Using force in the administration of justice and restoring peace and order is often necessary under certain circumstances. The law enforcers often consider the need of force in various cases, such as when apprehending hostile individuals and in self defense. There are many controversies involved in the use of force made by the law enforcers, and it can sometimes generate news headlines and is often times described as an abuse of power and authority among the police officers. The use of force is viewed as a necessary means of administering the law, but it can convey a different meaning to the community. While the law enforcers are authorized by law to exercise force whenever necessary, such practice is often subject to criticism with heightened concern from the public. This research paper has the objective of understanding the use of police force by the authorities, underpinning the extent by which force may be executed by the law enforcers and the means by which it may be enforced by the police authorities. This paper will also present the implications of the use of force in the enforcement of the law and the public perception to it, its effects to the community and how reforms in policing need to be improved, with emphasis on how force may be executed that will be more acceptable to the community in general.
The law enforcers, as a general rule, are authorized by the law to use force whenever necessary under certain circumstances. The National Institute of Justice (2015) indicated that there is no universal definition on the use of force. While most police agencies have their own guidelines on when and how force may be exerted against an unwilling or hostile individual, it is difficult to provide a set of rules that can be universally implemented. What the law requires is for the law enforcers to apply a force that is only necessary that can mitigate resistance and harm against oneself and the public. Ohlin and Remington (1993) described the application of force as one of the most important and difficult decisions that every police officer must make. The failure to make a good judgment call whether to use force or not can result in the escape of an offender or may result in some serious harm to other people and even to the police officer himself. Police officers are, however, trained and educated in the use of force under numerous circumstances when it is appropriate, such as when making an arrest, controlling an unruly combatant and restraining hostile individuals (Adams, et al., 1999).
The extent by which force may be considered as lawful and valid will depend upon the circumstances. In the case of Plumhoff v Rickard, the court upheld the doctrine of qualified immunity to the police officers who shot Rickard in his vehicle who was trying to flee. The law enforcers were sued for allegedly using excessive force. The court, however, ruled that the police officers were immune from suit under the doctrine of qualified immunity because they have acted in their official capacity as law enforcers at the time of the shooting. The court dismissed the allegation of using excessive force, justifying that the victim was still attempting to flee and the police officers have reasonably fired because Rickard can pose as a threat to public safety and they can actually continue firing until such threat to the public ceases (IACP Legal Officers Section, 2014). The Supreme Court also emphasized the need to give a warning prior to using a deadly force whenever feasible. In the case of Tennessee v Garner, the court emphasized that the use of force is not allowed unless it is necessary where a suspect poses as a danger that can cause a threat to death or physical injury to others or to the police officers. The standard rule observed by the court in ruling whether the use of force is lawful or not include the necessity and reasonableness of the force applied.
In reviewing the extent of force commonly used by the law enforcers in the administration of justice, most literatures describe that the consequent injuries are usually minor, such as bruising and abrasions. The use of force is usually exerted by the law enforcers when they are dealing with individuals who are intoxicated with alcohol or drugs. A greater force is also used against male suspects than their female counterpart, and a lesser force is usually applied to an older suspect. Physical restraint is very common among younger individuals, but the force used is usually non-lethal (Klahm and Tillyer, 2010). Many researchers also tried to explore the encounter characteristics that may influence the use of force by the authorities. Those in possession of a deadly weapon are likely to have force applied against them. This is justified by the serious threat they pose to the public and to the arresting officers. On the other hand, a research conducted by McCluskey, Terrill and Paoline (2005) indicated that the possession of a weapon does not influence the likelihood of police officers to use force.
In view of the standard that the law enforcement agencies may formulate in terms of setting forth the guidelines in the use of force by their law enforcers, the departmental policies must be guided by the requirements imposed by the US Constitution. The application of the Fourth Amendment in jurisprudence recognizes the right of every police officer to use some degree of force in order to implement the law and make an arrest. This is not an absolute right that the authorities may exercise, however, for it is subject to the rule of objective reasonableness. It provides that the amount of force to use will depend upon the nature of the resistance and the attending circumstances. It can be noted that the good intention and motivation of a law enforcer cannot offset the application of an unreasonable force that will make the authorities liable for the injuries sustained by another. This strongly indicates that the authorities charge with the enforcement of the law are subjected to legal implications and liability whenever they go beyond the exercise of reasonable force while performing their duties (Ross, 2013). Thus, the supreme court held that the level of force that the authorities may lawfully use should conform to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment and must be based on necessity and reasonableness. The implementation of departmental policy concerning the use of force is important in order to avoid the unbridled exercise of authority of the law enforcers and removing their discretionary decision on what force to apply under certain circumstances (Payne, 2012).
