A letter to the American public: There is no such thing as 'the least' amount of physical force

The notion of the least amount of force sounds nice, which makes it deceptively easy to believe – however, the concept is inherently flawed


When responding with force, peace officers throughout the state of Washington are required to “use the least amount of physical force necessary to overcome resistance….” [1] In the past year, New Jersey reportedly imposed a prohibition against any use of physical force except as a last resort. While last resort refers to timing and least refers to amount, the ideas are born of the same mother and are, therefore, closely related. This article focuses on the least amount, but many of the principles apply equally to the last resort.  

The notion of the least amount of force sounds nice, which makes it deceptively easy to believe. However, the concept is inherently flawed. The contrivance defies logic and strict compliance is impossible. Imposed as a policy, or worse, as a law, it puts society’s protectors in an untenable predicament.

Except at a theoretical level and in a feel-good way, rule-makers who impose the concept of “least amount” don’t understand it. As evidence, they will struggle to answer the questions below. Try answering them yourself. 

Andrew Thomas, right, of the King Co. Sheriff's Dept. takes part in a training exercise at the Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission, Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in Burien, Wash. Washington state is embarking on a massive experiment in police reform and accountability following the protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd, with nearly a dozen new laws that took effect Sunday, July 25, but law enforcement officials remain uncertain about what they require in how officers might respond — or not respond — to certain situations, including active crime scenes and mental health crises.
Andrew Thomas, right, of the King Co. Sheriff's Dept. takes part in a training exercise at the Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission, Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in Burien, Wash. Washington state is embarking on a massive experiment in police reform and accountability following the protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd, with nearly a dozen new laws that took effect Sunday, July 25, but law enforcement officials remain uncertain about what they require in how officers might respond — or not respond — to certain situations, including active crime scenes and mental health crises. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warre)

► By definition, the least amount of physical force is lower than all other force options, and all other types and amounts of force. The term least completely excludes all other considerations. Right?

The answer must be yes. Otherwise, the word least already fails.  “Least” is a comparative value. It is exclusive, meaning it does not allow something else.

► Referring to any force used by law enforcement officers (LEOs), is that measured in foot-pounds, in joules, or something else?

► How do you measure force in order to compare one type or amount of force against another?

► Does the answer to measuring questions depend on the type and amount of resistance?  

► Do we actually measure force? Or do we compare it with other options?

► Am I correct to assume the least amount of physical force is a single option in a given situation?

► What is the least amount of physical force necessary to overcome resistance?

If you identify a single option or a specific amount of force as the least, all I need to do to disprove your answer is to reduce that by one foot-pound of energy and I have used less force than what you said.  

If you will tell me what the least amount of physical force is, I won’t waste time or tax-payer dollars training with other force-related techniques and tools. If you can identify the least amount of strength I will need, that will save me many hours in the gym, too.

► Does that single option depend on the amount and type of resistance?

► If the least is not a single option, do you mean there are multiple least amounts?

If multiple types or amounts of force are all the least, please list all the least options so I know what I can do as an LEO.

► Are all the leasts equally likely to cause the exact same amount of pain or injury?

► What are all the force options, types and amounts that are above the least?

► I need to know what is not the least, so I will avoid it. If you cannot (or will not) identify each of those, how can I know what not to do as an LEO?

► Everything you listed as being above the least is illegal for LEOs (at least in Washington) or a violation of policy (for agencies with “the least”-only verbiage), right? 

► Referring to “…necessary to overcome resistance,” what is your formula for determining how much physical force it will take to overcome X-amount of resistance?

► How can I know the answer to that calculation before I put my hands on the resisting person?

► How does a peace officer know before using it what will be the least amount of force that will work in the specific situation?

► What is the single option or amount of force immediately above the least?

► What is the amount of force immediately below the least?

There should be nothing below it because we are talking about the least.

► Is the least amount of physical force an objective standard? Or is it subjective?

► If subjective, is it from the officer’s perspective or from the resister’s perspective?

► If objective, is the least amount of force the same – the same technique applied with the same strength – facing a 125-pound suspect and a 250-pound suspect? Or does the least vary depending on the suspect’s size and strength?

► What about officer size? Is the least amount for Officer A, who is 6’4” and weighs 230 pounds, the same for Officer B, who is 5’0” and 115 pounds?  

