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Reviewing Use of Force A Systematic Approach.

With more and more frequency, law enforcement agencies across the country are asked to scrutinize their officers' use of force. The requests for use-of-force review may come from many different venues. A citizen complaint, an administrative inquiry, or a training method represent some of the vehicles that may transport a request for use-of-force review. In order to accomplish this task efficiently and thoroughly, law enforcement administrators may find a guide to systematically review officer reports useful.

If administrators plan to hold their officers to a specific standard of review, they must share these standards in advance so that their officers may use them as a guide for event documentation. Administrators must make the review standards as clear and concise as possible to help their officers make informed and effective decisions. Dividing officer activity into three distinct areas that officers must address in their actions, as well as in their reports, gives officers a structured format to follow. Moreover, situations that require police use of force to gain and maintain control have a before, a during, and an after, which can constitute the three areas for systematic review.


In the state of Wisconsin, a Disturbance Resolution Model [1] addresses these three areas. The first, identified as approach considerations, deals with the before part of the conflict. The second centers on the during part and includes intervention options and force option continuum. The final area, or after segment, involves follow-through considerations.

The Beloit, Wisconsin, Police Department has implemented this three-step systematic approach, along with evaluation criteria, to use-of-force review. The department has used this procedure on all use-of-force incidents for several years and has found it a successful review tool.

Approach Considerations

The approach considerations segment of the review process includes several areas that officers should consider before the conflict occurs. Decision making examines the question of legal justification. Do the officers have the legal right to be where they are and doing what they are doing? If not, critics may regard any use of force as excessive. [2] Desirability covers enforcement supply and demand. Do the officers have adequate resources to deal successfully with the disturbance?

Tactical considerations deal with the officers' abilities to assess threat potential and determine if they can employ safe and efficient tactics to gain control. Do the officers have prior knowledge of the subjects? Do they have a tactical plan? Are they familiar with the surroundings?

The final phase of approach considerations, tactical evaluation, involves how the officers determine the amount or type of threat posed, and how the officers interpret and perceive the threat. Subject body language and level of resistance or tension, as well as officer/subject factors, such as sex, age, and physical size, illustrate tactical evaluations.

Intervention Options

Once officers have satisfied the approach considerations aspect, they proceed to the intervention options part of the review process. This is the actual use-of-force stage, or the during part of the conflict. Officers must use only the level and amount of force reasonably necessary to accomplish a law enforcement objective. In Graham v. Connor, [3] the Supreme Court ruled that officers can apply force only in a "reasonably objective" manner. The factors that generally determine objectively reasonable use of force include the severity of the crime at issue, the suspect's imminent threat to the safety of officers or others, and the suspect's active resistance or attempt to evade arrest by flight. [4]

Force Option Continuum

Officers choose intervention options from a force continuum, a use-of-force guide that progresses from the least amount of force to the greatest amount of force. Many different types of a force option continuum exist. Every law enforcement agency should establish one that fits their needs and use it as part of the review process. [5] The Beloit Police Department uses the state of Wisconsin Force Option Continuum. [6]

The first level on this force continuum is presence. The mere presence of an officer, in uniform or in a marked patrol vehicle, constitutes a type of force. It also can include an officer's authoritative attitude and demeanor.

Next comes dialog. What officers say and how they say it proves crucial. Officers should ensure that all communication has failed before using other force options. Did the officers attempt to calm the conflict and generate compliance with good tactical communication? Or, did the officers escalate the conflict by lack of tactical communication skills?

Empty-hand control represents the third level of this force choice continuum. In Wisconsin, this also includes oleoresin capsicum (OC or pepper) spray. At this point, the continuum becomes "hands-on." For example, this level includes a range of actions, from a simple escort position, or firm physical grasp, to an active hand or foot strike.

The next level covers intermediate weapons, including impact weapons such as a baton. Officers employ such weapons to incapacitate dangerous subjects who have refused to obey other commands or tactics.

Finally, the last level of the force choice continuum--deadly force--denotes the intentional use of a firearm or other instrument resulting in a high probability of death. Behavior that has caused, or imminently threatens to cause, death or great bodily harm to an officer or other individuals justifies the use of deadly force by an officer. [7]

During the review process, evaluators examine the force used or threatened against the officer and compare it to the force choice the officer employed. Evaluators can use the continuum as a guide to judge whether an officer's force choice was appropriate, ineffective, or excessive.

While reviewing use-of-force incidents, evaluators should remember that officers have some latitude in deciding to use force. First, officers do not have to apply each force option to find the right force choice. Officers should discard force choices they deem inappropriate or ineffective and skip to the force choice that will accomplish control of a subject. Generally, officers should escalate up the continuum to gain control and deescalate to an appropriate level to maintain control. The escalation usually involves officers going one level above the force displayed at the time in order to gain control of a situation.

