The Use of Force Continuum

thKate Flora here, writing today about the use of force continuum, which will be explained, a bit, in the Wikipedia excerpts below. Before I became a crime writer, I thought that what writers did was to sit at their desks, exercise their imaginations, and make things up. But whether I’m writing cops as my main characters–as in the case of my Joe Burgess series, or a civilian, or amateur detective, as I do in my Thea Kozak series, there are many instances in which I need to know how the police function, and knowing when an officer can fire a gun is part of that.

At some point, several years ago, I met a police officer at the gym, and started peppering him with Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 4.20.26 PMquestions. His response was to encourage me to attend a citizen’s police academy. Since my town didn’t offer one, he arranged for me to attend the one in the city where he worked. One night, part of the lecture on patrol procedure was on the use of force continuum…that system cops use to assess what level of force is appropriate, and necessary, in any given situation. I don’t remember what they told us about some of the less threatening situations, but I clearly remember the scenario where someone is coming at you with a knife, and they asked: At what point do you draw your weapon? At twenty feet, they told us, the knife-wielding assailant can get to you before you can get your gun out of your holster.

Something else they told us, which has stayed in my mind ever since, is that that officer, in a dangerous situation, wants to go home alive at the end of the shift.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, because of the events in Ferguson. Because they’re talking Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 4.20.50 PMabout convening a grand jury way before they can possible have gathered the essential facts. Because there is so much angry talk about shooting an unarmed boy dead in the street when a detailed assessment of the situation is very complicated. I’ve been thinking about some of the videos police officers have shown me, and about how incredibly fast these things happen.

I’ve also been thinking about my husband’s question–a question that seems to have been fueled by watching too many westerns where the sharpshooter zaps the gun out of the bad guy’s hand. And about what we’ve been told when crime writers go shooting with the cops–always aim for center mass. If you’re at the point where you’re going to shoot, you want them to go down and stay down. Try for an arm or a leg and the person might not go down. Or stay down. Never mind how truly difficult it is to aim and fire under stress or to hit a moving target. So no, dear, if you’re at the point where you’re going to shoot, you’re shooting to stop that person.

So here’s a brief discussion of the use of force continuum, plus a bit from the Supremes on what the after the fact test is.

From Wikipedia:

A use of force continuum is a standard that provides law enforcement officials & security officers (such as police officers, probation officers, or corrections officers) with guidelines as to how much force may be used against a resisting subject in a given situation. In certain ways it is similar to the military rules of engagement. The purpose of these models is to clarify, both for officers and citizens, the complex subject of use of force by law officers. They are often central parts of law enforcement agencies’ use of force policies. Although various criminal justice agencies have developed different models of the continuum, there is no universal standard model.

The first examples of use of force continuum were developed in the 1980s and early 1990s. Early models were depicted in various formats, including graphs, semicircular “gauges“, and linear progressions. Most often the models are presented in “stair step” fashion, with each level of force matched by a corresponding level of subject resistance, although it is generally noted that an officer need not progress through each level before reaching the final level of force. These progressions rest on the premise that officers should escalate and de-escalate their level of force in response to the subject’s actions.

Although the use of force continuum is used primarily as a training tool for law officers, it is also valuable with civilians, such as in criminal trials or hearings by police review boards. In particular, a graphical representation of a use of force continuum is useful to a jury when deciding whether an officer’s use of force was reasonable.

The United States Supreme Court, in the case of Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, (1989), held that when engaged in situations where the use of force is necessary to effect an arrest, or to protect an officer’s life or that of another, a law enforcement officer must act as other reasonable officers would have acted in a similar, tense, rapidly evolving situation.[6] Such situations, once known as use of force incidents, are now commonly referred to as response to resistance incidents, because a law enforcement officer must respond to resistance offered by another. In order to determine what actions officers find reasonable in similar situations, some experts utilize surveys with law enforcement officers, who are provided with certain scenarios to determine what actions they would take if placed in certain situations. Experts such as Samuel Faulkner, former instructor at the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy, not only surveys police officers, he has spoken to and surveyed, civilian review boards, high school and college government classes, Rotary Club and Kiwanis Clubs, Optimist Clubs, emergency managers, and even some chapters of the ACLU. Knowing what other officers and citizens deem reasonable helps to craft a solid response to resistance continuum.[7]

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 3.52.15 PMAnd one thing I’ve learned, by spending some hours today reading up on this, is that there is a movement now from the step-like format of the continuum to a use of force wheel, and much discussion about whether having to analyze the steps in an escalating situation might be seriously detrimental to officer safety.


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10 Responses to The Use of Force Continuum

  1. J.M. Griffin says:

    I spent a year with the Providence Police Department learning the ins and outs of community policing and it’s been useful in my writing. Good for you!