In the combination of one’s size, strength, will to resist and skill, no two humans are the same. Individual officers also represent different combinations of these. Compounding that, an officer might be stronger at the beginning of a 12-hour shift than in their 11th hour. Human variables are infinite.

► Therefore, what is the tolerable variance in least amount for the unseen and ever-changing nature of human variables?

Without considering human variations, by itself, each environment is also unique. The lighting and topography, weather, surrounding hostilities or absence thereof, presence or imminence of another hazard (for instance, the struggle is on the edge of a cliff or on train tracks, or a hostile crowd is gathering), these and more combine to make no two environments identical.

► Therefore, what is the tolerable variance in least amount of force within the context of an infinite number of environmental differences?

► What is the definition of a failed or exhausted amount of force?

Without that definition established it is impossible to know when we are authorized to access the next option or another amount of force. (Would that be as the next least?)

► As a peace officer, must I first try force methods that are lower than the resistance I’m getting and fail at those before trying an incrementally higher degree of force to discover the least amount that actually works?

► Should I keep escalating failed options until one works? Is that how I identify the least?

► If not that, how do you propose I discover the least amount that works in the situation without exceeding the least?

► When does “physical force” begin? When a uniformed officer is physically present, is that a type of physical force?

► Is it considered physical force when a uniformed officer gives a verbal command to someone, ordering them to do something physical? (Such as, “Stop!” or “Drop the weapon!”)

► If verbal commands from a physically present LEO constitute a degree of force, is a polite request less force?

► If so, what tone of voice and what number of words represent the actual least amount of force?

If I say one word less than the amount you answered, especially if it works in the situation, I refute your estimate of the least amount.

► What is the first amount of force?

I assume we must start with that when it’s time to overcome resistance because no other amount or type is authorized.

► So, am I correct to assume that the first amount of physical force is the same as the least?

The least amount of force rule only allows the actual least, so we must start with the least and we cannot progress beyond or deviate from that specific type and amount of force. So, the least is also the first, the last and the only.  

► Are there legitimate exceptions to starting with the least amount of force?

The answer cannot be yes because the word itself only allows the least.

► When is it too late to respond with a force option that isn’t the least? When I’m dead?

► Can I use force that is greater than the least to protect myself from death?

► When I face deadly resistance (i.e., someone points a gun at me), is the least amount of force in that situation different compared to when an unarmed shoplifter pulls away from my grasp?

► If you said yes, then am I to understand “the least” is a moving target? It varies on a sliding scale and is situationally dependent?  

If yes, here we are again talking about an unlimited number of leasts. Therefore, there is no such thing as the least.  

► Is deadly force “the last resort?”

► Does that mean deadly force is “the least” amount of force in life-threatening situations?

► Within deadly force are there several potential levels or degrees, some of which are more lethal than others?

For instance, intentionally striking a pedestrian (who is pointing a gun at another person) with a police vehicle is considered deadly force. But striking a person at 6 mph is less deadly than striking them at 60 mph. An intentional baton strike to the head is considered deadly force. But that is less deadly than shooting the person in the head. In deadly force, there may be as many degrees and variations as we are willing to imagine.

► Which of all deadly force options is the least?

► Is there a tiered progression among deadly force options through which an officer must progress before they arrive at the least of all deadly options for that specific situation? (Strike the assailant at 6 mph. If that doesn’t work, strike him at 7 mph, and so on until the assailant submits?)

If you answered yes, please tell me how much time it takes to try all the various methods of deadly force before I identify the one that is the least in that situation. Please also inform me how long I have to live as I try all those gradually escalating methods.

► What studies exist that compare those two timelines (how long I have to live when someone is trying to kill me and how much time it takes to try all deadly force options)?

► What studies did you consider to inform your support of the least theory?

Not responding to the scene is an option for police. Perhaps a no-show is the actual least. The no-response option is increasingly attractive to LEOs working under the unwinnable constraints of “the least” theory. Leaving at the first indication of resistance is another low option, but it is greater (more force?) than not going in the first place. Are these “least” options what the American people want from their protectors?

Any rule that requires the least amount of physical force is ignorant and myopic, no matter how well-intended. It is championed by the obtuse and embraced by the blissfully ignorant. Complying with the least theory is impossible because for any given situation I don’t know what the least amount of physical force is! And neither do the good people who put the concept onto paper.

Reference

1. ESSHB 1310, Section 3, (2)(b), effective July 25, 2021, Chapter 324, Laws of 2021.

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