In addition, force choice options are individual in nature based upon the training, knowledge, skills, and abilities of the officers involved. Two officers, in similar events, may choose different force options. This remains acceptable as long as their perceptions of the threat and the force they used against that threat prove reasonable and justified.

Follow-through Considerations

Officers can spoil the best approach and intervention considerations by poor or nonexistent follow through. Aftercare of a subject remains an officer's responsibility. Failure to provide it is unacceptable. Failure to document it denies officers credit for good work. Follow through begins the moment officers have established and maintained control of a situation and contains several aspects.


Stabilization usually becomes the first aspect of follow through. In this phase, officers apply restraints, if appropriate. Officers should document the application of restraints and the use of safety locks on handcuffs.


Officers should physically check and ask the subject about injury and provide any medical care up to their level of training. Officers should procure additional emergency medical services if the need exceeds their ability to care for the subject. After a conflict where officers use force, such humane actions can help to rebuild the subject's self-esteem. It also shows that officers use force as a professional tool and not a personal vendetta.


Officers should search the subject and the scene as needed. Most use-of-force practitioners agree that searching should follow, not precede, handcuffing.


As officers escort the subject from the point of control and handcuffing to a designated location, such as a patrol vehicle, they should note the subject's level of mobility. For example, if officers employed a baton to control an actively resisting subject, but the subject walked unassisted to the patrol unit, this becomes a valuable observation that officers should capture.


Sometimes the arresting officer transports the subject. Other times, another officer may assist with transportation. Officers should include in their report who transports the subject and any noteworthy activity that occurs during the transport.


Transferring the subject to another officer or agency and removing restraints is the last step in follow-through considerations. Officers should document when they have completed their contact with the subject and transferred their care of the subject to another officer or agency.

Evaluator Judgment and Findings

To obtain a complete picture, evaluators must examine a use-of-force incident in its entirety. By dividing the incident into three separate categories of before the use of force, the use of force itself, and after the use of force, evaluators can view the totality of the circumstances. After such a review, they can make informed decisions on the appropriateness of the force used.

When the evaluators have reviewed the officers' reports, they can render findings on the use of force and make their findings specific to each use of force. To maintain consistency in all use-of-force cases, they can divide these findings into five different categories--

1) Trained and Justified: The officer employed use of force that was a trained technique recognized and authorized by the employing agency. According to agency policy, the force used was permissible to accomplish a lawful objective.

2) Not Trained but Justified: The officer employed use of force that was not a trained technique recognized by the employing agency. However, according to agency policy, the force used was permissible to accomplish a lawful objective.

3) Trained but Not Justified: The officer employed use of force that was a trained technique recognized and authorized by the employing agency. However, in the opinion of the evaluator, the force used was not permissible according to agency policy.

4) Not Trained and Not Justified: The officer employed use of force that was not a trained technique recognized and authorized by the employing agency. Further, in the opinion of the evaluator, the force used was not permissible according to agency policy.

5) Dynamic Application: Although infrequently used, this designation has an important distinction. For example, an officer uses a trained and justified technique--a knee strike targeted at the subject's lower abdomen. As a result of the dynamic application of this technique (the aggressive resistance and movement of the subject), the officer instead strikes a target area not trained or approved, such as the subject's head. The officer documents exactly what occurred and notes any injuries that resulted. In this case, the evaluator could render a finding of "dynamic application."


Use of force has become an ever-increasing area of concern for law enforcement professionals and the public they serve. To minimize this apprehension, the law enforcement community should establish not only firm guidelines on the use of force, but also on the method it employs to evaluate the effectiveness and judiciousness of such actions.

The Beloit, Wisconsin, Police Department has developed a review process for use-of-force incidents that has helped its officials evaluate these events and, more important, helped its officers understand the purpose and professional employment of this crime-fighting tool. By creating standards and advising its officers of these standards, the department has made the difficult task of use-of-force review a fair and efficient process.

Captain Lathrop commands the patrol division of the Beloit, Wisconsin, Police Department.


(1.) "Demonstrate Defensive and Arrest Tactics," Wisconsin Department of Justice Training Guide (1997), 13.

(2.) Ibid., 14.

(3.) Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 109 S. Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed. 2d 433.

(4.) "Supra note 1, 4.

(5.) For additional information on force option continuum, see Roy Roberg, John Crank, and Jack Kuykendall, Police & Society, 2d ed., (Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company, 2000), 315-317. For an example of a model use-of-force policy, including force option continuum, contact the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) National Law Enforcement Policy Center, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314-2357; telephone: 800-THE-IACP; or

(6.) Supra note 1, 10.

(7.) "Use of Force by Wisconsin Law Enforcement Officers: Basic Concepts," Wisconsin Department of Justice Training Guide (1997), 120.
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Title Annotation:law enforecement agencies
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000
Previous Article:Nationwide Application of the Incident Command System Standardization is the Key.
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