Use of Force Continuum


The use of force continuum is a descriptive tool used in law enforcement to help officers understand the progression of legitimate levels of physical force to be utilized in various circumstances in the field. Most police agencies train officers in a six-step continuum ranging from the officer's mere presence with no application of physical force, through the use of firearms or other lethal force. Some agencies devise alternative steps relating to particular techniques or tools used by that organization.


  • In the two centuries since professional policing began, the role and training of law enforcement officers has experienced ongoing refinement. Public criticism of police corruption and excessive reactions to civil rights protests in the 1960's and 1970's led to a revolution in community policing. Beginning in the 1980's, law enforcement agencies began establishing appropriate community police responses. There is no one universal continuum of force model, but all police departments and the courts which review their actions now require that officer force should be proportional to the threat posed by the subject's actions.

Officer Presence

  • The presence of a uniformed officer or marked cruiser comprises a zero level of force, which forms the baseline of the use of force continuum. Often the officer's mere presence will halt an ongoing incident or diffuse a disturbance, without any force being applied.

Verbal Commands

  • Skilled use of voice commands and body language by a uniformed officer comprises an action by the officer beyond mere presence, but still short of the exercise of physical force. Verbal statements by an officer are usually the only actions required to encourage subject compliance in most policing situations.

Empty Hands

  • Empty hand control is the application of a level of physical force with bare hands. This can comprise "soft hand" techniques, such as merely placing a guiding hand on a subject's elbow or shoulder, or "hard hand" techniques, such as punches, strikes, or pressure to points on the subject's body which will cause minimal injury yet bring the subject under physical control.

Hand-Held Intervention

  • Police can use a constantly evolving variety of less-than-lethal hand-held intervention devices ranging from the old-fashioned nightstick, to modern batons, pepper spray, and electronic stun-guns. In the case of riots or other large disturbances, they can also use defense items like shields, and offensive items like water canons, rubber bullets, and percussive or flash explosive devices to temporarily disorient the individuals involved. Law enforcement agencies create specific protocols for the appropriate use of each of these devices.

Lethal Force

  • Use of deadly force is legally justified only when the officer reasonably believes that the subject presents a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another person. The most common use of lethal force is discharging a firearm. Some law enforcement agencies consider high-speed vehicular pursuit or ramming a subject's car to also comprise lethal force and restrict such actions to situations where deadly force would be legally appropriate.

Exceptions and Considerations

  • Each police department's continuum of force policies contain exceptions and circumstances warranting special consideration. These include dealing with juveniles, pregnant women, or persons who are disabled, ill or injured.


  • Photo Credit Cindy Hill
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