Why your use-of-force model may be flawed (and how to fix it)

Use-of-force models based on continuum / scale / ladder / escalator designs often fail to take into account the “totality of the circumstances” perceived by the officer

An officer’s decision to use force is based on the subject’s actions. Of course, it’s preferable to resolve any arrest situation with verbal persuasion and good command presence but as we know that is not always in the suspect’s plan. 

If the suspect chooses not to heed the officer’s verbal directions, then the officer will most likely be forced to use some sort of defensive tactics technique or use a force option from our “toolbox” in order to overcome the suspect’s resistance. 

In this manner, our actions are really reactions to the situation into which the suspect has placed us.

Shortcomings of Existing Models
The method that the officer chooses will still need to be “objectively reasonable” based on several factors, including the: 

1.) Severity of the crime at issue
2.) Threat of the suspect
3.) Amount of resistance presented by the suspect

Other factors can be taken into the “totality of the circumstances” evaluation as well. These factors can be looked at as the “why” an officer responded with force and should be clearly articulated in any subsequent documentation.

When we teach our classes on use-of-force decision-making and force analysis, we focus on these several factors that should be kept in mind when describing the “why” an officer responded with force. These factors should create a reasonable balance with the force option(s) used by the officer, or the level/quantum of force used by the officer.  

Some agencies use a continuum / scale / ladder / escalator model to try to provide the officers with some guidance with the other side of the equation. The models will speak to only the tool or technique itself and try to artificially place those into some ranking system. Some models pair certain force options based only on the subject’s resistance level. 

Both models potentially fail to examine the “totality of the circumstances” perceived by the officer.

A More Complete Design
Another way of looking at the level/quantum of force used by the officer is to look at what force option was used and how it was used and then making a determination of what would be the expectation of injury. Looking only at the tool by itself (the “what”) would not give a full representation of the level/quantum of the force the officer used — one must also examine the “how” a tool is used.

Look at how a baton can be understood at different levels/quantum, based on the “how” it is used:

1.) A baton placed on the upper arm of a suspect and used to push check a suspect away would have very low expectation of injury
2.) That same baton swung at full impact speed striking the suspect on the forearm would have a “moderate level” expectation of injury including pain, bruising, and swelling
3.) That same baton swung at full impact speed striking the suspect in the head has a “high level” expectation of injury including unconsciousness, brain injury, and possibly death 

Another example is a takedown technique. The same full-speed takedown technique used on an unhandcuffed suspect on a grassy field would have a much different expectation of injury than on a handcuffed suspect on pavement. This type of evaluation truly embraces a “totality of the circumstances” approach.

The expected injury can be different than the actual injury. Take scenario #2 above as an example. The officer targeted (intention) the suspect’s arm. The suspect tries to duck under the baton strike. This action causes the baton to glance off the suspect’s upper shoulder and strike the suspect in the head. 

A head strike was not the intention of the officer but that is what happened. 

The analysis should remain with the intention of the officer and the expected injury. 

Next time you are conducting use-of-force decision-making training — or performing an analysis of an officer’s force response — try these concepts to see if they work for you. 

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