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Excellent work, Kate! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Ruth Nixon says:

    Thank you Kate Flora for this timely piece. Where would we be without the police, I for one don’t want to find out.I wonder it the young man hadn’t robbed a store and he had nothing to be guilty of, things would have turned out different. I also can’t understand how people setting fires and looting can expect my respect in how they want to solve this problem.

  4. Thank you Kate for your extremely insightful article. Through my years of practice in Emergency Medicine, I have seen many instances where police have been injured by not reacting quickly enough. Police are not given the option to respond by the fight or flight instinct. They are responsible for public safety and fleeing a threatening situation is not an acceptable option. Without making a judgment on the current events, but with the understanding that policemen and women are human beings with fears like all of us, there will always be situations when over-reactions occur due to deep emotional responses. Separating these unfortunate situations from profiling or bias can be a daunting task.

  5. Brian Thiem says:

    Very well said, Kate. I’ve been tempted to write about this myself, but I’m far too emotional to do so. In my career, I investigated many officer-involved shootings, and then later in my career, as the homicide lieutenant, managed many OIS scenes and investigations. After the police department completed the investigation, it always took the DA’s Office at least two months to determine whether the shooting was legally justified or not. If not justified, they would file charged against the involved officer. Yet in this situation, people were clamoring for the officer’s head hours after the shooting. And they were blaming the police for not having immediate answers.

    The problem with the old “step” model for appropriate force was officers were expected to rule out a lower level before resorting to a higher level of force. In many situations that is inappropriate; if facing a charging man with a knife, the officer cannot think, “my pepper spray might not stop him quick enough….” If he things this way, the officer will die. Therefore, he must immediately use the appropriate force, which in this case, if the man is charging at an officer with a knife and within than 21 feet (seven steps), the appropriate force for the officer to use is deadly force applied with his firearm.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Brian…I get frustrated that no one is waiting, or discussing the stuff I blogged about today, and decided I can’t be such a chicken that I have no opinions about this.


  6. Lee Lofland says:

    Kate, I’m anxious to have you shoot in the simulation training session at the WPA. It’s an eye-opener, for sure, and you’ll quickly see how different it is to actually be placed in those moments where you have only a fraction of a second to react. I say react because there’s really no time to stop, think, and then formulate a course of action. We can sit in a classroom or patrol car and listen to officers talk about this stuff all day long. It is not, however, the same as experiencing it first hand.

    A quick FYI – We no longer use the term “force continuum.” A continuum implies that there is some distinct path an must follow when involved in escalating or de-escalating levels of force. The proper term is “force options,” or one meaning the same. Typically, there is no one right option regarding force. The method only needs to be reasonable at the time of the incident as it is perceived by the officer.

    See you soon!

    • MCWriTers says:

      Lee…I thought I pointed out things were changing from the use of force continuum because of the risks of delay…

      And watching me shoot a gun is hilarious. I’m utterly terrified. Maybe the simulation won’t be so scary?

      BTW, you guys are my training officers for my writing…and I try to get it right.

  7. Janet Mendelsohn says:

    Your post is informative and illuminating on this complex issue. Thanks. Here’s another perspective on these situations. This came via the NT Times:

  8. Shannon says:

    Social media is such a sucky thing in the instance of things like Ferguson and the Kajieme Powell shooting. An author I “know” posted something related to the Powell shooting on Facebook with his opinion and I voiced my very different opinion. And I’m afraid he has lost a reader because he refused to listen to anything said about the 21-foot rule, among other things pertaining to being an LEO, and I’d actually rather read authors who are open-minded and not pig-headed and judgmental.

    Of course, what I didn’t tell him while he was calling me ridiculous, is that not only am I a librarian (in charge of material selection and recommendations) but I am also the wife of a police officer, and I hope that my husband comes home at the end of every shift. There’s always the possibility that he won’t and I learned long ago to accept that. I know that if he took a life, it would not have been a trigger happy response as so many people are claiming these cops to be. I’m not sure anyone in their right mind could actually take the life of someone else and it not have an affect on them, even though that is what is being portrayed in the media.

    I blame the media too, for jumping all over this and blowing things way out of proportion before all the facts are in. Sensationalism at its finest has definitely been at work over the whole Ferguson thing.

    The Chief my husband had that made the most profound impact on his career once told him, “A cop can work their entire life and never earn the amount of money they make during their career. They can also work a minute and earn every dime .”

    I commend you for opening up a discussion, even though so many people are hesitant to talk about it. I also applaud you for getting in the thick and seeing just what our men and women in blue do. Most of the time, it’s really boring. And then it’s not, and armchair quarterbacks come out and start making judgments about what was done wrong (like they know!), get my feathers all ruffled, and lose me as a reader (and buyer.)

    I stand behind the thin blue line and will continue to do so.

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