Discussing the Use of Force

When physical force is used by police and the force is viewed by a significant number of people as being excessive, what should police do?

Almost every police department has this kind of incident and I suggest that it can be a “teachable moment” for the community if the department is really interested in being community-oriented.

After the explanatory press conference, what’s next? In most cases, the police are silent, perhaps hunkering down and hoping all this will pass. In the meantime, community leaders press questions and an internal investigation (it could even be a criminal investigation) proceeds.

Most everyone who has viewed the arrest has an opinion. Some conclude the police acted properly given the circumstances. Others conclude that the amount of force was not appropriate. Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

Police must ask themselves, how does this appear in the eyes of community members, particularly if the person injured is a member of a minority group.

There is also a proper police view: This view sees police as members of the community who are given special authority to carry out the laws and will of the community.

This was one of Robert Peel’s central principles of policing issued over 150 years ago in London on the eve of forming the first group of police officers organized within a democracy.

Another Peelian Principle that may be pertinent to this discussion is his observation that the more physical force police use to prevent crime and disorder, the less support police have from community members.

Keeping both of these principles in mind — that police are citizens called to serve the community and the more force used in doing so results in less support of them which, in turn, diminishes their effectiveness in the community.

The basic idea of community-oriented policing, is that police and citizens work together to build safe and orderly neighborhoods in the city based on shared values.

While a particular arrest may be legal, and within the dictates of police policy and training, it is the people who ultimately decide whether this is the way in which they want citizens to be handled.

An arrest may be lawful, but is it appropriate? Is it the way in which we want to be treated? These are the real questions faced by a community-oriented police department.

Is it unreasonable to expect that police will make an effort to comply with community standards in these matters? And, how do police determine what those “standards” are if they are not in constant and intimate contact with community members?

Can police adapt and conform their use of force, especially deadly force, with the wishes (standards) of the community? After all, police are should be experts in the use of force. But to do so will require open, honest, and respectful dialogue within the community; a dialogue in which all voices must be heard, even those which tend to make police defensive and uncomfortable.

We must also remember that this is not a new idea. Years ago, when state law permitted police to use deadly force to apprehend any fleeing felon, regardless of that person’s dangerousness, leading police departments said no. And the policy and training in those police departments reflected that community input — “We don’t want you to use deadly force to apprehend property offenders.” Those police departments raised the existing standards in their states and trained and ordered police officers to use deadly force only in apprehending fleeing felons who posed immediate injury to others. The use of deadly force by police in those departments to stop a kid in a stolen car, or running away from a theft immediately stopped.

This is what police leaders in a free society do when they are closely connected with those whom they serve and see the Constitution as a template for their behavior.