The use of excessive force is a common subject of legal controversies. Most suits involving the use of force invoke the violation of the victim’s right as provided by the Fourth Amendment. In deciding the legal controversy involving the complaint of excessive force conducted by the law enforcers, the court usually examines various factors, including the nature of the offense and the resistance given by the arrested citizen, the harm caused to the citizen and the amount of force used by the police, just to name a few. The objective reasonableness test is always applied by the court when examining the lawful use of force by the authorities. Greene (2007) noted that there is no standard definition of excessive force because there are complexities involved when determining what a reasonable force is. The difficulty usually involves the application of the discretion in judgment of a law enforcer where the risk of misjudgment may occur. The use of excessive force is a serious concern that may implicate the reputation and integrity of the law enforcement agencies. The public usually associates the use of excessive force as brutality. This is the reason why Alpert and Smith (1999) call for the necessity of making a distinction between violence that is extralegal and abusive and one that necessarily results as a consequence of police incompetence because the motivations of the law enforcer greatly vary. The latter may involve the occurrence of unnecessary violence caused by a police officer who is incapable of dealing with the circumstances and hastily resorted to the use of excessive force. Brutality is usually not present when the use of excessive force arises from an officer’s incompetence without the intention of using force beyond what is reasonably expected under the circumstances.
In order to guide the courts in determining the validity of the use of force, the Supreme Court provided in its ruling in the case of Graham v Connor the standards to use in measuring the lawfulness and validity of the use of force by asking three questions. First is to ask what is the nature of the crime and its severity that the police believes one is committing or about to commit, next is to ask whether the suspect’s behavior appears to pose a serious threat to the officers and the public, and lastly to ask whether the suspect actively resisted an arrest or attempted to escape. The use of excessive force degrades the integrity of the police agencies in the community, which calls for reforms within the administrative level when implementing an effective policing measure that will improve the public perception and confidence. Ekins (2014) noted that about 72% of Americans see the police authorities with positive perspectives, while 47% believe that there is an increasing rate of use of excessive force by the police. However, the public perception about the police authorities widely differs in the regions. It can be noted that the negative public perceptions on the use of excessive force by the authorities have fueled many riots and resistance and has influenced the increase in the number of lawsuits against the law enforcers. As a result of the reduced confidence of the public to the police officers, it can affect the law enforcer’s morale and may likely encourage the tension between the community members and the law enforcers.
Administrative reforms are needed for an effective policing that will restore the public trust and confidence to the law enforcement agencies. The negative perception regarding the use of force as an abuse of authority has a negative implication in terms of organizational stability and police leadership (Kelling, Wasserman, and Williams, 1988). One of the important measures taken by the authorities is to evaluate and assess the outcomes of the methods in the use of force in policing. Considering that the use of force is a necessary measure for the effective administration and enforcement of the law, the authorities considered the use of other tools and methods that will cause minimal injuries to the persons being arrested. The police traditionally uses minimal force using their hands and arms in gaining control to a suspect. However, more aggressive suspects need a much greater force to be restrained. The use of tools like a Taser and pepper spray has proven to be an effective method of subduing an aggressively resistant suspect with the least harm to both the suspect and arresting officers. Research studies focusing on the effects of the use of force to the police authorities reveal that about 10% of the law enforcers also sustain physical injuries (Smith and Petrocelli, 2002), while some reports indicate between 25% and 38% (Alpert and Dunham, 2004). In a study conducted by Macdonald, et al (2009), they concluded that the use of less lethal weapons in lieu of physical force has dramatically reduced the number of injuries sustained by both the civilians and the police authorities. The study compared the resulting injuries arising from the use of physical force, such as using canines and batons, as against the use of less lethal weapon like the pepper spray and conducted energy devices like the Taser. The use of less lethal weapon is also a feasible solution against the growing concern in public health that involves the medical attendance of police officers and civilians arising from the use of force that was executed in the administration and enforcement of the law to the community.
