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Mastering use of force management: A guide for police supervisors

Front-line supervisors play a key role in managing use-of-force incidents by shaping training and upholding standards in police agencies


To supervise the effective use of force, you must have a solid foundational knowledge of the topic.

Photo/Tyson Kilbey

It is everyone’s responsibility in a police agency to ensure officers use effective, objectively reasonable force in the course of their duties to serve their communities. New and experienced officers and trainers, all the way to the head of the agency, can play an active role in ensuring the agency’s culture produces best practices while avoiding unnecessary injuries and lawsuits.

But there is no more critical role in this equation than that of the front-line supervisor. Not only are they often present when there is a need for a response to resistance, but sergeants and corporals also help train, mentor, coach and provide a line of communication to command staff. First-line supervisors influence through example and by the expectations they set and enforce. They are the gatekeepers of professionalism and success within an organization. A first-line supervisor who handles use-of-force incidents ineffectively is an absolute recipe for disaster.

In this article, I highlight how supervisors can successfully navigate the management of use-of-force encounters. While the primary focus is the supervisor role, many of these principles can also be used by officers and command staff.

Have a solid foundational knowledge of the topic

To supervise the effective use of force, you must have a solid foundational knowledge of the topic. Too often, an officer is promoted to sergeant and expected to supervise use-of-force incidents, yet they need additional training to do so successfully. Fair or not, it is up to the individual to ensure they understand the use of force. Here is where to start: First, Supreme Court landmark cases, including Graham v. Connor, Kingsley v. Hendrickson, Tennessee v. Garner and Scott v. Harris. There are others, but these four provide the best jumping-off point.

Supervisors should also familiarize themselves with their specific state laws about the use of force by law enforcement. Finally, supervisors must be aware of their department’s policy regarding the use of force.

Prepare for use-of-force encounters

Supervisors should proactively prepare themselves and their officers for use-of-force encounters. This can be accomplished in several ways. Roll call discussions, incident video reviews, training sessions including hands-on, classroom and online-based training, and mock scenarios are all effective ways to prepare officers for the use of force and should be frequently utilized. Essential concepts such as the duty to intervene, communication and de-escalation techniques, the challenges faced when dealing with those under the influence of alcohol or drugs or with mental health issues, and the awareness of pre-assault indicators should be interwoven into all use of force discussions.

When it comes to the actual management of use-of-force incidents, the topic is so robust that it’s impossible to cover everything in a single article. However, I can emphasize that as a supervisor, it’s your job to remember the important details that can easily be forgotten in the heat of the moment. Have emergency medical services been contacted? Has dispatch been updated? If the subject has been handcuffed, can we position them in a recovery position? Asking these basic but essential questions can make the difference between a successfully handled event and a legal battle over unconstitutional force.

Incident review

Clearly articulating the incident and consistently reviewing use of force incidents after the fact is an essential function of a first-line supervisor. The most important aspects to keep in mind are the need for clear and factual descriptions that realistically depict the incident as opposed to the basic cookie-cutter conclusory language that many inexperienced officers tend to use. For example, instead of writing that a subject was resistive and non-compliant, a better articulation would be the subject yelled, “I’m not going to jail,” while blading their stance and raising both arms. The first description is generic and leaves more room for individual interpretation, while the second more clearly illustrates the facts and circumstances of the situation.

No matter how long you have been in this profession, there is significant value in reviewing your performance in use-of-force encounters. For supervisors, this extends to your own performance and that of those you supervise. As I mentioned earlier, the supervisor role is the most important; many people count on your leadership. Train hard and be safe!

Tyson Kilbey has more than 25 years of experience in law enforcement, consisting of three years as a hotel security supervisor and 22 years as a deputy sheriff for the Johnson County (Kansas) Sheriff’s Office. He has worked in the detention, patrol and training divisions, SWAT and accident investigation units. He is currently a captain of the Training Unit for the Sheriff’s Office.

Tyson authored “Personal Defense Mastery,” a follow-up to his first book “Fundamental Handgun Mastery.” Tyson is a Jiu-Jitsu black belt under UFC Pioneer Royce Gracie. He has numerous defensive tactics and firearms certifications and has received multiple awards in competitive shooting and grappling. He is the Match Director for the Brandon Collins Memorial Shootout, a shooting competition named in honor of a deputy who died in the line of duty. Proceeds from the match go to charitable causes.