:

  • We need more research;
  • The variables are too many to precisely define;
  • Police officers in the United States are doing an amazing job!
Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.