The police authorities usually encounter unique situations every time in the performance of their duties. Each situation is different and presents a widely diverse condition, from minor encounters to deadly ones. The ability of the authorities to enforce the necessary and reasonable force in each situation will usually depend upon their training, education and exposure to a certain police culture. The responsibility of providing adequate training to the law enforcers lies upon the police executives who have the responsibility of introducing and emphasizing police accountabilities to their subordinates. It can be gleaned from the efforts made by police leaders to administer certain mechanisms that will control the actions of their police force by setting certain standards and guidelines that can help prevent police brutality and the exercise of abuse of authority. Command and control systems are regarded to be an effective approach in resolving the tension involved in policing (Kelling, Wasserman, and Williams, 1988). This approach in reducing the use of excessive force by the law enforcers have been viewed to be successful in reducing corruption and the political control of officers, and improves the qualifications and training of the police force. It also implements a constraint in the authority of the police to use excessive force and produces a more equitable police service. The improved capacity of the police officers in responding to riots and disturbances manifest more accountability that helped reduce the tension between the authorities and the community.
Police culture sometimes dictates the use of force by the authorities. Because the police has the serious role in fighting crimes, it has been a culture to apply physical or deadly force when the circumstance calls for it. Police culture is usually complemented with ethics, especially when the functions and duties of law enforcers involve wide powers and discretion and every decision they make could affect the life, liberty and safety of the public. This makes the establishment of ethical standards in every police department important in order to maintain the integrity the law enforcement agencies and to retain public trust and confidence in policing. The failure to implement certain ethical standards on the use of force can lead to abuse of power, misconduct and the excessive use of force. The conduct of assessment on how the community perceives the police authorities is another measure undertaken by the police executives to make their services more responsive to the needs of the community. This helps them evaluate the extent of misconduct performed by their police force and be able to address it (Sullivan, Rosen, Schulz, and Haberfeld, 2005).
In an effort to bring the police department closer to the community and mitigate the negative perception of the public to the use of force, the concept of community policing was introduced. It involves the collaboration between the police and the community that identifies and solves community problems (Bureau of Justice Assistance, 1994). It aims to bring the community members together in helping implement peace and order as an expanded outlook for crime control and prevention. The community becomes allies of the police authorities and they are given an opportunity to voice their concerns and to create a constructive partnership with the law enforcers that build trust and confidence between them. With the community involved as guardians of law and order, they learn to overcome their apathy and begin to understand the nature of crime control and prevention. By establishing a collaborative effort with the community, a good relationship is established that mitigate the need of using excessive force in making arrests and implementing of law and order in the community by the police authorities (Kappeler and Gaines, 2011). Community policing was able to reduce the fear of the community towards police brutality or the use of excessive force because of the good relationship between the law enforcers and community members that releases the barrier of tensed relationship among them. There is also a better perception from the public in the use of less lethal weapons, such as a Taser, stun gun or pepper sprays in community policing.
Other methods utilized by the law enforcement agencies to mitigate the fear of the public to the risk of using excessive force by the police authorities are conducting training that is focused on preventing the unwarranted use of force by police officers, such as learning the skills of finding alternatives for using lethal weapons and enhancing community relations by teaching them to show respect and treating the citizens with dignity. Intensive police trainings are viewed to be an effective countermeasure against the use of unnecessary force as it improves the competence of police officers in responding to certain circumstances in so far as when the use of force is more appropriate.
In conclusion, the use of force is one of the fundamental functions in law enforcement. It gives the law enforcers a wide latitude of discretion in terms of assessing the necessity of using force under a given situation. A good judgment call is necessary in exercising the right to use force during unique and different police encounters. However, if the exercise of this authority is unchecked, it can result in the abuse of authority, leading to the use of excessive force that is perceived by the public as brutality and abuse of power. In order to protect the integrity of the law enforcement agencies, the citizens and even the arrested suspects or criminals, the implementation of standards to regulate the exercise of the authority to the use of force must be in place. This can be controlled and regulated by court decisions, federal and state statutes, municipal policies and administrative regulations (Hontz, 1999). These regulations should be implemented as part of the regular police administration and in promoting accountabilities and ethical standards among the police officers.
While the law enforcers are given the qualified immunity from suit in the lawful exercise of their duties, the court retains its power to decide whether the use of force is justified under the circumstances. Those who have been aggrieved by the unreasonable use of force by the authorities may invoke the constitutional protection given by the Fourth Amendment. The use of force is under the scrutiny of the courts by using the standards of necessity and reasonableness test under a given circumstance. Because the unreasonable use of force can taint the integrity and reputation of the law enforcement agencies, it is necessary to employ measures that will mitigate the use of excessive force. Such methods and tools that were found to be effective that tend to regain the trust of the public include the use of less lethal weapons, improving the competence of the police officers in dealing with the citizens with ethical standards and accountability in mind and community policing.
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